There were two divisions per league in Major League Baseball in 1987. The winners advanced to a best-of-seven championship series, and then to the World Series.
The Twins had not been in a postseason game in 17 years. They represented the AL West in its first two years of existence — two excellent teams (97 and then 98 wins) that were swept in three straight by the Orioles in 1969 and 1970.
The 1987 Twins would be playing the last home game of the season against Kansas City on Sept. 27. They had lost the first two games of the series vs. the second-place Royals, leaving the magic number to win the division at 3 with seven games to play.
That was the first weekend of an NFL players strike and management was in the process of putting together replacement rosters for what some of us would refer to with a degree of cynicism as “scabball.’’
So, it was all about the Twins on that Sunday afternoon — a new generation of fans now seeing for the first time the local team on the cusp of the postseason, and featuring Kirby and Herbie, Sweet Music and Senor Smoke, Bruno and The Rat, and the rest of a lovable group of athletes.
Thus, the crowd on that afternoon in the Metrodome: 53,106, pushing home attendance for the season to 2,081,676, a team record by over 400,000.
Bert Blyleven was the Twins’ starter and walked Willie Wilson to open the game. Kevin Seitzer then slapped a single to right (his trademark) and Wilson raced to third.
First-and-third, no outs.
George Brett hit a hard bouncer to Gary Gaetti at third. In another time (say, 2019), Gaetti might have been shifted closer to shortstop, even with George’s lefthanded ability to wear out the left side when in the mood.
Gaetti jumped on this ball, as Wilson hesitated at third, to make sure the throw was going to second. Gaetti went to Al Newman at second. Newmie was aware of Wilson’s late break and threw a bullet toward the plate, causing Blyleven to duck with that tall frame of his.
The throw beat Wilson, catcher Tim Laudner made the tag, and Newman was the pivot man on a 5-4-2 double play.
That crowd of 50,000-plus absolutely exploded. It was probably the loudest Twins’ moment in six seasons in the Metrodome. That would be challenged in the bottom of the first, and surpassed in the October days and nights that were in the offing.
When Danny Tartabull flied out to center to end the scoreless half-inning, the Twins headed excitedly toward the third-base dugout, accompanied by a rousing cheer from a huge, joyous crowd.
The Twins then hit three home runs — from Kirby Puckett, Gary Gaetti and Kent Hrbek — for five runs in the bottom of the first off lefthander Charlie Leibrandt**.
It was an eruption of power in an inning that assured the local sporting public the Twins would be heading off on a six-game road trip (to Texas and Kansas City) to clinch the AL West title.
There have been three divisions per league, with a wild card (and now two), since 1994. That season was halted by a strike after the game of Aug. 11, so the first year of the extra-round of playoffs was contested in 1995.
It now takes a minimum of 11 victories to win a World Series, not the eight required when the Twins achieved their two championships in 1987 and 1991.
On this Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, the Twins again were playing Kansas City in the final home game of the regular season. The magic number to win the AL Central for the first time in nine years was 4, and the Twins were coming off a miserable loss on Saturday: 12-5 to the Royals, after providing top starter Jose Berrios with a 5-2 lead.
Martin Perez was Sunday’s starter. With Michael Pineda suspended and Kyle Gibson in a struggle, the Twins needed to see something from the lefthanded Perez to put together a viable pitching plan for the anticipated best-of-5 series vs. either the Yankees (gulp) or the Astros (gasp).
Perez started in what has become typical fashion for him, giving up singles to Whit Merrifield and Adalberto Mondesi. Then, quickly, Merrifield and Mondesi pulled a double steal, without a throw from catcher Mitch Garver. Those two steals put the Royals within one of the Twins’ total number of stolen bases since the All-Star break.
Jorge Soler followed with a bouncer directly to Miguel Sano at third. Merrifield stayed there as Sano threw across the diamond for the first out. Hunter Dozier was next and was called out by plate umpire Roberto Ortiz on what Dozier considered a low pitch.
Rich McBroom then hit a chopper to shortstop and was thrown out by Jorge Polanco, giving Perez a scoreless first. The Target Field crowd offered an ovation that was more relief than celebration.
The announced crowd was 31,628, not bad when you consider the Vikings had kicked off 70 minutes earlier on the other side of downtown, with the traditional sellout of 66,738 inside the Wilf Wealth Enhancement Center.
The Twins’ official home attendance finished at 2,294,150, the highest since 2013, which was the fourth season in the new ballpark.
Righthander Jorge Lopez was Kansas City’s starter. With one out, Polanco singled, the first of seven hits in the half-inning. The mega-blast was a three-run home run from Miguel Sano, driving in half of the home team’s six runs.
There it was on the big board, Twins 6, Royals 0, and seemingly all the evidence required by the fans that the Twins would be leaving later Sunday on a six-game road trip, to Detroit and Kansas City, to wrap up a division title.
I was moved to walk from the third row of the press box to the front to make this suggestion to that Minnesota newcomer, Strib ball writer LaVelle Neal:
The comparison of this first inning — first escape, then explosion — to the last home Sunday (including opponent) in 1987 might make a warm-and-fuzzy lead for a game story, since that was the autumn of the Twins’ first World Series title.
By the top of the third, I returned to Mr. Neal’s location and said, “Forget it,’’ for these reasons:
Blyleven took that 5-0 lead and went nine innings to beat the Royals 8-1. Bert’s complete game victory took 2 hours, 12 minutes.
Perez took that 6-0 lead and didn’t get out of the third. It took seven relief pitchers, with Fernando Romero and Sergio Romo combining to walk five Royals before finishing off the top of the ninth, to gain the 12-8 victory.
By then, it was cool and rainy and a good share of the crowd was gone. Game time: 4 hours, 4 minutes, or 112 minutes longer than it took Bert and friends to complete 8½ innings on Sept. 27, 1987.
Winning remains grand — and the 2019 Twins could win 100 — in our Grand Old Game, but there are no other comparisons to be made to what it was and what it has become.
**Same Charlie Leibrandt from Athlanta who threw Puck the changeup that he hit for the winning home run in Game 6, 1991. You may remember the triumphant, elevated fist pump.