Minnesota Love

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It’s a tough time to be a Minnesota Twins fan. After an unexpected second place finish in the American League Central in 2015(and competing for a playoff spot into the last week of the season), the belief was that the Twins would take another step forward in 2016. Minnesota was expected to grow from last year’s success, especially with the addition of some top-level prospects being around all year(Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton) and the addition of Korean slugger Byung Ho Park, so it appeared that second year manager Paul Molitor had a contender on his hands. I definitely had bought in, as I expected the Twins to garnish a playoff spot this year, with my belief being that they had a great mix of veterans, youngsters and a great leader in Molitor. Instead this year has felt like a horror show, as they are 14.5 games out of first in the Central, 13 games below .500. But this isn’t a brow beating on this year’s Twins team as much as it’s a look back at my fondness for a team that was a big part of my childhood.

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Now, I am a devoted Kansas City Royals fan and have been since I was 7 years old; that will never change. But in 1987 I couldn’t help but root for a fun Minnesota Twins team that would go on and win the World Series that year. What really started my ‘Minnesota Love’ was Kirby Puckett. Puckett was everything great about baseball; a cherubic center fielder who could hit, run and play defense and had elevated himself to be one of the great players in the game. I loved watching Puckett run around the outfield, then step to the plate and rack up hit after hit. He fit in perfectly in the 1980’s, an era of contact hitters like Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly. Puckett also seemed to have a child-like grin on his face at all times, leaving the impression that he was having as much fun playing the game as we did watching him. Puckett was a perennial All-Star, a guy who averaged 192 hits a season throughout his 12 year career, multiple time Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner and was voted in the top ten of the American League MVP ballots 7 of his 12 major league seasons. I know some have questioned whether or not he should have been a Hall of Famer, but in my eyes there was never a question. Puckett was one of the best throughout his career and one can only imagine what his final numbers would have been had glaucoma not taken his sight. There were some less than flattering moments for Puckett post-career but Puckett the ballplayer was a joy to watch play.

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins
(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Once you looked at the rest of the roster, there was a nice group of players who were easy to root for. Kent Hrbek was the lovable, goofy first baseman with power. Dan Gladden, current Twins radio broadcaster, played like his hair was on fire and was the spark plug at the top of the lineup. Frank Viola was the left-handed ace who had elevated himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Bert Blyleven was nearing the end of his career but still fun to watch. I also can’t forget Juan Berenguer, a guy who did not fit the normal physique of a major league ballplayer but was a pivotal part of the Minnesota bullpen. Even the 1991 World Series team was easy to root for, with Puckett, Hrbek, Gladden and pitchers like Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani holding down the rotation and Rick Aguilera closing out of the pen. The Twins had players who were fun to watch and it always appeared as if Tom Kelly led teams played more as a team and weren’t as focused on individual numbers. As the Royals have shown these last few years, if you play as a team there is a good chance that winning is part of the formula.

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Speaking of Kansas City, there is a deep connection between those late 1980’s/early 1990’s Twins team and the Royals. Many of the Twins who helped Minnesota win those two World Series’ would eventually spend time in Kansas City. Gary Gaetti, the Twins third baseman for both championship teams, would eventually move onto the Royals and would even hit 35 home runs for Kansas City in 1995. Greg Gagne was a pivotal part of those Minnesota teams and he would go on to play three seasons in Kansas City at shortstop; his offense wasn’t anything to write home about, but his defense got him 4.8 dWAR during that period. Chuck Knoblauch would play his last major league season for the Royals, producing a -0.7 bWAR in just 80 games. Chili Davis would end up in Kansas City in 1997, hitting 30 home runs and posting 2.4 bWAR. As if that wasn’t enough, Berenguer pitched for the Royals earlier in his career, while backup catcher Sal Butera’s son, Drew, would later play for the Twins and is the current backup receiver in Kansas City. So in a roundabout way, I got to see a few of the bigger pieces of those championship Twins team’s contribute in a Royals uniform.

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But it wasn’t just the players or the style of baseball they played that made me intrigued by the Twins. As a kid, I was enamored with the Metrodome, warts and all. Here was this domed stadium that had character and didn’t have the feel of cookie cutter stadiums like Three Rivers or Veterans Stadium. Minnesota had the “baggie” out in right field(which is now a handbag), and a roof that looked spectacular but was easy for fielders to lose a pop fly in. The crowd always seemed raucous and during the playoffs the fans would wave their “Homer Hanky” to get the team going. There seemed to be a whole atmosphere to that stadium that I wanted to be a part of  and that lured me into wanting this team to succeed. Sure, I had heard stories about the stadium being broken down, cold, drab and being nothing but a big slab of concrete, but that didn’t seem to matter to me much. It just seemed like a fun place to watch a baseball game from. I still get goosebumps when I think back to Game 163 of the 2009 season, when the Twins and Tigers battled it out in the dome for the Central Division title. Here was a stadium that being replaced the next season but it was going to get one more thrilling, iconic moment before it was gone. The Metrodome might not have had the beauty of Kauffman Stadium(yes, biased), the legend of a Wrigley Field or the visual classicism of a Camden Yards, but it had its own nuances that would grow on you. I never got to attend a game at the Metrodome, which saddens me, but I was able to be at Target Field a few years back. While I liked Target Field and think it is a solid replacement for the Metrodome, I have a feeling it won’t match up when it comes to the character of that old dome.

