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First and foremost this postseason, I hope the Minnesota Twins win it all.  If that can’t happen, all I ask for is some excitement in major league baseball’s postseason.  It’s been a long time since there’s been some serious drama for the baseball playoffs. 

My definition of a great postseason is fairly simple: a lot of series-deciding games and underdog victories.  I need plenty of division series that go to five games and championship series and World Series that reach the seventh game.  By this definition, the last good postseason was 2003.  

In the last decade of postseason play, there have been 70 series: 40 division series, 20 championship series and 10 World Series.  Only 27 percent (19) have gone to a deciding game.  It’s up to you to determine if this number is low, but to me, it’s far too low.  Why?  Because it’s October and soon I’m not going to see competitive baseball for five lonely months and I want to see as much as possible before I spend 10 minutes every morning scraping ice off my windshield while dreaming of the warm breeze running through the upper deck of Target Field. 

I’ll break down the number of deciding games in each series:
Division series – 25% (10 of 40)
Championship series – 35% (seven of 20)
World Series – 20% (two of 10). 

Only two World Series have reached a seventh game and they came in back-to-back seasons (2001 & 2002).  This is the lowest total by decade since the 1930s, when there was also only two seventh games (the highest total was six, in the 1960s).  This cannot stand.  I realize a good seven-game series has a lot to due with luck and getting two very evenly matched teams against each other.  There’s not much more to it than that.  This blog is not about solutions or reasons why baseball hasn’t had a good postseason for a while.  It’s pretty much just a baseball fan venting his frustration.  

Despite Minnesota’s first of four straight first-round exits in the 2003 playoffs, it proved to be a great October to watch baseball.  In the division series the Cubs and Braves traded wins with Chicago taking the final game thanks to the pitching of Kerry Wood.  The Oakland A’s took the first two games against the Red Sox, only to watch Boston win three straight to send them to the ALCS against the Yankees.  The Marlins / Giants series proved exciting even if it was decided in four games with Florida winning the fourth game thanks to the heroics of Ivan Rodriguez.  

The last time there was a great postseason, Kerry Wood was a good pitcher for the Cubs.

 

Then came the championship series.  On paper they look exciting with both games going to a seventh game.  In real life, they were more than exciting.  At the time, I was rooting for the Red Sox and Cubs, as was most of the nation.  The Red Sox hadn’t won their World Series they’d get the next year and spawn millions of bandwagon fans and the same can be said for Cubs fans … minus the World Series title, of course.  Boston held a 5-2 lead of the seventh game entering the eighth inning.  Some Red Sox fans will point fingers to manager Grady Little or Pedro Martinez, but I pointed straight up to Babe Ruth.  It was the last year of the curse of the Bambino as he guided the Yankees to score three eighth-inning runs followed by an eleventh inning home run by Aaron Boone to take the Yankees to the World Series.  

On the north side of Chicago, there was also a curse involved, but this one hasn’t been broken yet and has much more to do with a poorly run organization and play.  With the Cubs holding a 3-2 lead in the series and a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning, Moises Alou threw a conniption fit when he wasn’t able to make a catch on a foul ball in the stands which then caused shortstop Alex Gonzalez to drop an easy ground ball which then caused the Chicago Cubs to wet the bed and allow eight eighth-inning runs and lose 8-3.  Wood was rocked in the seventh game and Florida won to take the NL pennant.  

The World Series didn’t go seven games, but when the Yankees are involved, I also root for a quick finish.  Josh Beckett shut down New York 2-0 in the sixth game, giving the Florida Marlins their second championship.  

That was a good World Series.  The last great World Series was in 2002 when the Anaheim Angels defeated Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants four games to three.  

Seven years!  It’s been seven years since baseball fans have seen a truly great World Series and six years since there has been a good amount of drama throughout the postseason.  We’re due.  

What do I want from my postseason?  I want John Smoltz versus Jack Morris-style pitching duels.  I want underdog victories from the small-market teams as well as teams who haven’t been seen in the postseason for a long time.  I feel like a James Bond villain as I say this, but I want the Yankees eliminated!  I don’t want to see them in the championship series, let alone the World Series.  The same can be said for the Philadelphia Phillies, but not to the same extent.  I like the players on the Phillies, but they’ve been dominating the National League playoffs the last two seasons and I’d like to see someone new in the World Series.  

FOX Sports and Yankees fans are the only ones who would love to see A-Rod go deep in the postseason.

 

There are some great story lines waiting to happen, but none of them include Mariano Rivera getting the last out in another World Series.  No one thought the Reds would be better than the Cardinals, much less the rest of the division.  The Giants lineup, with exception to rookie Buster Posey (great baseball name, by the way), is from the land of misfit toys.  Baseball fans would like to remember Bobby Cox’s last postseason as a competitive one.  No one believes in the Rays, especially in Tampa Bay.  The Rangers have never won a postseason series.  The Minnesota Twins are the greatest baseball organization in the history of mankind. 

There are so many good things that can happen this postseason.  I’m hoping for all the baseball that’s possible.  The postseason will consist of between 24 and 41 games.  C’mon baseball, we won’t see you for a while … let’s make it last. 

The end of the last great postseason.

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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.

Alan Trammell led a great Tigers team in '87 with a .343 average, 28 home runs, 105 RBI, 109 runs and 21 stolen bases.

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.

Joe Niekro moments before being thrown out of a game for keeping emery boards in his pocket to doctor the ball. Allegedly, when Niekro tossed it out of his pocket, Kent Hrbek tried to cover it up with his foot.

