Looking back to 2002: The standard is set

GM Terry Ryan's first rebuilding job produced a gritty Twins team that willed itself all the way to the 2002 AL Championship Series.

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Catcher A.J. Pierzynski celebrates the final out of the Twins ALDS victory over Oakland in 2002.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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They had lost games in droves as youngsters and then, together, learned tough lessons, sweated out threats of contraction and, finally, returned the franchise to respectability.

"There was a lot of fight in that group,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said.

That group -- the 2002 Twins -- began nearly a decade of AL Central dominance by winning the division with a 94-67 record and reaching the American League Championship Series before being eliminated by the Anaheim Angels. They galvanized a fan base that had endured years of losing and perceived indifference from ownership.

It was a group that was handed playing time in the late 1990s under General Manager Terry Ryan and became the standard that every Twins team that has followed has tried to live up to. The term "The Twins Way" reflected the actions of that team.

The 2002 Twins didn't have a 30-home run hitter or anyone driving in 95 runs. Rick Reed led the team with 15 victories. Johan Santana led in strikeouts with 137 -- and he started only 14 games.

The Twins subsequently had Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau win AL Most Valuable Player awards. Santana went on to win two Cy Young Awards. But none of their teams accomplished more than a 2002 squad that needed 12 starts from Matt Kinney and two from Tony Fiore.

As center fielder Torii Hunter once said, "We were into defense and breaking hearts." They made few mistakes, cobbled together runs and had a strong bullpen.

"The one thing that comes to mind when you talk about that team is character,'' said Eddie Guardado, the man without an out pitch who saved 45 games that season. "No question. Everyone had something quirky about them, but they were good characters. ... We won ballgames and we did it the old-school way, and that was stealing bases, the hit-and-run and we pitched. That was the best team I ever played on.''

A slow process

The Twins had taken their lumps along the way. They used 17 rookies in 1999 and 2000, suffering their eighth consecutive losing season with a 69-victory campaign in 2000. But toward the end of that season, the level of play improved. Standards were raised. Then-manager Tom Kelly once brought Hunter back on the field after a game in Kansas City to re-enact a sign he had misinterpreted.

"You have a situation where you have a wave [of talent] and it's coming at you,'' Kelly said. "The problem is that this one is going to develop in June, and this one is going to develop in August, and this one is not going to develop at all. So how big is the wave going to be?

"It all has to come together.''

The core players included Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, Cristian Guzman, Corey Koskie, Jacque Jones, David Ortiz and A.J. Pierzynski. Santana, who went 8-6 with a 2.99 ERA after going to the minors and learning a changeup, was an emerging ace.

Brad Radke was 9-5 with a 4.72 ERA, but his most important contribution might have been signing a four-year, $36 million extension before the 2001 season instead of going elsewhere. It was a sign that ownership was serious about building a winner.

"I have always been grateful and appreciative of him signing that contract to stay here and showing he thought we had a chance,'' Ryan said. "That was a good thing for all of us."

The Twins had started the 2001 season 50-31 but fell apart in the second half and finished 85-77. Worse yet, they lost to the Indians in Cleveland and had to watch them celebrate clinching the division title. Motivation for 2002 wasn't a problem.

"I have a sneaking suspicion [Cleveland] better enjoy this one," Mientkiewicz said at the time, "because it could be a while before they get another one."

A bump in the road

The promise of the future was tested by a tumultuous offseason that included the surprise resignation of Kelly as manager, and late owner Carl Pohlad's threat to eliminate the team through contraction. Players who had largely been together since the minors were uneasy at the thought of being subjected to a dispersal draft.

"It was in the back of our minds,'' Guardado said. "Where are we going to go?''

In December 2001, Gardenhire remembered Ryan saying enough is enough.

"Terry took the bull by the horns and said, 'We're going to prepare this baseball team for spring training, and we are going to prepare as if there was going to be a season,'" Gardenhire said. "That was best statement Terry could make, because we said, 'YES! Let's do this.'''

Gardenhire was named manager Jan. 4. During his introductory news conference, he said he wanted to make Jones his leadoff hitter.

The team gathered for spring training, relieved to be together, determined to take the next step and feeling loose, which would become a trait. Pranks came almost daily, such as the spring day Koskie smeared peanut butter in Ortiz's jeans and underwear, which Ortiz didn't notice until he dressed.

"Everyone was joking and no one took it personal,'' Guardado said. "I think that's a big thing in baseball. You have to have thick skin, and a lot of these guys these days don't.''

Despite Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays all landing on the disabled list that season, the Twins were in first place from May 2 on. Hunter batted .289 and led the team in homers (29) and RBI (94). Jones batted .300 with 27 homers, 11 of them leading off a game. And, as Mientkiewicz had foreshadowed, they clinched the division title in Cleveland on Sept. 15. It was the first of three consecutive division titles, and established the Twins as a force in the AL Central -- and as a team that could win with strong defense, pitching and timely hits.

"Every one of those guys were up in the majors and got sent down and got ticked off,'' Gardenhire said. "They learned an awful lot and got thrown into the fire and they all got after it pretty good. They took some beatings, but they started whuppin' some people's butts.''

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