The Minnesota Twins have had many great teams throughout their history. The 1965 Twins gave Minnesota its first taste of success in professional sport, and the 1987 and 1991 Twins won World Series Championships. The 2006 Twins made an unbelievable run to a division title, and the 2019 Twins will be remembered as the “Bomba Squad.”
All of these teams have made their mark on the franchise. But no team made a more significant impact than the 2002 Twins.
It’s been 20 years since that team took the field, but they’re unlikely to get the same kind of reunion that the 1987 and 1991 teams have received. This team didn’t win a World Series, but it had the same importance that altered the history of the franchise. If it didn’t happen, there’s no guarantee the Twins would even exist today.
The story began during the 2001 season. The Twins were coming off a decade of misery that saw Kirby Puckett retire, Chuck Knoblauch demand a trade, and an average of 85 losses per season. The final number could have been larger if not for the strike-shortened seasons in 1994 and 1995.
Minnesotans would rather go to their cabin than head to the Metrodome. As a result, the Twins were a franchise that merely existed in Major League Baseball.
That was until they took the field in 2001 and stormed off to a 14-3 start. The play was so shocking, Matt Lawton wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “Do you believe in miracles?” Suddenly the Twins were interesting again.
The fast start didn’t last, but the 2001 team captured the attention of Twins fans. With a young nucleus starring Corey Koskie, Torii Hunter, and Jacque Jones, they also had a depth of pitching led by Brad Radke. They had likable characters (Eddie Guardado) and unlikeable ones (Doug Mientkiewicz and A.J. Pierzynski) who brought a gritty attitude.
This team was awesome. And then it got nominated for contraction.
That winter, commissioner Bud Selig deemed that the contraction of two teams was a good idea for “economic reasons.” Major League Baseball owned the Montreal Expos, making them a perfect target because of their lack of revenue. But the Twins were in the mix because the state legislature shot down repeated attempts to get a new stadium built.
Carl Pohlad’s initial threat to move the team to North Carolina was a bluff. However, his new plan was to volunteer his team to be contracted. MLB owners loved the idea and voted 28-2 to contract both teams. The two votes against it came from the Twins and the Expos.
It wasn’t until an injunction from a Minnesota judge that forced the Twins to play out their lease at the Metrodome, saving them from the chopping block.
Now they were the real-life version of Major League. The Twins had a second life and looked to build what they had started. Jones blasted the first pitch of the 2002 season into the fountains in Kansas City, and the Twins were off and rolling.
Minnesota dominated in a weak central division and overtook Cleveland as the alpha team. They also had plenty of star power that helped them become a force nationally.
Hunter became a fan-favorite as his highlight reel grabs helped him get voted in as a starter for the All-Star Game. His 20 home runs in the first half put him in the Home Run Derby, which was the kind of thing Twins fans saw in video games at the time. Then he robbed Barry Bonds of a home run in the All-Star game. A star was born.
There was also a young slugger named David Ortiz on that team. Serving as the team’s designated hitter, Ortiz hit a home run with a broken wrist in 2001 and started to come into his own as a hitter. Although the Twins were frustrated by his tendency to pull the ball, he hit .297/.363/.572 with 15 homers in the second half to show what was to come.
Even the pitching played a considerable role with Brad Radke getting his spotlight after carrying the Twins through the late-90s. Joe Mays, Eric Milton, and Kyle Lohse arrived to add depth, and a young pitcher named Johan Santana made his impact in a limited role.
The 2002 team pulled everything together and built a 17-game lead in early August, but a potential labor stoppage nearly halted the season. Once the league and the players union agreed on a deal, it was all systems go for their first division title since 1991.
The AL Divisional Series against the Oakland Athletics was the first taste of baseball for many Twins fans. They stole a game at the Colesium in Game 1 and returned to the Metrodome after dropping Game 2. The Homer Hankies that filled the stands returned, and the crazed atmosphere that led Minnesota to two titles was back.
The Twins dropped Game 3 before routing Oakland in Game 4, setting up one of the most memorable games in franchise history.
The Athletics were heavily favored thanks to their starting rotation. With Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder leading the way, it didn’t seem like the Twins had a chance. But Minnesota jumped out to a 2-1 lead early and held on heading into the late-inning.
The Athletics went to their All-Star closer Billy Koch in the ninth inning, but the Twins got their lead-off man on to set up a two-run homer from Pierzynski.
Pierzynski sprinted around the bases and then screamed “BOO-YAH!” as he stomped on home plate. The Twins got another run later in the inning before Guardado came on in the ninth. Although Oakland scored a pair of runs in the ninth, Guardado got Ray Durham to pop up to Denny Hocking, and the celebration was on.
The Twins succumbed to the Rally Monkey, Adam Kennedy, and the Anaheim Angels in the ALCS, but the job was already done. Interest in the Twins had been restored, and it ignited the longest run of success in franchise history.
ESPN dubbed this “The Team That Saved Baseball,” but that moniker is especially true in Minnesota. Without this team, there’s no Hunter or Santana. There’s no Joe Mauer becoming the hometown hero. There’s no Francisco Liriano, Justin Morneau, or Michael Cuddyer. There certainly isn’t Target Field.
They didn’t win a championship, but their impact makes them the most critical team in franchise history.