Two years and three months from now will mark the 30th anniversary of an event in Twins history that will be celebrated by absolutely no one.
The Eric Fox Game. A game that, some believe, sent the Twins on a 10-year run of irrelevance.
The Twins were in the afterglow of their 1991 title, emerging victorious after one of the most exciting World Series ever. But it was time to attempt a repeat, and Jack Morris had moved on to Toronto after only one season back in Minnesota. Twins General Manager Andy MacPhail boldly traded for John Smiley to replace Morris. Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Erickson, Rick Aguilera and friends were back.
“It was a good team,” said current Twins assistant GM Rob Antony, who worked in media relations at the time. “Andy did a nice job bringing in Smiley.”
The Twins sputtered as the year began, going 9-12 in April. But in May and June they won 18 games and then improved to 22 games above .500 at 60-38 on July 26.
But they never could break away from Tony LaRussa’s Oakland Athletics, with Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Dennis Eckersley. The A’s went 18-9 in June and stayed within three games of the Twins in July. That was the gap when the teams began a big three-game showdown at the Metrodome at the end of the month.
Oakland won the first two games by scores of 9-1 and 12-10. The Twins needed to win the final game July 29 to regain a two-game lead.
On that Sunday, Oakland scored two unearned runs in the first inning off Bill Krueger, but the Twins scored single runs in each of the first three innings off Dave Stewart, holding that lead until the eighth, when Knoblauch’s RBI double pushed the lead to 4-2. In the ninth, Twins manager Tom Kelly replaced Krueger with All-Star closer Rick Aguilera, who had 29 saves in 33 attempts but only one blown save since May 7.
Jerry Browne and pinch hitter Harold Baines opened with singles. Browne moved to third on a fly out. A wild pitch enabled Gene Nelson — a relief pitcher who had pinch run for Baines — to move to second.
Up came Fox. The 1992 season was his most productive of the four he ended up playing in the majors, as the rookie appeared in 51 games in a reserve role. He got hold of a 1-1 pitch and launched it down the right field line for a three-run homer.
“It was a no-doubter,” said Antony, who added that the only question was if the ball would stay fair.
Eckersley pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, the A’s won 5-4 and the division was tied. The Twins regained first place a few days later but could not hold off Oakland, falling behind by as many as nine games in September before finishing 90-72, six games behind the 96-66 A’s.
The Twins, their hopes of a repeat dashed, weren’t the same after that.
Eight consecutive losing seasons followed from 1993 to 2000. Hrbek retired after the 1994 season, earlier than expected. Puckett retired during the 1996 season because of glaucoma. The roster was gutted in 1998 and ’99. The 2001 team provided hope, going 85-77 before contraction fears dominated the offseason headlines.
While no one could have known what path the franchise would take after that late July loss, Fox, to this day, is not thought highly of around the Twins organization.
“Eric Fox’s name,” Antony said, “has been used in vain by many members of the organization through the years.”