Clash of lowly records still best of baseball

Clash of lowly records still best of baseball

Published Jun. 10, 2012 5:56 p.m. ET

MINNEAPOLIS — On June 15, 2001, the Twins traveled to
Wrigley Field for a weekend series. They arrived in Chicago the best team in
the AL Central, second-best in the league, boasting a 41-23 record. The Cubs
were nearly as good, on top of the NL Central by a six-game margin, their 38-25
record worse than only the Diamondbacks in the NL.

The Cubs swept the Twins that weekend, back when Sammy Sosa was known for power
rather than a corked bat and Torii Hunter was seven years from becoming an
Angel. It was Tom Kelly vs. Don Baylor. It was before the Twins slipped behind
the Indians and missed the playoffs, before the Cubs blew that six-game lead
and fell to third in their division.

It was good baseball — good teams, good ballpark, good fans.

This weekend? This wasn't that.

This weekend began as the AL's worst team against the NL's second-worst. This
was a combined 41 wins and 72 losses going into Friday. But somehow, it almost
didn't matter. Somehow, a feeling of hope lingered at Target Field. A packed
ballpark can do that. Summer heat can, too, and a home team that had won seven
of its last nine games going up against a visitor with just four wins in its
last 22 chances.

The Budweiser Clydesdales showed up. There were still children with missing
teeth on the Jumbotron, and a proposal, too. That salty, oily odor of hot dogs
wafted through the stadium as always, and fans clamored for autographs at
batting practice. Kids toted their gloves, even in seats far from where a ball
might travel, and begged to eat ice cream out of plastic mini-helmets.

We like to think that this is so unique, each team and each experience, but
some things in baseball can't help but be universal. They're the best parts of
the game, the reasons we still show up. In shadows of the concourses, we close
our eyes, and we're anywhere. Baseball can be separate from place, from team,
even from season in those moments.

Sometimes that helps, especially in series like this Twins-Cubs matchup.
Looking at the calendar a month ago, it would have been hard not to predict a
mediocre series at best. This was never going to be that weekend in 2001, but
it had the chance to be more than just the trappings of summer baseball. It
would never validate either team, not when the opponents were so weak. But it
could push the Cubs' struggles to a new, dooming level. It could kill the
Twins' momentum or extend it. Or it could mean nothing, just mediocre baseball,
a hot dog and a beer.

It came close to being a statement for the Twins. It did. It came so close to
being the second sweep in four series, to showing that the Twins could win with
both bats and arms. It came close to a complete, confidence-inspiring effort.

Then Sunday happened, and with that final pitch, the Twins fell just short,
extending their hope without fully validating it. Now, it's easy to see which
moments mattered and which everyone will forget. It's easy to say that the
Twins wrote the series off as an accomplishment before they stepped on the
diamond Sunday. But in real time, they were just moments.

It was ugly sometimes, beautiful in other instances. It was hot. It was windy.
It couldn't help but be fun.


4:57 p.m.: Twins manager Ron Gardenhire ambles into the dugout for his pregame

"Chrysler, a lot of people today," he said. "Cubbies. Big

Gardenhire is sweating profusely. This is the first home series that will feel
like real summer baseball, every game. What better time to start talking about
turnarounds, now that it's a little sticky, a little past the point of writing
off early-season struggles?

"We hope to (continue the turnaround)," Gardenhire said. "We've
got to come home and do it on the field. We can talk about it all we want. We
feel better about ourselves. We've been playing better. A lot more

5:04 p.m.: Cubs manager Dale Sveum looks tired. His grey stubble gives him a
worn, up-all-night-worrying look. He can't sympathize with the Twins, he says,
not when they've been winning. He's worried about the Cubs. He's worried about
Alfonso Soriano as the designated hitter. Good DHs are players who are
accustomed to it, who do it a lot, he said. Soriano is not one of them.

Sveum talks about minor league prospects, about struggles. There are more of
those questions when you're losing. When he gets a second to breathe, he looks
around at this ballpark his Cubs have yet to play in.

"This is a nice place."

6:49 p.m.: A fan with a Kerry Wood jersey crosses into the ballpark. That's No.
34, not to be confused with 30, Travis Wood, the Cubs' starter tonight. Wood
retired May 18, perpetually baby-faced and not yet old, but people still wear
his jerseys. When you're the Cubs and you haven't made it to the playoffs since
2008, you do things like that.

7:19 p.m.: A "let's go Cubbies" chant begins. These fans travel.
They're louder than they should be, on the road and with this lineup on the

8:15 p.m.: Chasing a popup, Minnesota first baseman Chris Parmelee flips into
the camera well, the messy and accidental acrobatics of a 230-pound man. Even
Cubs fans in Section 320, the woman in a Ryan Theriot T-shirt and the man in an
Aramis Ramirez jersey, gasp and clap.

Theriot (now with the Giants)? Ramirez (with the Brewers) ? They don't let go
of players easily, these Cubs fans.

9:43 p.m.: Soriano hits an upper-deck bomb to left field. It's his second homer
of the night and gives the Cubs a 7-6 lead. Sveum's worries about his DH seem
wildly off base.

