Startribune.com digital sports editor Howard Sinker used to cover the Twins and now shares season tickets with friends in Section 219 of Target Field. He blogs about baseball from the perspective of a long-time fan who loves the game, doesn’t always believe the hype and likes hearing what others think. Howard sometimes talks about sports with Cathy Wurzer on MPR's Morning Edition.

Posts about Twins fans

I'm in the Joe Mauer debate by staying out if it

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: June 5, 2014 - 9:06 AM

I have pretty much done my best to stay out of the Joe Mauer discussions, which is a polite term for much of what I’ve heard and read, because so much of it runs counter to what I value as a fan, a media member and a neighbor. A few weeks ago, I had some fun comparing Mauer’s production at the time to that of the legend Nick Punto and it set off people in all kinds of ways.

Joe Mauer is having a mediocre year. You know it, he knows it, your co-worker who searches for truth by watching nothing but al-Jazeera and FOX News knows it. Whether it means that he’s started a career decline at age 31 or this is a big bump in his career, we’ll eventually find out. What do I think? I don’t know.

What I do wonder about is how Mauer would be remembered if his career was pretty much done at age 32 in a manner similar to Tony Oliva, who went from one of the game’s best outfielders to just-another-starter (at DH, no less) for the final few years of his career because of the knee injuries that wrecked his game. Have Mauer’s injuries taken a gradual toll much less dramatic but just as problematic as what happened to Oliva? I don’t know.

Or what would happen if Mauer’s career disappeared without warning, as it did with Kirby Puckett at age 35 because of glaucoma? Would Puckett’s legacy have been changed for some people if he’d been able to return from the fastball-to-the-face that he took in the last plate appearance of his career, but was never again capable of the play that made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer? I don’t know.

Was the prevailing wisdom that Justin Morneau was done because his play ranged from mediocre to pretty good in the three years after his concussion? Yes, you and I both know the answer to that one. And as well as Morneau is playing right now, his statistics aren’t as good as in any of the seasons from 2006-10, when he was the league's MVP, an All-Star or both.

I don’t know what’s ahead for Mauer. I do know that trying to find silver linings in this season is as ridiculous as using this season to say that he’ll never return to his previous form. I’ve heard a half-dozen theories of what Mauer should do, ranging from the insightful Dan Gladden to insight-impaired talk show participants who make me hit the radio button that takes me to old-school Hip Hop.

It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.

I’ve watched the comparisons of Mauer at age 31 to Puckett and Derek Jeter at age 31 – and I’m pretty sure those are intended to enrage the debaters more than to advance the discussion. I failed my purity test this week by comparing Mauer to the legendary ex-Twins catcher Corky Miller at age 31. In case you’re wondering and don’t want to look it up, Mauer does well in all three comparisons.

All of the Mauer battling takes away from something more interesting, and more in line with enjoying what’s happening rather than picking apart players and each other:

For all of their shortcomings, the Twins will be a .500 team more than one-third of the way into the season if they beat Milwaukee again tonight. I was among those who were convinced that 2014 could easily be the worst of the bad seasons, so being this OK is a pretty good diversion. All the more because some pretty rotten things were done with roster management, much of it revolving around outfield depth and players named Jason.

Focusing entirely on that discounts the moves that have so far turned out to be well executed and a season that’s been better than expected.

If I’m going to carry around any distress about what’s going on, it’ll happen when I look in the Milwaukee outfield and see Carlos Gomez … and in Baltimore’s infield and see J.J. Hardy … and on the roster of all-time Twins and see Jim Hoey. I’m working on getting over it, but that’s not easy.

Trevor Plouffe's play a lesson for fans and a good sign for the Twins

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: May 23, 2014 - 8:38 AM

It was June 1, 2011 when Trevor Plouffe killed a rally by striking out against Al Alburquerque during a Twins-Tigers game in Detroit. I remember Dan Gladden being especially cranky about the at-bat on the radio and Plouffe was exiled to the minors the next day. I wrote something unkind enough about Plouffe to receive a nasty email from one of his biggest fans – the kind of thing that happens when you tell people what you think and they reply in kind.

Since then, Plouffe’s career with the Twins has careened between being quite good (the home run surge of 2012) and suspect enough that he entered this season viewed by many as the placeholder at third base until Miguel Sano became major-league ready.

