There’s a great scene in the first season of Ted Lasso. Coach Lasso is sitting and mulling over end of season strategy with his assistant, Coach Beard. Lasso realizes that his approach with his players might not give the team the best shot at winning, but smiles and reassures Coach Beard that “winning ain’t how we measure success.”
Coach Beard turns red. He slams his fist on the table and hollers, “DAMN IT, IT IS!”
Winning matters. Which brings us, ironically enough, back to the Minnesota Twins. In the last 18 years of baseball, only two MLB teams have failed to win a postseason game. One of those teams, the Seattle Mariners, are a virtual lock to win a Wild Card spot. That may soon leave the Twins alone at the bottom of the postseason winning heap for this stretch. Last in success, out of all 30 major league teams.
“C’mon,” you’ll argue. “Stop blowing this out of proportion. Just look at those division pennants waving atop Target Field. One of them is even as recent as 2020. That’s success.” Sure, I know they’re there. I just can’t shake the feeling that they just don’t matter all that much. Sure, the Twins have had some success in a weak division - the children’s table of baseball - building up midseason leads and slipping ahead of marginal competition. But when the heat is on, when the top teams are in town, when the playoff bunting flies, the Twins aren’t much of a ballclub. They don’t win when it really counts, when it would generate excitement, when it would really bring the state together. They are a professional organization run and staffed by what seem to be genuinely decent and otherwise competent people.
But they don’t win … and that matters.
In 1986, I fell head over heels for the Minnesota Twins. They were a bad ballclub, but I loved the game and I loved the team and I loved the Metrodome (yeah, I know). My dad took me to ten games or so that year, taking time from a very busy work schedule to indulge me. He even took me to Fan Appreciation Night, where Bert Blyleven apologized to the crowd for a disappointing season, adding that he saw the core of a talented club that could bring a World Series to Minnesota in 1987.
My father audibly groaned. “It’ll never happen,” he said.
“What if it does,” I asked.
“Look, if the Twins go to the World Series next year, I’ll buy us both tickets. But it won’t happen, kid.”
You know the rest. Like magic, it did happen. And we were there. And my father, a serious man, hooted and cheered and waved like a kid. He loved the Twins more than I had realized, and he’d waited his life for this. When they won Game 7, he paraded me through the streets of Minneapolis on his shoulders. We hugged and high-fived strangers and police officers. We celebrated the success of our local team, a scrappy small market underdog.
“Enjoy it” he told me. “Because it’ll never happen again.”
We did not buy tickets to the 1991 series. We watched all the drama from the comfort of home. But I grew up with an embarrassment of baseball riches. More than that, I have memories of my father - the stoic US Navy veteran and successful man of business - that are priceless. I got to see my father become a kid, just like me, bursting with joy over the game of baseball.
The years are wearing on him now, and it's hard to know how much time we have left together. We don’t talk Twins much anymore, my father and me. He never watches games and rarely reads the box scores. I tried to sit him down to watch the 2019 Twins take on the Marlins on TV. I hyped him up for the “Bomba Squad” and chose an opponent I was sure the Twins could beat. I wanted him back on the bandwagon with me. I thought a special season was coming together again.
Newly acquired Sam Dyson blew the lead. Buxton injured his shoulder. The Twins lost 5-4 in extras. But my dad didn’t see it end - he had gone to the garage to tinker with the lawn mower engine. Somehow, he knew that team wasn’t anything special. “Wake me up when they look like a winner again,” he told me.
So here we are, three years removed from the 2019 season which ended in another postseason whimper. The consolation at the time was that the Twins appeared on the cusp of a breakout - a potential string of AL Central dominance that might lead them deep into the playoffs. Instead, we’ve just witnessed an absolutely epic late-season collapse that will leave them in third place and likely below .500 for the second straight year. Worst to third in the AL Central, particularly after signing the #1 free agent in baseball in the offseason, hardly inspires much hope.
It’s not that these things don’t happen in baseball, or in all professional sports. It would be foolish to expect the Twins - a mid-market team - to win back-to-back championships every decade, or to be angered by occasional rough seasons or disappointing endings. It’s not so much that the Twins lose, but how they lose - and that they lose when it matters most and even when they seemingly have what they need to succeed - that is so hard to stomach. It’s a culture of losing that has essentially destroyed fan morale and widespread interest in the game here in Minnesota.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: It’s not just that the Twins lose, it’s how losing no longer seems to be a problem for the organization.
No one who represents the Twins really seems disappointed or upset by what's happened this season. There’s no visible sense of urgency or frustration. The club’s director of communication admonishes critics for any negativity and tells fans to “ride with us,” without acknowledging that the club’s trainwreck bullpen failures made getting back in the fandom car seem like a death wish. “We played our game, we played hard,” is Baldelli’s general mantra after bitter losses, as though professionals being paid hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars shouldn’t be expected to “play hard” as a basic condition of their employment. Instead of playoff wins, we’ve gotten endless strings of excuses: injuries, payroll limitations, called strikes that only seem to pinch our batters, and platitudes about being “almost there” and busy “reloading.”
What’s that old saying? Sound and fury, signifying nothing. Though scratch that - what I wouldn’t give for even a little well-placed fury from this club. They endlessly preach process, but seem to have no real interest in results.
Meanwhile, there is an entire generation of young people who have never once seen a Twins playoff victory. They’ve never seen their friends or family members turn giddy at the prospect of coming out on top, of beating the big boys of baseball in late autumn.They’ve never seen the way a playoff run can pull people together and shake up the routine of life. Winning inspires chatter and energy. It changes dull small talk about the weather into tales of late-inning heroics. The perfect throw to the plate to preserve a close lead. The seeing-eye single that brought in the tying run. The walk-off home run that electrifies a city.
Minnesota is a beautiful state. The Twin Cities represent two vibrant metropolitan centers within a short cross-river drive. Greater Minnesota features majestic beauty and kind-hearted communities. At times, we become two very different kinds of people living in the same state. We sometimes lose a common worldview and a common cause. On top of that, we’ve weathered a pandemic, civil unrest, extreme political division and economic instability. Any of the top professional teams in this state that actually commits to winning - and actually does win when it counts - will find that, beyond their own satisfaction, they’ve added a stitch or two to a sense of unity and pride in the state.
Winning gives people relief and hope - even in small ways - and it gives them moments and stories with those they love. Yes, baseball is only a sport and maybe even a dying one, but winning is symbolic. Winning inspires.
I know I’m cranky. There will soon be any number of articles coming from people who are less cranky about how the Twins had some positive developments this year, and that the FO gave their trades and signings their best shot, and that some prospects took major steps forward, and that winning at the professional level isn’t the only thing that matters. I’m going to shake my head when I read those stories. I may even pound my fist on the table.
Because damn it, it is.
Winning is how you measure success in MLB. Winning is the only thing that matters at this level (and please don’t counter with “playing the game fairly is more important,” because that, too, is a basic professional expectation that should go without saying). And the Twins don’t win when it counts. And that matters. And anyone who does not make this the top priority for this team should no longer be involved with this organization. Find out why injuries keep derailing promising prospects. Find out why high-leverage situations at the plate and on the mound keep resulting in failure. Find out why the team looks like roadkill when the Yankees come to town. Find out why the team lacks fundamental skills on the bases and in the field. Focus less on mundane processes and more on getting situational results. Put the team through high-stress drills. Get the players ready for battle, rather than stocked with excuses when they fail.
Because Coach Beard is right. Winning matters. And it’s been far, far, far too long since the Twins have won anything when it counts.