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You would think that with the Twins being in the same division as my Royals I would loathe them and wish for them to just go away, but I don’t. I have very fond memories of the Twins and most years wish them the best. Well, I always hope they don’t do as good as Kansas City, but otherwise I want them to have success. It blows my mind sometimes when I think back and remember there was a period where baseball considered contracting the Twins. This is an organization with rich history and the idea of a baseball team not being up in Minnesota is unfathomable. When I go back and think about baseball highlights in my life that I will play over and over in my head, there are a number of Twins highlights that will live on forever. Puckett’s catch, Larkin’s single, Morris’s pitching and Casilla’s single; all are memories etched in my head forever. For that, I thank Minnesota. Thank you for making my childhood brighter and my adulthood memorable. I still kinda love ya.

 

Baseball Vacations are the Best Vacations

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I’ve said for years that one of my goals has always been to see all of the major league baseball stadiums before I die. Originally I figured I would do most of the traveling when I was older and had the time. But a few years back I decided that there was no reason I couldn’t visit a different stadium every summer and start working on the list. I’ve also had a baseball bucket list for years, places that are baseball related that I would love to visit. So when we started planning our vacation for this summer, Minnesota was the obvious choice. I have a friend that lives in St. Paul that I have known since elementary school and we had long discussed me coming up to visit and take in a game. Once we locked in Minnesota as the sight, we then started seeing where else we could stop and visit along the way there and back. That is how my baseball vacation began.

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Our first stop was on the drive up, as we stopped in Van Meter, Iowa for the Bob Feller Museum. For those that don’t know, Feller was a Hall of Fame pitcher who grew up in Van Meter and is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time. With a fastball that was in triple digits even in high school, Feller made his major league debut at the age of 17 and would go on to pitch 18 seasons in the big leagues for the Cleveland Indians, with him losing four years to serve his country in World War II. The museum is not huge but impressive nonetheless. There are artifacts from his playing career and also a few from his military career. The museum spans his career, from a few highlights in high school to his major league career, there is a bit of everything in the museum and lots to learn about Feller. What is really impressive is the amount of former big leaguers that have visited the museum. There is a wall of photos of all the different baseball visitors and it’s great to know that many would come out to this little town in Iowa just to check out baseball history. For the die hard baseball fan, this should be a must visit. If you are a  casual baseball fan, it’s not a bad idea to visit it and learn a few things about the one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.

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We made our way to St. Paul and went sight-seeing on Saturday. That night we headed to Target Field to take in the Twins-Rays game. The little boy in me was really excited to say the least. I fondly remember the 1987 and 1991 Minnesota teams that went to the World Series and Kirby Puckett was one of my favorites growing up. The park is beautiful and seeing the skyline of downtown Minneapolis behind the stadium is a great visual. The game wasn’t too memorable, as Tampa Bay’s David Price was showcasing his talents for contending teams and shut down the Twins in his 8 innings of work. The Twins tried making a comeback in the 9th but it was not meant to be and the Rays came out with the victory. Target Field is a visually nice park but talking around and you get the feeling that as much as the Metrodome was a bit of a dump, it had more character and atmosphere than this new ballpark has.  Either way just getting to visit the park and do that with friends made for a great experience and I’m sure another visit will happen in the future.

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We headed back on Sunday and decided to take the long way back, stopping in Dyersville, Iowa to visit the ‘Field of Dreams’ movie site. Like most baseball fans, I have long loved the movie and the idea of a baseball field built out of a corn field just makes it better. We had checked before we left on our trip and saw that Sunday they would have ‘ghosts’ come out of the corn and play some baseball, so it seemed obvious to make sure we showed up for that. It didn’t disappoint, as they let a bunch of the kids visiting to hit and run the bases. The players joked around during most of this, which gave me a Harlem Globetrotters vibe.

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It was a fun experience and it is as beautiful as you can imagine. You can basically walk around wherever you want(except around the house) and just take everything in. It is great to take your family to and once the ghosts were done playing you could go on the field and play catch. I will be returning to visit at some point, as I will have to take my son so we can play catch on the field. It is Iowa for sure, but it also felt close enough to heaven.

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Overall, it was a fun trip with a lot of baseball involved.  I was able to cross off a few items off the bucket list, visit with friends and get to see a lot of beautiful scenery. It was a long trip and quite a bit of time was spent in a car, but it totally worth it. The fact I was able to cross items of my bucket list and spend time with friends while doing it made it one of my favorite trips. I can only hope next year is as much fun. Watch out, Colorado!

