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Originally in GameDay, August 2007

'87 Twins: Sweet Music

Before we start peopling the story of the 1987 Minnesota Twins, let's give thanks for the collusion that occurred among baseball owners during the 1986 off-season.

Saint Paul's Jack Morris basically begged the Twins to sign him that winter, but Morris, arguably the league's best pitcher, wound up back in Detroit. An arbitrator ruled a year later that baseball owners had colluded to prevent movement among that free agent class, which meant the Twins never had any chance of signing Morris.

That signing would have expanded the Twins' pitching staff from a pair of sterling starting pitchers - Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola - to three, and perhaps would have led to a Twins' win total comparable to the 95 games won by their World Series opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals.

That would have wrung a lot of fun from the Twins' first championship.

Putting Morris in the rotation would have erased people's underdog view of the team, a tattered, street urchin image that helped make the 1987 World Champions special. You see, back in 1987 there was little expectation of post-season baseball in Minnesota.

And Minnesota was a harbor for losers.

The Bridesmaid State

1987 Media World Series gala invitation

Minnesota didn't lose in just sports. Ronald Reagan had buried Minnesota's Walter Mondale in the '84 presidential race, the second failed bid for a man with Minnesota ties in the previous five presidential elections: former Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey came up short in '68. That was a year before the Minnesota Vikings embarked on the first of four Super Bowl losses, making the state a national punch line.

To sprinkle in a couple more examples of Minnesota sports frustration, after the Minnesota North Stars lost the 1981 Stanley Cup finals the state's hockey fans eventually lost their team, to Texas, no less.

Then there were the Twins, who lost their one World Series in 1965 - after winning the first two games. The franchise was humiliated in the 1969 and 1970 playoffs, after which they rarely won more than they lost.

The 1987 Twins barely won more than they lost, yet they so emphatically buried Minnesota's runner-up misery that the entire winter seemed like a warm breeze.

Every little scratch in the finish made the ride more enjoyable.

  • No team had ever won as few as 71 games the season before going to the World Series.
  • No team with only 85 wins had gone to the World Series.
  • No team had won a World Series after being outscored during the regular season.

The '87 Twins qualified on all counts. They also had the highest earned run average (4.67) of any first-place team in baseball history, they won just seven times on the road after the All-Star break, and they did not have consecutive winning months that season. Nothing new there: the franchise had not enjoyed consecutive winning months during the 1980s.

Naturally, there was griping about such a team representing the American League in the post-season, but Twins' first baseman Kent Hrbek addressed that with his customary simplicity. "The deal at the beginning of the year was if you win your division you go to the playoffs. We won. If people don't like it, too bad."

Dousing 'Gasoline Alley'

Hrbek was part of the homegrown Class of '82, along with Viola, catcher Tim Laudner, eventual team leader and third baseman Gary Gaetti, and outfielder Randy Bush. Outfielder Tom Brunansky already was part of the '82 team after a trade. Shortstop Greg Gagne and outfielder Kirby Puckett soon followed, and in less than two years the '82 nucleus that had lost 102 games was in first place. It was September 23, 1984, and pennant fever gripped Minnesota.

Then the team went into Cleveland and the bullpen kicked away a 3-0 lead in the 8th inning. The next night, the pitching staff blew a 10-0 lead. The Twins lost six of their final seven games to finish at .500. They were worse in '85, and worse still in '86.

After 34-year-old Twins' assistant vice president Andy MacPhail mustered the courage to review the team's 91 losses in 1986, he decided "we had more talent than wins to show for it. The bullpen was the glaring weakness." The path from the bullpen to the pitcher's mound had become known as gasoline alley.

So MacPhail trolled for Montreal closer Jeff Reardon, but the Expos wanted Viola in return. MacPhail pursued Detroit's Willie Hernandez, who invoked his no-trade clause. Finally, as pitchers and catchers were about to report for '87 spring training, the Expos sent Reardon and catcher Tom Nieto to the Twins for pitchers Neal Heaton, Yorkis Perez, Al Cardwood and catcher Jeff Reed.

Reardon continued to make the ninth inning interesting for Twins' fans, allowing a major league-leading 10 home runs in the ninth that season. But he always wanted the ball, and his teammates had faith in him. Reardon saved 31 games, and is credited with changing the way Twins' fans view the ninth inning.

MacPhail was so serious about winning that he bought out the contract of fan favorite Mickey Hatcher, then released him. He made five more trades that year. They were all steals. He got utility man Al Newman, outfielder Dan Gladden, and pitcher Dan Schatzeder for these names: Jose Dominquez, Bryan Hickerson, Ray Velasquez, Mike Shade, Danny Clay and Tom Schwarz.

He picked up veteran pitcher Joe Niekro in early June for catcher Mark Salas, and added veteran bat Don Baylor for Enrique Rios on the last day of August. Painless. Playoff opponent Detroit got veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander - but it cost them John Smoltz.

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Kirby Puckett's catch. No, not THAT one.