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This is usually where fans and players say their team had more heart than their opponents.  I do not jump on the bandwagon that says the championship team had more heart than the others.  However, I will do my best to convey how and why the Twins won the AL West, flew by the better-on-paper Detroit Tigers and took down the speedy St. Louis Cardinals in an exciting seven-game World Series. 

The real MVPs
The Blue Jays’ George Bell won the American League MVP award that season, but an argument could be made that Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola should have shared it.  Without those two starting pitchers, the Twins could have found themselves at the bottom of the AL West.  As a team, the Twins had a 4.63 ERA.  Take away Viola and Blyleven’s numbers and the Twins’ ERA jumps to 5.29.  The top two starters combined for a 3.47 ERA, 32 wins and 518 2/3 of the team’s 1,427 1/3 innings pitched.  Blyleven’s season was even more amazing as he approached the single-season record of home runs allowed that he’d set the previous season with 50 (see: https://tripleinthegap.wordpress.com/2010/08/19/blyleven-scattered-50-home-runs-throughout-1986/).  The Dutchman gave up 46 in ’87.  

Other contributors on the mound
Although I’ve pointed out the many misfires in the Twins’ pitching staff, there were a few others who could be counted on.  Les Straker had spent the previous 10 seasons in the minors for the most part.  He emerged in ’87 to win eight games and sport a 4.37 ERA with 154 1/3 innings pitched.  More importantly, Straker pitched nine innings over two starts in the World Series and held the Cards to four runs.  Many argue he was prematurely taken out of the third game in St. Louis after pitching six shutout innings and holding a 1-0 lead.  Juan Berenguer allowed three runs after pitching only 1/3 of the seventh inning and the Cardinals went on to win 3-1.  

Speaking of Berenguer, aside from his performance in the World Series, the Panama-born relief pitcher was a rare bright spot in the bullpen.  Signed as a free agent before the season, Berenguer won eight games, lost only one while sporting a 3.94 ERA.  He proved even more valuable against the Tigers in the ALCS, pitching six innings of relief and allowing only one run and one hit while striking out six.  Berenguer recorded a five-out save in the second game, racking up four strikeouts.  

Senor Smoke.

 

Keith Atherton wasn’t great, but wasn’t bad coming out of the bullpen.  The glasses and mustache-wearing Virginia native won seven games with a 4.54 ERA. 

They didn’t beat themselves
Like the Twins of 2010, the ’87 squad didn’t give its competition many free chances.  Minnesota led the league in fielding percentage in ’87 (.984) and had the least number of errors as well (98).  Kent Hrbek (1B), Gary Gaetti (3B), Dan Gladden (LF) and Tom Brunansky (RF) were all in the top five at their respected positions in fielding percentage in the American League.      

Murderer’s row
The Twins didn’t have an entirely dangerous lineup, but there were four batters in the middle of the lineup who were known to put a few balls in the gaps and seats.  Minnesota hit 196 home runs in ’87; 125 of those were hit by Kirby Puckett (28), Kent Hrbek (34), Tom Brunansky(32) and Gary Gaetti (31).  Opposing pitchers had to feel a huge relief when they got through these four in the lineup.  Gaetti wasn’t much of an on-base machine that year (.303 OBP), but he got his hits when they mattered. He knocked in 109 runs and also had 36 doubles.  Although Brunansky struck out 104 times, he also drew 74 walks, raising his OBP to .352.  Hrbek’s 34 home runs were despite playing in only 143 games.  He earned his top slugging season in ’87 with a .545 mark while drawing 84 walks and struck out only 60 times.  

And then there’s Puckett.  The center fielder tied Kansas City’s Kevin Seitzer with the most hits in the AL with 207.  Puckett played 157 games while putting up his staggering, yet consistent offensive numbers (.332 / .367 / .534) while never seeing a pitch he didn’t like and couldn’t hit hard for a single (at least).  The biggest smile in baseball also had 32 doubles, five triples, 12 stolen bases, 98 RBI and 96 runs scored.  Puckett’s regular season was best known for what he did over two days in Milwaukee, August 29 & 30.  The stout-legged Twin went 10-for-11 with two doubles, four home runs, six RBI and seven runs scored.  He also robbed another future hall of famer, Robin Yount, of a grand slam of the second game with one of his well-known leaps against the wall.  

Other contributors on the field
There was also the defense of Greg Gagne and Steve Lombardozzi up the middle, the clutch hitting of Randy Bush, Gene Larkin and Roy Smalley, the speed of Al Newman and the veteran presence of a late-season acquisition, Don Baylor.   