 

C’mon Guys, Quit Picking on Billy

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Let’s take a trip back in time, all the way back to the All-Star break last year. The night of the Home Run Derby at Kauffman Stadium, the fans loudly cheered for one of their own, Billy Butler. Robinson Cano was booed mercifully, and chants of Billy Butler echoed throughout the K because of Cano’s going back on his word about selecting Butler for the derby. The next night at the All-Star Game, Butler received a standing ovation during his introduction, and was wildly cheered every time he stepped up to the dish. For the longest time, Billy Butler has been a fan favorite in Kansas City, in fact he might even be up there as one of the most popular Royals of all time. But for whatever reason, there is a section of the Royals fanbase that has soured on Billy this year, and it is quite troubling. So what has Billy done to deserve this scorn from a number of Royals fans? I think I might just have the answer…

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There could be a number of answers as to why Butler has taken some of the heat from the fans this year. The obvious answer off the top is he is not having the type of year he had in 2012. I had a feeling this would happen, as Billy had his best season last year and put up power numbers that he had never put up before. For years, people have felt like he should hit for more power, and last year they got it. Go ahead, it’s easy to compare the numbers. For a fan who just looks at the base numbers, Butler is under-producing and his numbers appear to be down. But if you take a closer look, a lot of the numbers are actually on par or even better than he has had in the past. His OBP is tied for his career high(heavily helped by his career high in walks. Yes, walks do matter!!), his OPS+ is the third highest of his career, and his total bases isn’t too far off from his career average. Now, with all that being said, this is a down year for Butler, and the numbers show that as well.

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Obviously, with Butler’s power numbers down, his slugging percentage would take a hit. At this point, it would be his lowest since 2008. Butler’s RBI’s are down, but I wonder how much of that is based on a combination of him not seeing the same pitches he saw last year and the batters ahead of him not consistently getting on base. In fact, the hike in Billy’s walks have a direct correlation to him being pitched around. Butler has always had a great eye, and that has never been as evident as it has been this year. The other stat I’m sure the ‘fans with pitchforks’ will use is the one where Billy leads the league in grounding into double plays. This isn’t something new, as fans have always thrown out the fact that Butler grounds into double plays as a major flaw in his game. Sure, it’s not the best stat to lead the league in, but do you know who else is in the top 5? Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. Not a bad list, huh? Since we know Butler isn’t going to become a speedster anytime in the near future, I think at this point we should just accept the fact that Billy will be on this list in the future. You don’t have to like it, but it isn’t going anywhere,

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I hate to even bring up the other thing that Butler catches flak for, but it’s true. The fact that Billy isn’t a lean-mean-home run hitting machine gets thrown around quite a bit over the years. I mean, there is a reason he got the nickname “Country Breakfast”. I’m not for sure why people are so worried about his weight and how that plays into things. I could see it if it affected his hitting, but like we’ve pointed out, it’s not like he is at Francoeur-levels. In fact, history has shown that heftier players seem to do fine. Anyone hear of that Babe Ruth guy? He’s just one of the greatest players in baseball history. Boog Powell was a little hefty, and he was a hell of a slugger. Prince Fielder seems to do fine. Bob Horner was quite the power hitter back in his day. Kirby Puckett? Hall of Famer. So history shows that some extra weight isn’t a detriment. But it does play into all of this.

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Billy Butler’s weight I really feel is where some of the anger comes from. For one, it’s easier to pick on the fat kid. Don’t even act like that doesn’t happen, or you have never done it. Second, there is a belief that a guy his size should hit more home runs, or at least that is what most casual fans would tell you. The problem is that what makes Billy a better all around hitter is that he isn’t a power hitter. Billy’s career high in strikeouts was last year, which goes along with the increase in power. Now, I know in 2013 strikeouts aren’t frowned upon as much as they used to be, but they should be. I would take the guy who is a great hitter and doesn’t strike out much over the guy who hits a lot of home runs and strikes out all the time. I actually heard someone last week say they would rather have an Adam Dunn-type over Butler. Seriously? No way is Dunn or a Dunn-type player better than Billy. Ever. I’ve always felt Butler was more of a gap hitter, which holds up if you look at his doubles numbers over the years. Butler is more a John Kruk than a Boog Powell. Kruk was a great hitter, a career .300 hitter, and was a little overweight. He didn’t hit for much power though, and Billy is in that same category. In some ways, Butler will always catch crap from fans unless he goes out there and hits thirty homers every year. It’s not fair, and not the player he actually is, but it’s a fact of life.

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So one last time, I want you to look at Billy’s numbers this year. I fully acknowledge that he isn’t putting up quite the numbers he had last year, but there is a good chance 2012 will end up being his career year. If you go up and down the Royals roster, I’m sure we can all find flaws in all of these guys. None of them are perfect. But there are certain flaws you can live with, and others that end up costing a player his job. Billy has done nothing but hit over his seven year career, and his .295 average this year is just one telltale sign that he hasn’t having as bad a season as some think. Of all the players on this team, I’m pretty sure Butler should be one of the last ones we should be tearing down. The guy wants to end his career in Kansas City, although you wonder why with how some fans have been acting. At the end of the day, Billy Butler is not the problem with the Royals. Maybe he should be appreciated and lauded for being one of their best players instead of treated like he is Jeff Francoeur. Maybe some Royals fans should remember why they were cheering him like crazy just a little over a year ago.

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