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)

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It’s okay.  Don’t feel bad for not going to any Astros games this year.  I don’t blame you.  Yes, I believe you when you say you’re still an Astros fan, but you don’t need to waste your disposable income on a bad team.  It’s okay.   

Many times I’ve heard sports fans accuse others of being fair weather.  Some take it as a personal insult when called fair weather as if they were just accused of a felony they didn’t commit.    

“Their fans aren’t hard core like we are!”    

Is it really a compliment to be considered hard core?  What defines a hard-core baseball fan from a fair weather fan?   

In terms of baseball, most real hard-core fans are quietly so.  They’re not self-appointed hard core.  They quietly follow their favorite team through the standings, statistics, television, radio, columns, features and, occasionally to frequently, attends games.  Then there are the self-appointed hard-core fans who generally flame out when the team drops below .500 and/or beer vendors pack up for the night after the seventh inning.    

The teams most associated with hard-core fans are the Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.  These also happen to be large-market teams.    

New York Yankees
There are many ways to define a fan base.  Are Yankees fans hard core, or fair weather?  I’ll keep this simple and look at attendance figures.  If a fan base is fair weather, the attendance would rise and fall with the team’s win-loss record.  It’s difficult to gauge with the Yankees because they’re almost always good.  We’ll have to go back to 1992 for the Bronx Bombers last losing season (they were 76-86, fourth of seven teams in the AL East).  That season the Yankees drew just 1,748,737 fans to Yankee Stadium, 11th of 14 American League teams.  In 1991, when they won only 71 games, they drew about 100,000 more fans and were 11th in the league.   Wouldn’t a hard-core fan base show up for more games?   

Attendance records show Yankees fans aren't as hard core as they'd like you to think.

 

Fast forward to one of the greatest baseball teams in the history of the game: the 1998 Yankees.  New York won 114 regular season games and then breezed through the playoffs and won the World Series.  Their attendance that season (2,955,193) ranked third in the league.  Perhaps the fan base needed to witness history to get back on board?  Their 1999 attendance also ranked third.  It wasn’t until 2003 that New York topped the American League in attendance and has stayed on top since.    

Based on these numbers I’m going to label Yankees fans as fair weather … not that there’s anything wrong with that.   

Boston Red Sox
… or as a friend of mine likes to call them, the New England Yankees.  Baseball fans know how hard it is to find a ticket at Fenway Park these days.  The team is a step below the Yankees (though, a big step) in terms of payroll and Theo Epstein has made the right moves amounting to two World Series championships in the last decade along with six playoff appearances.  The fans are known as extremely loyal as most of them had to endure over 80 years of the curse of the Bambino.    

It’s a bit tougher to gage the team’s fan base by attendance as Fenway Park can house only about 39,500 fans.  Like the Yankees, we’ll have to go back to the nineties to find the last sub-.500 season from Boston.  In 1997 the Red Sox were just under .500 (78-84) and ranked seventh in attendance with 2,226,136.  With capacity at Fenway Park at 34,218 in ’97, this averages about 27,500 fans a game.    

Strangely, in 1998 the Red Sox won 92 games, yet only 2,314,704 fans went through the turnstiles, ninth in the American League.  Did the low attendance have anything to do with the fact that the Yankees, their biggest rival, were spectacular?    

Like the Yankees, it’s hard to decifer hard core from fair weather as the Red Sox are really good most of the time.  Boston has had six losing seasons in the last 30 years and none since 1997.  Are Red Sox fans fair weather or hard core?  They’re more hard core than Yankees fans, but they’re still fair weather … not that there’s anything wrong with that.   

Chicago Cubs
The north side of Chicago has not seen a World Series since 1945, but Cubs fans still don’t give up.  They’re known as the lovable losers even though Philadelphia Phillies fans have seen a lot more of it.  Wrigley Field is almost always full despite how horrible the Cubs may be.  Looking at attendance figures, 1986 was the last time Chicago didn’t draw at least two million fans for a full season.  That’s devotion.  After years and years of losing, it slowly got cool to root for one of the least successful teams in baseball history.    

Cubs fans show up to beautiful Wrigley Field no matter what.  Of course, it helps the team plays in a big market and WGN has spread the word through cable wires and satellites across the country.  Like the Red Sox and Yankees, the Cubs spend a lot of money on their payroll, but with far worse results.    

With this being said, Chicago Cubs fans are not fair weather (at least, in the last 20 years) and are hard core … but there’s something wrong with that.   

Every (sane and mature) fan is fair weather
There’s no shame being labeled a fair-weather fan.  It’s the level-headed choice.  If your team isn’t playing well, or downright horrible, there’s no sense in spending your money on them.  How else should you let the owner know you’re disappointed?  Sure, a good fan will keep an eye on the box scores and any transactions.  But a good fan will also not follow the team blindly by spending lots of money on tickets, souvenirs and concessions at the game.    

As a Twins fan, I’ve been lucky in the last decade.  It’s been easy to follow the team and go to games when everything’s still meaningful in late September.  Of course, before Minnesota won 85 games in 2001, it endured eight consecutive losing seasons.  No matter how horrible the team was, I always check the box scores and game stories and watch them on TV if it fit my schedule.  Am I fair weather because I paid less attention to the Twins when they were in last-place team than now?  Or am I hard core because I will always root for the Twins no matter what the standings and never turn to whatever team has done well in the last decade?             

We’re not cattle.  You won’t keep going to a restaurant if the food didn’t taste good and you got bad service, so why complain when fans don’t show up to the ballpark for a bad team?

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