When the Twins promoted Andy MacPhail from vice president of player development to be their general manager in August of 1985, the team had finished over the .500 mark only four times — and no higher than third place in the American League West — since 1970.
MacPhail’s first full season as GM wasn’t much better. The team went 71-91 in 1986 and finished sixth in the seven-team West.
Still, MacPhail saw something encouraging in the way the team played after naming Tom Kelly the interim manager September 12, and the team finished 12-11.
“Tom took over with 23 games to go in 1986 and the energy level of the team really skyrocketed once he took over,” MacPhail recalled. “That was the very attractive aspect of what I knew he would bring to the team. He just had them playing with a lot of energy and focus and their true abilities were more likely to come out.”
When the Twins reported to spring training in 1987, however, MacPhail harbored no illusions about how good the team was to become.
“I did not anticipate we were going to win the World Series,” he said this week as the ’87 team will gather at Target Field for the 30th anniversary of their first World Series championship. “I was probably looking at us more as a .500-type of team and see where we went from there. We had finished [sixth] the year before. I thought we were better, but I didn’t understand how much better we were.”
Home sweet Dome
The Twins started out hot in 1987, going 10-4 to start the season before hovering around .500 for a few months. By late May they were 21-22 and 4½ games out of first place. Then the team went 11-4, took sole possession of first place in the AL West on June 10 and never looked back.
When asked what stood out most about that Twins season, MacPhail said the greatest benefit might have been the team’s success in the Metrodome.
“We were a very tough team to beat at home,” he said. “We had a winning percentage close to .700 at home, and that was in large part due to our fans at home and how loud they got, and how uncomfortable they made that place for our opponents.”
The Twins’ 56-25 home record was the best in baseball, two games in front of their eventual AL Championship Series opponents, the Detroit Tigers.
The Twins averaged 25,703 in attendance that season, the 11th-best mark in baseball, up from an average of 15,499 in 1986, which was 23rd out of 26 teams in the majors.
That’s one of the things that has been missing from this year’s Twins turnaround from a last-place team to a first-place contender. Their attendance is averaging 24,541 per game (23rd of 30 teams), barely ahead of their 24,245 average last year when they lost a franchise-record 103 games.
When asked if there was any special component that turned around the team in ’87, MacPhail said that after his nearly 35 years in pro baseball, that Twins squad had a special element that is hard to capture.
“That was just a team of great character,” he said. “You learn after you have been in this game a long time that certain people rise to the occasion, and we were blessed to have many ballplayers and athletes who really shined at their very brightest when the stage was at the very brightest as well.”
MacPhail said the team made some moves before and throughout the season that helped make them a champion, but they weren’t gigantic splashes.
“What we did is we improved the bullpen,” he said. “We traded for [Jeff] Reardon, we signed [Juan] Berenguer as a free agent. We had traded for [Keith] Atherton. We traded for [Don] Baylor at the trade deadline, who made a big difference in the postseason. We improved our defense by putting Danny Gladden [acquired in a trade with the Giants near the end of spring training] in left field on that fast AstroTurf surface. … We tried to improve our bullpen and our defense.”
That Twins team was below the league average in pitching (4.63 ERA, 22nd out of 26) and hitting (.261 average, 16th of 26), but they were the best fielding team in baseball (.984), with the majors’ fewest errors at 98.
When they reached the AL Championship Series, they found an extra gear to defeat the Tigers four games to one after going 4-8 against them during the regular season. Then they used that home-field advantage to win all four World Series games in the Metrodome, including Game 7, against the Cardinals.
“When we first played Detroit, who beat us very handily in the regular season, but we won a couple road games there,” MacPhail recalled. “Then when it came to the World Series, whoever was home won. I think part of that was we were used to the designated hitter and we took the designated hitter out of our lineup and played on the road and that was a double whammy for us.”
But the reverse hurt the Cardinals, who couldn’t find a way to beat a great Twins team at the Dome.
MacPhail, who is working as a front office executive with the Phillies, won’t be at Target Field this weekend for the 1987 anniversary celebration, but he will be here in August to be inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame.
Fleck on Oregon State
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck, who will be featured in a four-part series called “Being P.J. Fleck” on ESPNU beginning Aug. 2, recently talked about what he knows about Oregon State, the Gophers’ second nonconference football game and first road game of 2017.
“Oregon State is a phenomenal football team, Gary Andersen is a wonderful football coach,” Fleck said. “[I] got a chance to see Gary in the offseason. They’re really, really talented. Like I said even last week, we have to worry about us. … We can’t worry about anyone else unless we’re the best us we can be.”
• One reason the Wolves might have felt comfortable trading Ricky Rubio to Utah last month is the play of Tyus Jones from last season. Coach Tom Thibodeau talked about what the former Apple Valley and Duke star has been doing this offseason. “Tyus is having a great summer,” Thibodeau said. “That’s the one thing that I really respect about the way Tyus approaches things. He has been in almost every day, all summer long. He is in great shape right now. … He shot the ball extremely well early in the season and dropped off a little bit. I think the conditioning will help him, and he’s in great shape right now.”