FORT MYERS, FLA. – The 2006 Twins went 96-66, the most regular season wins since 1970 and the fourth highest total in the franchise’s 53 years in Minnesota. This was not the end of the Twins’ decade of excellence. They lost a Game 163 to finish at 88-75 in 2008, they won a Game 163 to finish at 87-76 in 2009 and they were a sterling 94-68 in 2010, in that first, fantastic summer in Target Field.
Yet, the way I see it, the ’06 outfit was the last to carry the banner for a “Twins way’’ of competing. The starting pitching ranged from adequate to tremendous, the bullpen was exceptional, the fielding was stellar and the hitters could use a walk, a boot, a Dome chop and a double to put together a rally that left the opposition befuddled.
The White Sox were in Minneapolis in mid-August and Ozzie Guillen, the manager of the defending World Series champs, said of the Twins:
“They have three kids they don’t talk about. Nobody talks about Tyner, ‘Ty Cobb’ Punto and their shortstop, and they’re kicking everybody’s tail. We talk about Torii Hunter? The guys that are kicking our tails are the three guys with no names.’’
And that’s when Ozzie gave the name to Jason Tyner, Nick Punto and Jason Bartlett, and the Twins in general. That’s when Ozzie looked at his left arm and said:
“They look like little piranhas. All of sudden, you ain’t got no meat. All those little piranhas … a blooper here, a blooper there, beat out a ground ball, then the first baseman [Justin Morneau] hits a home run.
“They’re up by four. How are they up by four? Then you’re down four with that pitching staff, that bullpen? Sit down and look at the lineup … those little piranhas.’’
That was a Twins’ team that started the season by losing 33 of its first 58 games, and then lost 33 of its last 104. It was a team that changed the left side of the infield to Punto at third and Bartlett at short in mid-June, and wound up with Tyner and rookie Jason Kubel as important outfielders, after Shannon Stewart was hurt and Lew Ford didn’t hit.
The pitching staff overcame the loss of rookie phenom Francisco Liriano after 18 starts, and an injury that limited Brad Radke, but Johan Santana was a true MVP on a team that had the American League’s actual MVP in Morneau.
The bullpen was immaculate, with Joe Nathan at the end, and a collection in front of him that included Denny Reyes, the Big Sweat, with his ERA of 0.89 as the primary lefty.
What a team. What a spirit those players – stars and fill-ins -- carried from mid-June to an AL Central title on the last day of the season.
And what a sad finish, when Johan lost to Oakland in a playoff opener that started 40 hours after the Twins concluded a raucous champagne celebration, and the A’s swept ‘em away in three games.
I still love that team. The Piranhas.
I’m not big on leadership in the sense of guys who call players-only meetings or give rah-rah speeches. I’ve always said that leadership in baseball is a bases-loaded double or seven shutout innings, and Morneau and Johan would deliver nearly on command once the Twins started streaking in 2006.
But a ballclub does need some big personalities … not simply good guys, but players that the other players want to be around, want to hang with, want to win with not only for the paychecks, but for the laughs.
Torii. Big personality. Johan. Big personality when he was sure reporters weren’t watching. Mike Redmond. Big personality, even as a backup catcher.
Early Tuesday morning, I was waiting in the clubhouse for a couple of interviews. I made small talk with first one sportswriter, then another. We had to keep our voices low, since even a normal conversational tone could be construed as a ruckus in this large clubhouse.
Man, it seems a quiet place these days, without the insults flying, without the laughs rolling in from different corners. Nice guys, as I said, but you do miss the chaos … with Tori and Johan, with Koskie and Ortiz, and way back to Kirby and Herbie, in this same room.
Big personalities probably wouldn’t change much considering the low-octane lineup manager Ron Gardenhire will be forced to present on Opening Day, but I’ll say this on the 40th anniversary of my first Twins’ spring training:
I’ve never seen a successful team in those four decades that started with a quiet clubhouse in March.
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