Column: In playoffs, focus will be back on field where it belongs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 28, 2002

In every new city they visited, it was a story for the papers: Here is the team that survived contraction.

In every article about their success this year, it was noted; This is the team that defied Bud Selig.

In every ounce of media coverage of their American League Central title, they were painted as the team that almost wasn’t here.

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Ever since major-league baseball got started this year, the buzz surrounding the Minnesota Twins was about that off-the-field story. Less than a year ago, the sport’s owners &045; the Twins’ owner among them &045; said they could do without the Twins. They tried to eliminate them, or at least made it seem like that for the sake of labor negotiations.

In the middle of the year, the contraction talk seemed to slow down &045; but only because it was replaced by speculation about a players’ strike. What a messed-up sport indeed.

Through all of this, few have talked about the Twins’ accomplishments on the baseball field this year, where they have won more than 90 games for the first time since 1992. Why? Because the contraction stuff makes a better story? Because people don’t truly believe in the team? Probably a little of both.

This has been a good year for Twins fans. Any year when your team wins their division is great. But it hasn’t been like 1987 and 1991 were. In ’87, it was so out of the blue; nobody expected anything from the team. It was such a pleasant surprise when that squad, dripping in personality, made it to the playoffs and barreled its way through. It was a sight Minnesota had never seen before.

In 1991, too, the success was unexpected. But the team was great all season, and with a strong starting rotation and the leadership of Kirby Puckett, seemed to have what it took to go all the way, which, of course, they did.

This year may be different because all that contraction stuff has been a distraction for fans. Maybe it’s because, despite the marketing campaign, we

haven’t really gotten to know these Twins yet. Maybe it’s because the Twins play in a terrible division and had no real challenge from other teams all year.

But I know something is different, because by all accounts the fan support of ’87 and ’91 hasn’t developed yet. Sure, postseason tickets have sold out, but people are more interested in hearing and talking about the dismal Vikings and the shenanigans of their star reciever than discussing the Twins’ playoff chances.

The Twins’ first game home after they clinched the title was Tuesday. I decided I had to be there. I expected a nice show of support from the fans to welcome home their division champs. Twins shirts on our backs and newly bought Homer Hankies in hand, my group and I arrived to find a Metrodome that was less than half full.

The truth is that baseball in Minnesota hasn’t been the same since the disasters of the 1990s: The 1994 players’ strike and owner Carl Pohlad’s

botched attempts to bully the state into building him a new stadium, which only succeeded in alienating half the state’s population.

Those people, including those too young to remember 1991 and 1987, will get a chance to get excited about the Twins when they start the playoffs. There, the contraction stuff will probably still be mentioned by the commentators and the press, but what will really matter is what’s on the field. That’s where the game wins fans instead of driving them away.

After today’s season finale against the Chicago White Sox, the Twins will hop a plane for Oakland, where they will take on the favored Athletics in a five-game series to determine who plays in the American League Championship Series.

The players will be on a mission not just for themselves, but for baseball in Minnesota. If they win, they stand a chance of building back that enthusiasm we’ve been missing, and endearing a new generation of fans to a team that hasn’t produced many positive memories for the last ten years.

Back in 1987, I was one of those fans who saw a World Series and was hooked for life. I hope others have the same chance this year.

Good luck, Twins.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays.