Everybody's starting to put together Best of the 2000's stories at the major sports websites. I'd been oblivious to this milestone (having a baby will do that to you), but now that I've been reminded, I can reflect on the what the Twins have accomplished over the last ten years.
This has been the the franchise's most successful decade since the '60's, by just about any standard. They had a .532 winning percentage, the best since it was .540 in the '60's (I'm not including 1960, the last season in Washington). They won the division 5 times, and finished 2nd twice. Their players won 2 MVPs, 3 batting titles, 2 Cy Youngs and 3 strikeout titles. They drew over 2 million in attendance 5 times, a feat that had been achieved just 6 times in franchise history prior to this decade, and they came within 100,000 of that mark 3 other times. They channeled that popularity into a new ballpark, which promises to draw even more fans over the first few years of the teens.
To think that all of that success could have been erased before it had a chance to develop. Thank goodness for that judge who held up the contraction plans of the 2002 offseason. I don't know what I would have done with myself all these years without the Twins to obsess over.
My favorite team of the decade has to be the 2006 squad. They sleep-walked through the first 58 games, starting 25-33. Then three wonderful things happened at roughly the same time: Gardy and Terry Ryan finally chucked the plodding veterans and turned loose the piranhas, Justin Morneau got his head together, and Francisco Liriano got his pitch-count up to full game length. Before we knew it, that team had unleashed the most extraordinary stretch of winning baseball we'll probably ever see: 71-33 for the remainder of the season, including a 21-2 run in June. Everybody they plugged into the lineup seemed to be locked in: Mike Redmond, Jason Tyner, Josh Rabe, Pat Neshek, Glen Perkins. They had the Cy Young, the MVP, the Batting Champ, and would have surely had the Rookie of the Year had Liriano survived the season. Their run differential (+118) was the best of any Twins team this decade, as was their 96-66 record.
There were a lot of moments of elation that stick out for me. Some of my favorite memories:
Torii Hunter's HR-robbing catch off Barry Bonds in the All-Star game in Milwaukee. I had a friend from DC call me up in the ensuing commercial break to gush about how awesome our guy was. That catch alerted the rest of the country to the fact that, for the first time since Chuck Knoblauch was dealt, the Twins had some people worth watching again.
AJ Pierzynski's 2-run HR in the top of the 9th of Game 5 of the 2002 LDS off Billy Koch. I was going to be able to attend games 1 & 2 of the LCS if the Twins won. That HR turned a tense 2-1 lead into a 4-1 lead, and felt to me like the clincher. Luckily, the Twins added one more run in that frame, as the bottom of the 9th was far too exciting, and the final score was 5-4. Still, as AJ's drive smacked off the wall above the yellow line in RF, I slapped the floor with excitement. A great feeling.
Hunter's diving catch to end a 3-game sweep over the White Sox in Chicago in early August of 2004. Hunter had also plowed over the Sox' catcher to score a run earlier in the series. Everybody, especially Ozzie Guillen, knew after that series that the Twins were going to win the division.
Liriano spoiling Roger Clemens' un-retirement in 2006. All anybody in the sports media could talk about was the Rocket. But those of us who'd been following Liriano's progress over the previous few weeks had a suspicion that our guy was going to be the better pitcher that night.
Denard Span's 3B off of Bobby Jenks to score Carlos Gomez, tying the score in the bottom of the 8th in the final week of the 2008 regular season. I like that play more than Alexi Casilla's game-winner a couple of innings later. It completed a comeback from a huge early deficit, putting all the momentum behind the Twins. But most of all, it showed why the Twins were more fun to watch: 2 young players with plus-plus speed flying around the bases while the Sox' fielders were too plodding to cut off a grounder over 1B. The exuberance of Gomez' unnecessary head-first slide across the plate, of Span pumping his fist at the Twins' dugout - infectious, thrilling.
Casilla's walk-off single to win game 163 with the Tigers. Gomez again, sailing around the bases and diving into home far ahead of the throw. What a release after nearly 4 hours of back and forth. Like the 1991 World Series all over again.
Next time I'll have my picks for the Twins' All-Decade Team.