The Twins blew it. With the White Sox in town, they could have given out the world’s first profanity-spewing, bat-throwing bobbleheads, to honor what Ozzie Guillen and A.J. Pierzynski brought to this dearly departed rivalry.
From 2002 through 2010, the Twins won the American League Central division six times, and the White Sox won it twice, once by beating the Twins 1-0 in a Game 163 playoff in Chicago. The teams developed a relationship that could define a Midwest summer, that could evoke envy, hatred, and sometimes even fondness.
The managers, Ron Gardenhire and Guillen, liked each other. Guillen would call his counterpart the best manager in baseball, and it was Guillen was gave the Twins’ slap-and-run hitters in 2006 the famous nickname “The Piranhas.”
Several White Sox pitchers ridiculed the Twins’ pedigree, and their flamboyant general manager, Ken Williams, once sat in the visiting Metrodome dugout, stared at the Twins’ banners and, according to witnesses, said, “How can we keep losing to them?”
The White Sox, who beat the Twins 4-2 Tuesday to even the series at one game apiece, flaunted power and organizational aggressiveness. Williams loved bringing in the big-name player. The Twins relied on patience and youth, and emphasized fundamental play. The Twins won more often; the White Sox won more memorably.
“I think Ozzie and A.J. had something to do with the rivalry, but the other thing is, from ’02 on, it seemed like it was always us or them winning the division,” Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. “I think most rivalries come from winning.
“You ask us, and we’d trade all those division titles for one World Series. Obviously, prolonged winning gives you a chance to win a World Series, but one good year can get you a ring. Hard to argue with that.”
When the rivalry was at its best, Pierzynski became its emotional linchpin. The Twins wouldn’t have won in 2002 and 2003 without him, and they may not have won much after that if not for the trade of Pierzynski to San Francisco that opened a position for Joe Mauer and brought back Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser.
The White Sox wouldn’t have won a Series if they hadn’t signed Pierzynski, who gleefully tormented his former team, sometimes by stepping on Morneau’s foot at first, sometimes by flipping his bat and screaming into the Twins’ dugout. Often, Pierzynski would target former Twins’ bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, who grew up near old Comiskey Park on Chicago’s south side and became Pierzynski’s tutor and verbal sparring partner in the Twins’ organization.
“It’s definitely quieter now,” Gardenhire said. “Ozzie always entertained me and so did A.J. We got to see that when A.J. was in town with Texas, A.J. coming by our dugout, making faces at us and saying goofy things. You miss that. We had to deal with that an awful lot when we played the White Sox, but it was always fun.”
With the White Sox, Jim Thome beat the Twins in Game 163 with a home run. Two years later he signed with the Twins and hit the most important home run in Target Field history in the 10th inning vs. the White Sox on Aug. 17, 2010, a game-ending blast that sent the Twins to another division title at Chicago’s expense.
Jesse Crain left the Twins for Chicago, and last year the Twins traded Liriano to the White Sox for Pedro Hernandez and Eduardo Escobar.
Tuesday, the Twins and White Sox came in as the fourth- and fifth-place teams in the division they once dominated, and it’s evident that the Sox miss Pierzynski’s bat and combativeness.
“I think it was more about Ozzie than A.J., for the players, anyway,” Twins closer Glen Perkins said. “It was always entertaining seeing Ozzie get frustrated in the other dugout. When crazy stuff happened in those games, he’s the one who would throw his hands up and say, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ That made it fun.”
“You’d go into a game, and they be screaming about something or doing something crazy,” Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said. “[Now] it’s a little calmer series.”
Morneau said he has spoken with current teammates who don’t know about the former rivalry. “That doesn’t take any of the joy out of beating them, for me, because I’ve been a part of what this rivalry was,” he said.
It was suggested to Gardenhire that the Twins could market a Pierzynski bobblehead during White Sox series. It would feature two heads, wear both team’s helmets, and scream at both dugouts at once.
“That would be perfect,” Gardenhire said. “It would sell like hotcakes here. And you would see them on the front end of cars around here, going down the road.”