Plouffe is messing with that plan.

Just as important is that Plouffe’s play speaks well about what is happening with the Twins right now, a team that could really be better than we thought it would be. In addition to playing better than before –   at the plate and in the field – Plouffe is playing with an understated confidence that hasn’t been present in the Twins’ dugout.

To me, one of the most distressing parts of watching the Twins over the last couple of years – in addition to simply following a bad team – was watching some of the giddy over-the-top celebrations when things happened to go well. There were buckets of sports drink dumped on players (and broadcasters) during postgame interviews that made it look like they were celebrating a meaningful victory instead of just a rare one. A walk-off hit? Let’s rip buttons off the hero’s jersey. It was pretty lame stuff, and many of the participants in that silliness no longer have Twins jerseys to rip.

I like a public display of emotion as much as anyone when it’s warranted. But it’s a lot more satisfying to me when I watch a game like Wednesday’s 2-0 victory at San Diego -- in which Plouffe hit a massive home run -- and the team comes off the field after the game with smiles, fist bumps and a few hugs. As a rule, I like it when fans get excited and players act with a happy calm that implies, “That’s what I do.” That beats overexcited players celebrating and a fan base in sarcastic-and-cynical mode.

Plouffe is playing like a guy who expects to be successful. His defense is better at third base and there’s an assortment of flattering offensive stats. He’s has a .432 on-base percentage this season when he’s ahead in the count or even – and he’s been ahead or even so far in more than three out of four 2014 plate appearances. He leads the American League in doubles and he should have more walks by the All-Star break than he had all last season. The numbers are good despite an 0-for-20 slump earlier this month, most of which coming during the ugly series in Cleveland when there was no time off for anyone healthy enough to play. (I’ve crunched other numbers, but my intent here is not to make your eyes glaze over.)

What’s the lesson here? It can take time and frustration before a player brings his game to the point where he’s much more of an asset than a liability. It took Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer – to name three – more time to break through than we like to recall. And you know you had doubts about Brian Dozier, right? Do you still?

And that doesn’t mean it will automatically happen with the others. Aaron Hicks? Oswaldo Arcia? The young pitchers being groomed in Rochester? Byron Buxton and Sano when their time comes?

None of this is meant to excuse the rosters over the last couple of years that included too many guys for whom there was little if any hope. You know who they were. Watching too many players try to develop at the same time means you’re probably watching a pretty bad team. But when things start to get sorted out, the ones who succeed after their struggles should be a source of great satisfaction – and maybe a little sheepishness for those of us who were looking to replace them too quickly.

If Trevor Plouffe keeps this up, maybe Miguel Sano will have to learn how to play the outfield.

Sano's injury dims optimism of spring training

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: March 1, 2014 - 2:06 PM

The wise Twin Cities baseball writer Pat Borzi, whose work frequently appears in the New York Times, pretty much said what I was thinking on Friday when he tweeted:

So the next morning's news that Miguel Sano won't play this season and needs Tommy John surgery was more sad than it was a surprise.

Borzi properly points out that we're talking about an issue in the culture of sports as opposed to a Twins issue. The Wild's goalie, Josh Harding, was supposed to miss a few games to get his medication for MS tweaked, and he's still sidelined. The extent of injuries to Adrian Peterson, Nikola Pekovic and others on the local teams has been understated from time to time to time to time to time.

Remember Michael Cuddyer's wart?

So if you're expected a rant from afar about how the Twins should have handled Sano's situation differently, I'm sure you'll be able to find it somewhere else. From the media reports, the Twins did what they could -- with their in-house medical staff and with the consultation of Dr. James Andrews, one of the highest-profile practitioners of the Tommy John procedure -- to discern the best course of treatment. You don't have to be too cynical to assume that if the Twins had suggested surgery back when Sano's elbow problems were first known, they would have caught grief from those who wanted to see the 20-year-old third baseman playing in the majors as soon as possible, if not sooner.

Of course, the Twins did themselves no favors by creating the "bilateral leg weakness" frenzy that surrounded Joe Mauer during the team's 2011 meltdown. The Twins have bred skepticism on enough levels over the years -- going back to contraction and the political battles that eventually led to Target Field's creation -- that I won't be surprised about some of the mistrust and second-guessing that we'll hear about Sano.

