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.
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.
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.
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.