The man with a plan and really big, dark glasses
Manager Tom Kelly was 36-years old when the 1987 season began.  He took over as Twins manager after Ray Miller was fired with 23 games to go in the ’86 season.  Kelly won 12 of those 23 games.  The no-nonsense manager took a team that should have won about 79 games to World Series champs the next season.  Kelly was not in the dugout for the fame, he was there to do a job.  This seemed obvious as the Twins celebrated on the field after winning the seventh game of the World Series and Kelly quietly sat on the bench and allowed his players to have this time for themselves.  His managing style has stretched to the present day where every Twins team is built on knowing the fundamentals and avoiding physical and mental mistakes; respect the game and your opponent and they will respect you back. 

 

They got hot when they needed to
Everything I’ve written up until now proves that the 1987 regular season Twins were far from the 1991 Twins or the 1965 Twins, or 1969, ’70, 2002, ’06 or ’10.  But when the postseason began and the Metrodome roof nearly popped off from so much noise, the Twins couldn’t be beaten.  I mean that literally: they were 6-0 at home in the postseason (2-4 on the road).   

My mom took my nine-year old 60-pound body to the first game of the championship series against the Tigers were I watched Gary Gaetti launch two homers and my Twins put up four runs in the eighth inning to beat Detroit 8-5.  Bert Blyleven pitched the Twins to a 6-3 victory in game two.  If it wasn’t for an eighth inning two-run home run from Detroit’s Pat Sheridan, the Twins may have swept the series.  Instead, they won games four and five at Tigers Stadium to take the AL pennant; the franchise’s first since 1965.  The Twins saved their wins against the Tigers for the playoffs: they were 4-8 against them in the regular season.    

In the World Series, it was dome, sweet, dome.  The Twins outscored St. Louis 33-12 at the Metrodome.  Minnesota managed only five runs at Busch Stadium in games three, four and five.  Late-season acquisition Don Baylor, who had last hit a home run on August 23 while he was still with the Red Sox.  Baylor’s home run was a grand slam against the Twins.  After picking him up off the waiver wire, Baylor hit well as a designated hitter, but didn’t show much power.  Down 5-3 in the fifth inning of the sixth game of the World Series, Baylor tied the game with a two-run home run.  Twins fans will show no shame in saying Baylor only hit one home run for Minnesota. 

It was Hrbek who blew the game open with his sixth-inning grand slam.  I remember hearing the rumor that when the mighty Minnesotan high-fived the Twins’ bat boy before touching home base, he broke the poor kid’s wrist.  Don’t quote me on this one as this was a rumor that was circulating through my peers at Columbus Elementary.  I realize fourth graders aren’t the most reliable source.  I think I still believed in Santa Claus, too.  

It was this man who allegedly broke the hand of the batboy after his game six grand slam.

 

After batting only .191 for the season, catcher Tim Laudner batted .318 for the series and knocked in four runs.  Second baseman Steve Lombardozzi hit a meager .238 in the regular season, but turned into Ty Cobb against St. Louis, batting .412 with four RBI.  Dan Gladden, after an average season at the plate and a great season in the field, he finally let his bat match his glove in the postseason.  Gladden batted .314 in the ALCS and World Series combined, leading all Twins starters.  Puckett batted .357 against the Cardinals and tied a World Series record in Game Six with four runs scored.  

Frank Viola’s 3.72 ERA and two wins were enough to win him the World Series MVP trophy.  Blyleven won one game with a 2.77 ERA.  Despite his shakiness during the regular season, Jeff Reardon did not allow a run over four and two-thirds innings.  

Nine years old or 32, I love the Twins
I was nine years old and I had yet to develop the attention span to watch a complete game on television.  I did, however, grab the Star Tribune sports page every morning and look at the box scores, standings and statistics.  I always went right to Kirby Puckett’s line from the previous game to see if he gained any ground on the batting title (I’d sometimes check Wade Boggs as well in hopes of an 0-for-5 game).  I wasn’t much for reading columns and features (unless they involved Kirby), but I would keep an eye on the standings as well as the statistical leaders in each league.  

I was playing baseball with my neighbor and buddy Brian when the Twins won the AL pennant in Detroit.  I remember my mom calling out to me, “Jeff, do you want to watch the Twins in the last inning?  It looks like they’re going to win!”  “No, that’s okay,” I replied, as I was too content to throw the ball around with Brian to be bothered with my favorite team winning its first pennant in 22 years.  

I can also remember my dad telling my sister and I after the Twins won the World Series that we should appreciate it while it lasts because we probably wouldn’t see it again.  We were fortunate enough four years later to see the Twins celebrating a World Series title and I’m keeping my fingers crossed again this year.

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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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