Totally different issues can become intertwined at a time like this.

Now the challenge for fans is to remember that the Twins have a 2014 season to play and that Sano wasn't going to be a major part of it, aside from people looking wistfully toward the Class AAA Rochester team and wondering about Sano's readiness at the second or third sign of struggle for the Twins. Third base  unequivocally belongs to Trevor Plouffe unless the Twins create a Plan B in the next few weeks to replace the Sano shadow that was supposed to be Plouffe's competition. (If you tell me that Jason Bartlett or Eduardo Escobar or Deibinson Romero are competition, I will tell you to that we'll talk baseball when you're serious.)

I hope that Plouffe steps up and can be a case study is how players can struggle with parts of their game and then break through to become complete players. Plouffe's goal should be to become so valuable that the Twins need to figure out a Plan B for what to do with Sano when he's back at 100 percent. (That's probably unrealistic, but aiming high is better than settling.) Can he become more of a Cuddyer than, say, Danny Valencia?

From what I understand, Sano should be able to return to third base and make a full recovery. At age 20 and without the potential to play this season, I will assume that he'll take his rehabilitation with the enthusiasm of someone who understands his potential to make more money that most of us will ever see.

This is the kind of bad that just happens. Not the kind of bad that the Twins have frequently created for themselves.

Wrapping up a pathetic Twins season

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: September 29, 2013 - 10:33 PM

Back around the start of the season, a couple of people emailed and chewed on me for being -- in their opinions -- excessively grumpy about the Twins. One of them said that it made my voice in the discussion less relevant, which struck me as a little bit off. But in return for sharing my  opinions, I have an obligation to be thick-skinned when they are critiqued.

I have to say that however harsh I may have been back them doesn't feel like it was harsh enough.

Let me put it this way so that nobody can misunderstand: From the front office to the playing field, the Twins made a mockery of 2013. Anything that smacks of progress is overshadowed by all that went wrong and needs to be overhauled. In fact, I'm kind of glad the Twins capped off their miserable season with such a miserable finish, losing 20 of their final 25 games and getting outscored by 90 runs in that span.

That way, nobody can look at anything that happened over the final month -- when positive signs are often illusions, anyway -- and look to it as hope for the future.

When I look at the extended September roster, plus those on the disabled list, I see 11 players that I want to see back in 2014. Maybe 12. Go ahead and do that exercise and see where you end up. There are about two dozen players who would be no great loss (or no loss whatsoever) to not see again in a Twins uniform. That's a telling head count.

I mean, I'm trying to figure out exactly who the Twins players and manager Ron Gardenhire are talking to in those sappy end-of-season ads in which they thank fans for hanging with them through the season. I know it's marketing, but it had the hollow ring of airline ads that talk about their customer service when dealing with them is another matter entirely. Despite being a season-ticket holder, they weren't talking to me.

I would have preferred the Pohlads looking earnestly into a camera and saying, "We're sorry, fans. This won't happen again. Not only are we as peeved as you are, we have the power to take action and do something about it." Twins players could have thanked their fans in September by showing a pulse rather than being the Happy Meal of teams clinching their spots in the postseason.

Incredibly, during this final and dismal homestand, Twins batters struck out 91 times in 244 at-bats -- a 37 percent rate. In other words, the Twins struck out last week at the same rate as Mark Reynolds, the notorious MLB strikeout machine, during his seven-year career.

Now comes the off-season. It is time to be done with the players who take a step back back for every hint of progress when their careers should be beyond that stage. While waiting for the arrivals of the talented young players about whom we hear so much, it is time for the Twins to build a base of quality players with experience to greet them. Cleveland showed what can be done this season. Tampa Bay has done it season after season. There are others, too.

To have promoted anyone with promise into what was happening at Target Field this season would have exposed them to nothing good. In fact, it's logical to wonder whether some of the issues that Gardenhire had with young and talented Oswaldo Arcia were steeped in the environment that he entered. Nobody was here to help steer Aaron Hicks, who probably shouldn't have been here at all, and certainly it was best to keep Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario as far from the troubles as possible.

