The 1987 Minnesota Twins will forever have a place in the hearts of Twins fans. They were the first team to win a World Series since the team moved from Washington D.C. after the 1960 season. The ’87 club is one of two Minnesota teams to take the title and the ’87 club did so despite the fact that there have been many superior teams to play under the Metrodome roof or the sunny skies of Metropolitan Stadium or even Target Field. The 1987 Twins were the underdogs of underdogs and it was a joy to watch them defy all the odds and defeat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series at the innocent age of nine.
As a nine-year old, I didn’t worry that the Twins pitching would hold out in the playoffs. It didn’t worry me we had to play the 98-win Detroit Tigers in the championship series. It didn’t worry me we would be playing the team of the eighties in the World Series. I couldn’t care less that our closer owned a 4.48 ERA for the season. These facts don’t bother nine-year olds. We had Kirby Puckett and that’s all that mattered.
As a 32-year old, I’ve had time to look over the great ’87 Twins and realize how they had no business in the playoffs, let alone winning the World Series. That’s what makes them so great. Baseball fans will never put the Twins of ’87 next to the greatest of all time, but they could easily be put next to the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team.
How did they do it?
The Minnesota Twins were outscored by their opponents throughout the ’87 regular season. They finished the season with an 85-77 record despite being outscored 786-806. According to baseball statistician Bill James’s pythagorean formula which estimates a team’s winning percentage based on runs scored and allowed, Minnesota should have finished the season with a 79-83 record.
Luck of the draw
When fans talk of the ’87 Twins, they like to talk of the team’s dome-field advantage, and they have good reason to. The Twins owned a .691 winning percentage and a 56-25 record at the football stadium they called home for too long. What fans tend to not mention is how nasty the team was on the road. Minnesota was just 29-52 away from home (.358). In 1987, home-field advantage in the playoffs and World Series simply alternated every season. Having the best record in your league or winning the all-star game did not matter. Coincidentally, the Twins got lucky twice and “earned” the advantage in the championship series and World Series. (They got lucky again in 1991.) It didn’t matter too much against the Tigers as we took two of three in Detroit to take the pennant. It did matter against the Cardinals as the Twins became the first team in baseball history to win all four games at home and lose all three on the road.
Even the hitting wasn’t that good
Toronto owned the best ERA in the American League in ’87 at 3.74. The Twins were almost a full run behind at 4.63 to put them in 10th of 14 teams. The league average was 4.46. Despite being known as a great hitting team, Minnesota ranked just eighth in runs scored with 786, behind the league average of 794. The Tigers, the team we whipped in the ALCS, scored the most runs in the AL with 896. Both the Twins’ batting average (.261) and on-base percentage (.328) rank below the league average. Only the team’s slugging percentage .430 ranks above the league average at third in the league.
Looking at the starting lineup, it’s not difficult to see how different the ’87 Twins are from today’s players. We’ve been spoiled as of late having one of the game’s best hitters as our starting catcher. In 1987, the Twins catchers were very un-Mauer like. Tim Laudner played 113 games, 105 in the field. The Twins’ main catcher hit .191 with a .252 on-base percentage. His backups were Sal Butera (.171 / .217) and Tom Nieto (.200 / .276). The only catcher who hit well (in fact, very well) was Mark Salas (.378 / .431 / .622), but the Twins traded him in June to the Yankees to get Joe Niekro.
Leadoff batters are usually one of the team’s best at getting on base. Dan Gladden, acquired in a trade with the San Francisco Giants just before the season began, finished the season with a .312 OBP. Shortstop Greg Gagne, who could be found in the second spot many games, had a .310 OBP.
A very-average, but not bad, division
The Twins won the AL West by two games over the Royals. The race wasn’t as close as the standings look as after clinching the division, the Twins dropped five straight to finish the season. I believe I remember Kent Hrbek saying in his autobiography Tales from the Minnesota Twins Dugout that it wasn’t that they lost their edge after clinching the division, they just couldn’t play with a hangover. They held their largest division lead of the season the night they clinched the title with a seven-game edge. They’d lose five games of their lead in the next six days. As for the rest of the division, Kansas City was the only other team to finish above .500. Despite this fact, the top and bottom of the division were separated by only 10 games. Texas and California were in the cellar with a 75-87 mark.
Some nasty pitchers … and not good-nasty
The 1987 Twins pitchers consisted of Bert Blyleven, Frank Viola, one other starter who could be depended on, one reliever that didn’t worry fans when he came in the game and a scattering of players the Twins guessed, checked and discarded throughout the season. Before spring training, Minnesota traded Al Cardwood, Neal Heaton, Jeff Reed and Yorkis Perez to Montreal for Tom Nieto and Jeff Reardon. Reardon (a.k.a. The Terminator) had accumulated 162 saves for the Expos and Mets and a 3.11 ERA. The man Puckett sarcastically nicknamed Yakity-Yak saved 31 games in ’87, won eight, but also lost eight and sported a 4.48 ERA. He averaged 1.6 home runs allowed per nine innings pitched, which would have put his total near Blyleven’s (46) had he been a starter.
Mike Smithson started 20 games and could only manage four wins and a 5.94 ERA. The Twins traded Mark Salas in June to get Joe Niekro from the Yankees. Niekro went on to win four games in 18 starts with a 6.26 ERA and got himself thrown out of a game for keeping emery boards in his back pocket. Relief pitcher George Frazier made his way to the Twins before the season in a trade that sent Ron Davis to the Cubs. Considering Davis’s stats, it’s sad Frazier was an upgrade after he won five games and posted a 4.98 ERA in ’87 (Davis had a 9.08 ERA in ’86). After looking good for the Phillies in the first half of the season (3.38 ERA), Dan Schatzeder came to the Twins via trade in June and posted a 6.39 ERA over 43 2/3 innings.
The Twins even picked up a future hall of famer at the trading deadline to help out the pitching staff and he was outright nasty. Forty-two year old Steve Carlton won one, lost five to go with his 6.70 ERA in 43 innings. Then there was Mark Portugal (7.77 ERA, 44 IP), Joe Klink (6.65, 23), Roy Smith (4.96, 16 1/3), Allan Anderson (10.95, 12 1/3), Jeff Bittiger (5.40, 8 1/3) and Randy Niemann (8.44, 5 1/3).
Looking at all of these numbers, it’s hard to believe this team finished above .500, let alone won the division, dominated the ALCS and won an exciting World Series.
…next week: Here’s how they did it (Part two)