I'm an old man, Tony Oliva protests, I played 50 years ago. Memories fade. How can I possibly recall a baseball game that long ago?
Understood. Oh well. Just wondering about that 1967 pennant race.
Oh, the pennant race? Those two words change everything. Suddenly, Oliva can go at-bat by at-bat. Maybe pitch by pitch.
"We were winning 2-0 in the sixth inning [in the season's final, decisive game], and [Red Sox pitcher Jim] Lonborg, he bunts the ball. He bunts for a base hit!" the 77-year-old Twins legend says, shaking his head at the effrontery of it all, 48 years after the play. "We played a little sloppy that inning. We had an error, they got a few hits and scored five runs. And that lost it for us. That's a game I'll always remember."
He's not the only one — because that's what pennant races do. They sear into the marrow of the losers, they mix with champagne glory in the minds of the winners. They rivet entire cities and states with their day-after-day drama, and they turn an ordinary baseball game into a passion play of joy and sorrow, agony and euphoria.
"You have some great moments and some terrible ones, but that's what makes it so much fun," said Joe Mauer, decorated veteran of successful down-to-the-wire pennant chases in 2006 and 2009, and a final-day fizzle in 2008. "It's almost a shame when it ends."
And it's difficult to know when it begins, apparently. Are the Twins in one now, sitting 1½ games behind Texas for a wild-card berth? Opinions differ.
"To be honest, it doesn't feel like [a pennant race] yet, not really," said Trevor Plouffe. "We've been up and down, but mostly we're still just focused on each day's game. I think we're still a week away from watching" the standings.
On the other hand, Brian Dozier said, "I'm guilty as charged of looking at what other [teams] are doing every night. We always say, 'Take care of yourself first,' but I'm aware of the teams around us, too."
Then again, Dozier added, "it's my first time experiencing this. I think it'll get really intense with about two weeks to go, or 10 games left. That's when you feel the heat."
There's the matter of definition, too. Oliva played most of his career in an era when the league champion advanced directly to the World Series, and everybody else went home, so the chase really was for a league pennant. Now? Thanks to divisional play and the addition of wild-card qualifiers, if the Twins "win" this "race," they will be champions of nothing, at least not yet.
They are simply battling for entree into a one-game playoff, with no pennant at stake. Even if they succeed this month, a victory that would be understandably emotional, their reward might simply be one disappointing night.
Still, Oliva said, it's a journey worth taking.
"It's very exciting. Every day, you come to the ballpark and there is energy," he said, reliving that energy again a half-century later. "For weeks, it's all you think about."
Longer than that, even. The Twins' excruciating two-game sweep in Boston to close the 1967 season — a single victory would have brought another World Series to Minnesota — left scars that didn't heal slowly, Oliva said.
From Aug. 20 to the season's end Oct. 1, Minnesota was never more than 1½ games ahead or behind in a torrid four-team race, six glorious weeks of checking scoreboards and sizing up schedules that ended abruptly with Boston's Carl Yastrzemski going 7-for-8 with six RBI in the final two, must-win games.
"It was very hard, that last weekend. We think we have the best team, great lineup, great pitchers, lot of guys having a great year. So it was very disappointing," Oliva said. "It stays with you all winter."
And not just that game, either.
"I think about the games we should have won before then. The game [Aug. 9 against the Senators] that we were ahead 7-0 in the seventh and lost [in 20 innings]. We lost a game in Chicago [Sept. 16] when we were winning 4-0 and lost. You think back on all those games."
Twins fans have plenty of examples to relive. The 1970 race, for instance, when Minnesota entered September just three games ahead of California, and went on an 11-2 streak to coast to the AL West title. Or that 1984 race, when the Twins were tied with Kansas City with a week to play, and promptly lost their final six games.
The reverse happened in 2003: The Twins and White Sox were tied in mid-September, until Minnesota went on a well-timed 11-game winning streak. In 2006, Minnesota trailed by 11 games at the All-Star break and never led the AL Central — until the season's final day, and even then, only after Detroit lost its finale, while a Metrodome full of fans waited to celebrate.
And in back-to-back autumns, 2008 and 2009, the pennant race required an extra game to settle. The Twins finished the 2008 season with 88 wins, waited for the White Sox to win their 88th a day later in a makeup of a rainout, then lost the heartbreaker — er, tiebreaker — 1-0, on a mammoth Jim Thome home run.
One year later, the Twins appeared doomed when they trailed the Tigers by three games with four to play. But Minnesota won them all, Detroit could only salvage its finale to force a playoff, and the Twins won the final regular-season game in the Dome in unforgettable fashion, when Alexi Casilla singled home Carlos Gomez in the 12th inning to end a crazy back-and-forth game and set off a raucous celebration.
"It's crazy. It's fun. You do your job the best you can, but if the other team plays better, you go home," said Oliva, witness to nearly all of those memorable moments. "There's nothing like a pennant race."
So the current Twins have heard — but mostly from reluctant historians such as Oliva. Mauer and Torii Hunter have lived through a few stretch drives, former Yankees Eduardo Nunez and Phil Hughes learned about September baseball in New York, and newcomer Kevin Jepsen has some pennant-race experience from Anaheim. But for the most part, the Twins are new to the concept.
"I've never played a big game up here, so I'm pretty excited," Dozier said. "You can already start to see it. You see everybody kind of lock in a little bit more, whether it's on the mound, defensively, trying to get guys over, maybe guys who don't bunt much giving themselves up. I've always heard that sense of concentration is intense. I want to experience that."
Added Plouffe, "We've seen teams clinch in front of us. We'd like to celebrate ourselves for a change."
Brian Duensing, who was here for the 2009 festivities, plus a runaway division title in 2010, can't wait.
"You could start sensing how every game seemed to have a little more energy. The crowds seemed to be a little more into it," the lefthanded reliever said. "Next thing you know, you have a few series where you say, 'OK, this is crunch time. Let's go, let's see what happens.' "
One sure sign you're in a pennant race?
"You'll see pitchers walking off the mound after a big out carrying suitcases," Duensing said with a laugh, demonstrating the arms-curled-down weightlifter pose.
Fans will obsess over wins and losses, but to Twins manager Paul Molitor, the entire month figures to be a victory — eventually.
"You do look at it as a opportunity to gain experience. Some of our older guys who have been here a few years haven't been through it, either, the Doziers and Plouffes," Molitor said.
"There's always a debate — do you need to go through it to find out how to play successfully during that time? Sometimes guys up there a little bit loose can just go ahead and perform no matter what the circumstances. And I hope we've got some of those guys."
Molitor has consulted with others who have managed through pennant pressure about what to do. Changing playing time or roles, determining when to play for one run, tightening his lineup.
"Some things that you might do early in the year to try to build a players's confidence," he said, "now you've got to start doing what's best for the team right now, at that moment."
Or whenever the pennant race actually arrives. Is this it? Or next week? Or has it been going on without anyone noticing?
"September maybe starts a different feel. You just notice guys showing up with a bounce in their step and a smile as they've done it all year, but it starts to change," Molitor said.
"Whether it's now or the course of the next week, they're going to be challenged at different times by adversity, whether you lose a tough game or you face a road trip. But right now, it's a pretty good feeling. Everyone knows the games are starting to grow in significance the closer we get to the end."
Phil Miller • 612-673-7011