It is better to bring in the Swishers, Pierzynskis, Napolis and their veteran ilk than to engage in silly debate about whether guys like Chris Colabello and Alex Presley and Chris Parmelee are of major-league caliber beyond a 24th or 25th roster spot. (We can disagree on names, but I hope we agree on philosophy.) I'll take failure when there are expectations over failure based on the unwillingness to engage.

The Twins have risked little with the players they've brought in because, frankly, there would be little market for them elsewhere. They give off the scent of an organization that is afraid to take risks. I haven't said this for a while because I may have said it too often in the past, but this ownership never had any reason to hide behind payroll as a reason for player moves (or inactivity). And it has even less reason to do so now..

There has been some brave chatter about tapping the free agent market in ways the Twins haven't tried; yet there was also Terry Ryan's scary contention a couple of weeks back that Josh Willingham's $21 million deal somehow represented a "huge" contract. Willingham, remember, signed with the Twins for $10.5 less over three years than the player he replaced -- 2013 National League batting champion Michael Cuddyer.

Yes, it is possible to both spend more and spend intelligently. There's even more urgency to do it starting this very minute because waiting any longer will make it that much more difficult to have credibility among the players who could help them improve. It was only a few years back when coming to Minnesota was an opportunity to compete at the highest level. Now it's on the precipice of being an organization of last resort. To hear Astros and Twins in the same sentence -- "The Astros and Twins have lost more games over the last three years than any other MLB team." -- is ugly.

That's all for now, friends. I'd like to end the season with something wistful for you, but there's nothing to look back on that way. I backed out of a couple of chances to go to the ballpark one last time this month and, yes, I'm glad the season is over.

At least we have October basketball to engage us. Go Lynx!

There's nothing to see here (and ticket group members bail out)

Posted by: Howard Sinker Updated: September 16, 2013 - 9:14 AM

When a season blows up, as another Twins season is doing, one of the consolations should be the final few weeks of the season when some of the new guys get a chance to make names for themselves,  and maybe improve their chances to have an impact in the following seasons. It can be fun to watch.

The current group of Twins isn’t even affording their fans much of that opportunity, mostly stumbling through a 10-game home stand in which they managed to get outscored by 37 runs. If you watched for any length of them, you were likely to see players throwing to the wrong base, giving half-hearted renditions of the little things (like backing up their teammates in the field) and continuing a season of cluelessness at the plate.

The other night, following a particularly substantial mental lapse in the infield, Kevin Correia threw his arms in the air like a substitute teacher wondering what he has to do to keep control of his youngsters.

There’s simply nothing to see here.

The glimmers, like Josmil Pinto’s game-changing home run Sunday afternoon,  have simply been overwhelmed by all that’s been done wrong. Dick ‘n’ Bert have been unnaturally owly when I’ve caught them; Dan Gladden is a good radio guide for explaining the difference between what’s happening on the field and what should be happening.

The Twins aren’t even living up to the silly cliché of trying to be a spoiler for the teams they’re playing that do have a shot at the postseason. Gardy made that point, especially about the lack of hunger on display during Saturday night's shutout loss to Tampa Bay.

“This is an opportunity for these guys,” he said on his ESPN1500 radio show Sunday morning.

This post isn’t about suggestions for what to do. If five of us put forth our top five ideas, then we’d get tangled up in debating which ones should be at the top of the list. That’s not the point. If you want to know what I think, read this post.

Jim Pohlad acknowledged his embarrassment to a local columnist last week, and a Star Tribune letter writer – the thoughtful minor-league blogger Andrew Walter -- wondered the other day: “I’m curious to find out for how many years the organization can field a pathetic product using the mantra, ‘Target Field offers one of the best fan experiences in all of professional sports.’ “

I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know this: Two of my friends who operate the Section 219 ticket cartel sent around emails last week. They’re done. One wrote: “I have always said that watching baseball is ‘an exquisite waste of time,’ but if none of the play is exquisite -- and the Twins even drag down their opponents -- then it is just a waste of time.”

(Update from the original post: One of the group's leaders hasn't pulled the plug and is trying to find new members, so if you're interested, maybe we can work something out.)

I'm keeping my tickets, but I wonder whether I'll be in the majority. I suspect that one more year of this mess would cause me to get rid of 'em.

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