10:48 p.m.: Minnesota’s Josh Willingham singles in the bottom of the 10th,
driving in Darin Mastroianni to win the game 8-7. There are fireworks, a
cluster of screaming and handshakes between first and second base. TC Bear
wanders lackadaisically through the infield waving a Twins flag, perhaps the
least-excited being in the stadium.

"He's been pretty good for us, pretty much from day one," Gardenhire
said of Willingham after the game. "He's swinging good and playing pretty
good. So yeah, we feel good."

It was long, too long, and messy. But in an exhausted, almost delirious way, it
was good.

11:04 p.m.: Brian Dozier is wearing a shirt that says "go big or go
home" at the most appropriate time. Willingham's 2-year-old son, Ryder,
toddles around the clubhouse clutching a Popsicle. As his father talks, Ryder
hits him with a black plastic coat hanger. The kid doesn't have a clue what's
going on, not even an inkling that he's living a child's dream. If he somehow
remembers this in five, 10 years, he'll realize that his dad's walk-off single,
regardless of the Twins' record or opponent, is pretty close to baseball at its
best. It's an ending that sticks with people, regardless of how harrowing the
game might have been. All that is so easily forgotten.

"Good night to have a bad one," Twins starter P.J. Walters said.


2:23 p.m.: A Ryan Doumit fourth-inning double down the first-base line scores
Joe Mauer and pushes the Twins' lead to 3-0. It's inches from being foul. ... Two
weeks ago, it would have been. But baseball is a game of margins, of bounces
and tweaks, and right now the Twins are shading away from terrible.

2:43 p.m.: Five runs later, the fourth inning is over, and the Cubs are buried
under an 8-0 deficit. A walk around the concourses tempers the false
significance of that lead, though. This might look like a Twins' turnaround,
like the closest thing to perfection Minnesota's lineup can yield, but it's two
games. It's one blowout, and even that isn't over yet. Twins fans aren't
screaming about playoffs; in fact, many seem more concerned with their nachos.
Cubs fans aren't streaming out of the stadium en masse. They're not crying. One
man in a Cardinals jersey does look particularly elated, though, and he'd
likely stay that way until the 11-3 Twins' win, an almost foregone conclusion.

4:24 p.m.: "We fight, but we don't (do) nothing to win," Soriano said
after the game. "We are working hard to get better, but we've lost our

4:33 p.m.: When asked if he feels something building in the Twins clubhouse,
Scott Diamond, who pitched six shutout innings, can't help but smile. It's one
of those smiles that athletes try to hide, as if they shouldn't be happy in
such a pure, childlike sense. But Diamond, even against the Cubs, even on a
losing team, was.

"We're trying to work series by series, and I think we've already
accomplished that for this one," Diamond said. "Right now, we're
working for a sweep."

It's harder to sweep when a team feels it's already accomplished what it wanted


10:32 a.m.: Gardenhire reclines in his office, a mural of Twins photos and
newspaper covers on the wall behind him. There's the newspaper cover of his
first win as a manager, Opening Day 2002. There's Kirby Puckett celebrating,
another newspaper announcing Johan Santana's 2004 Cy Young Award. They're all
reminders of better times, success.

Then there's his calendar, right there in the middle of it all and two months
behind. According to that calendar, it's still April, the month when the Twins
went 6-16. According to the calendar, this fledgling turnaround has yet to

Time to turn the page.

2:06 p.m.: An hour in, Target Field is still waiting for the Twins' bats,
already responsible for 19 runs and 32 hits this weekend, to come alive. The
Cubs fans who hid behind their silence on Saturday are getting feisty, cheering
like it's a novelty just to clap.

3:08-3:18 p.m.: This is when four runs becomes a troubling deficit for the
Twins. In the seventh inning, Plouffe, after reaching on a single, is tagged
out at the plate after a Starlin Castro fielding error. In the next half
inning, Twins pitcher Jared Burton botches a throw to Dozier on a fielder's
choice, loading the bases for the Cubs. Two more runs, and the lead widens.

4:04 p.m.: A man in a Cubs jersey with the name "Taco Loco" on the
back catches a Denard Span foul ball that was inches from giving the Twins
their third and fourth runs of the ninth inning. Taco Loco is very excited.
Seconds later, Span flies out. Game over, 8-2.

4:14 p.m.: After the game, Sveum seems relieved. He's ready to go home, he
says, after a road trip that brought the Cubs just two wins in three series.

Sveum won, but it's Mauer who's talking about confidence a half hour later.

"Obviously today was a tough one, but you've got to realize that we won
the series and keep moving forward," the Mauer said. "Guys, going
into the off day, you try to remind them of that, come back and win another

So what was this? This was 114,849 fans and two Twins wins. It was 39 runs and
four errors. It was the AL's worst team remaining as such, the Cubs barely
resisting becoming the NL's worst at weekend's end. In the record books, that's
all it was.

This might seem huge now, the two wins and the final, one-sided loss for the
Twins, but a weekend is just a flurry of bats and throws among the millions in
a season. The Twins flirted with a bigger statement, with significance beyond
just statistics, but Sunday destroyed it.

Winning the series, the Twins are saying they're changing. To sweep would have
been to scream it, and when you're buried under an April and May like the Twins,
you need to be screaming.

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