The most interesting division in baseball is the AL Central. It also happens to be laden with the best talent and most root-worthy teams. But who saw these Twins coming?
I have to admit I’m partial to the Twins.
The summer after my freshman year of high school, my grandmother took me on a plane from LAX to MSP. It was just the two of us. My sister had done the same trip a few years earlier and told me in secret that while there I could expect to sip my first beer, catch my first fish and have my first driving lesson.
She was right.
Phyllis grew up in a small farm town called Hutchinson about an hour west of the Twin Cities on the shores of Otter Lake. It was important that she catch me just before the age of self-absorption and show me where she came from. Her oldest sister, Doris, stayed and raised four children there, three of whom followed their father into the trades. If you’ve lived in Hutchinson sometime during the last half-century, chances are you’ve worked for 3M and lived in a home built by a Betker.
Middle sister Shirley married right out of high school and left the farm “quicker than a horny hen.” She and her husband (now married more than 75 years) made their way West, eventually settling in Santa Barbara when it was, as they like to say, just pebbles and palm trees.
For reasons still unclear, but certainly having to do with the economic conditions on the farm in the early 1930s, my grandmother, the youngest, was sent to live in California’s Central Valley with her aunt Edna. Edna drove a ’65 Mustang, taught elementary school and traveled the world. My grandmother says Edna taught her how to be independent which is “just another word for disagreeable.”
Though Phyllis made her way back to the Midwest for a spell during high school, she packed her bags once more for California upon graduation at 16. She would never go home again. Shortly after her return, she was cruising with her girlfriends one night when she met James, the son of a Scandinavian gambler and an Irish spitfire.
And that was it.
They got married. The war came. James went to France and Germany. James came home and started selling potatoes. My mother was born and the rest you know about from reading any 20th Century American existentialist novel or watching a couple seasons of Mad Men.
The best of our family stories were forged in the Midwest. The town turned out for barn dances on the farm which included stills, scuffles and trysts behind the hay bales. My great-grandpa Al, who could still whittle and whistle the sun to set when I sat on his lap, used to take Clark Gable hunting on his land. My great grandmother’s sister Gert was the moll of one of Capone’s lieutenants. And while she and her goon went shooting up in the bathroom, my grandmother sat on the original Scarface’s lap during a card game and asked him for a lollipop.
There is a sepia charm to these tales that grows syrupy like a Tom Hanks narration when they’re shared with the cousins as everyone wears Old Navy khakis and sips light beer at summer family gatherings. To these re-tellings, my grandmother scowls. “Trust me,” she says, “things are better for you today then they were for us then.”
And that’s all she says.
While I didn’t lap up the family history so much at age 14, I did appreciate the benefits of being treated like an adult for the first time. Phyllis and Doris took me fishing. I caught a little lake trout as they holed up at the old bar and drank bottles of beer about 200 feet from the pier. When it was time to go home, Doris handed me the keys and said, “You know your grandmother could drive a tractor practically from the time she could walk.”
I barely made it back. Every curb check or near miss of a mailbox and the sisters in the back seat would cackle louder. That day they were the teenagers.
During the middle of the week, the cousins kidnapped me (“Are the old gals drinking beer and making you drive them everywhere?”) and took me to a Twins game. It was an afternoon affair against the Mariners. I still have the ticket stub with the flying saucer Metrodome watermark. Tom Kelly’s Twins were only a season away from winning the most glorious World Series in the live-ball era (1991 vs. the Braves). The domed stadium—beyond being a respite from the pigeon-sized mosquitoes—smelled like a Toys R Us and served soft serve in a mini plastic Twins collectible helmet. Ken Griffey Jr. hit a home run and Puckett puffed out a rare three-bagger. After the seventh-inning stretch, they played this cheesy song that went “We’re gonna win Twins, we’re gonna score” and my older cousin kept singing “I’m gonna score…” and I thought that was the funniest thing ever. The game lives in memory unparalleled as the finest baseball experience of my life.
That day, I spent the entirety of my $20 “emergency money” on a Twins cap that didn’t leave my head or close proximity to it until the end of college. There was a two-year spell in high school that I slept in it.
I have an abiding belief that the AL Central represents the best of where this country has been and where it’s headed: Kansas City, Detroit, the Twin Cities, the South Side and Cleveland. To a place these were forgotten towns, slowly turning the lights back on with innovation, creativity and affordability. There are hundreds of thousands of people like my grandmother. Those who left the rusting and gear-grinding middle behind in search of palm trees and pebbles. But whatever they found here it came at the cost of losing something greater. The West Coast branch of the family tree lists in the wind. Cousins out here continually move, change jobs, find themselves with different partners and none of them seem to be poised to stay married for three quarters of a century. Back there, it’s a constant if not imperfect. Problems never seem to leave any family alone, but the patchwork of the Midwestern side of the quilt continues to be stitched a little tighter.
It is for this reason, I consider Minnesota my family’s Family Bible. A place where all of that stuff we put in the way of enjoying our time and letting the years roll, watching children grow and finding renewal in spring, disappears.
That’s why I take special comfort in seeing the Twins back atop the AL Central, even if it’s only June. After a 6-10 start, the Twinkies have gone a MLB-best 24-9 run since the end of April.
I get that they’re just 5-10 against division rivals Kansas City and Detroit and their starters are either throwing otherworldly and unsustainable (Kyle Gibson and Mike Pelfrey) or are getting lucky with run support (Trevor May and Ricky Nolasco). There’s only so much magic dust veterans Joe Mauer and prodigal son returned Torii Hunter can sprinkle on their bats. And yes, they have series coming up against their NL Central-leading counterparts St. Louis and Chicago—which will be the real barometer for the Twins as contender.
But for now, just like in 1990, they’re on top. And that makes me feel good.
I grew up keeping score at Giants games with my father and realize after getting whipped in the face with hot dog wrappers in the upper deck at Candlestick for two decades that I’m living during the franchise’s golden era. And that’s special. But it still might not be enough.
My last trip back to Minnesota (summer of 2011), I set foot in Target Field for the first time. There was a big difference between that atmosphere and the one in San Francisco. Though the team was 14 games under .500 in August, the stadium was packed. There was a healthy respect for the opposition (Cleveland). Slugger Jim Thome, who’d just been traded from the Twins to the Tribe, went yard and you wouldn’t know whether he hit one for the home team as he tipped his cap to the roar crossing home plate. There were servicemen on leave but still in uniform, couples getting engaged on the Jumbotron and, most distinctly, families, families, families. Dads balancing beers and newborns. Moms braiding their daughters’ hair between hot dog bites. And lots and lots of matching toddler twins on the Twin Cam.
Perhaps most importantly, nobody was on their fucking phone taking pictures of themselves not watching the game as their backs were turned toward the field.
And so, while I still try to figure out ways to outfiddle the devil for a pair of Giants tickets every now and again, I know that a Twins game and a $35 field box seat is still just a direct flight from LAX away. It makes me happy to know someday my son will go there with me to sip his first beer, catch his first fish, have his first driving lesson…
And go to his first Twins game.