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Monday, February 18
Updated: April 17, 5:53 PM ET
Twins happy to be alive and well

By Jayson Stark

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This isn't a story for ESPN.com. This is a story for the Weekly World News:


Yes, sir. This is some kind of blockbuster. Three months ago, thanks to what is referred to around here as the "C word," those Minnesota Twins were deader than Elvis. But Monday morning, thanks to the Minnesota Supreme Court, those very same Twins were alive and well and huddled around a bulletin-board spring-training schedule that began with these words:

"Feb. 18 -- Day 1."

Ah, Day 1. It was Day 1 of spring training, Day 1 of the Twins' life after contraction. And quite a Day 1 it was.

What happens if we go out and win the World Series? I mean, say we win the World Series and Bud Selig has to walk out and give us the trophy. What could he say? I'm not saying we're going to win the World Series. But if we win, how could they contract us?
A.J. Pierzynski

They had an estimated horde of 500 people on hand to witness the always inspirational sight of 23 pitchers fielding their first comebackers of the year. ("Heck we had more people here today watching this," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski, "than we had at some of our games a couple of years ago.")

And as hordes go, it was a pretty darned loyal horde, too. One guy even marched up to first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and said, "I've got a T-shirt for you."

He then handed Mienkiewicz a shirt that read "www.nocontraction.com." On it was an illustration of a baseball glove, with one finger of that baseball glove forming a gesture that would not be considered either pro-Selig or suitable for description in a family web site.

But Mientkiewicz accepted his shirt in the spirit with which it was offered and said, "Thanks. I'll wear it with pride."

The Twins didn't just have this loyal horde hanging around, though. They even had their own official national-media throng in attendance.

OK, so that throng consisted of exactly one person (hint: you're now reading him). But it was a throng by Twins standards.

"Well," Mientkiewicz philosophized, "it's one more than we usually have the first day."

But as these Twins did their inimitable spring-training thing -- in a ballpark that is, fittingly, occupied five months of the year by the Fort Myers Miracle -- they had something on hand that was much bigger than a spectator horde and a media throng.

They had a new appreciation of what it means to be together, trying to pick up on February 18 where they left off last summer, when they won 85 games, led their division by 5 games at the All-Star break and were tied for first as late as August 11.

"I'll be honest with you," said pitcher Eddie Guardardo. "I hate Florida. But if I hadn't gotten to come here this year, I would have died."

Or his team would have died, anyway. And it sure came close. From the day Bud Selig stepped to the podium, two days after the World Series, and announced, "We will contract," everyone connected with the Twins felt a bullseye on their chest.

"What got so hard was that it just dragged on and on," Pierzynski said. "Every time you'd think it was over, Bud would come up with something else. At one point, I thought he was going to make up his own Supreme Court in Minnesota, just so he could make up his own rules.

"He'd lose one (in court), he'd come up with another one. He'd lose the next one, he'd come up with something else. I thought the guy was never going to give up. The ship kept going down, and he kept trying to bail water out."

Maybe on the commissioner's docket, this was just a financial issue, a legal issue, a labor issue. But in Minnesota, this was an issue that exacted a painful toll on real people -- on their lives, on their families, on their blood pressure, on their sleeping-pill budget.

"People talk about the players, but for the most part, the players would have been all right," Pierzynski said. "Brad Radke would have found a job. Joe Mays would have found a job. But it's about more than just the players.

"It's the fans. It's the people who sell beer. It's our PR guy, Sean Harlin. It's the guys just out of college who work in the organization, doing a job they love. To have that taken away for no reason, that's what kills you. Then to have Bud stand up there and say, 'It's not a sad day,' that's what made me laugh."

In Montreal, at least the people in the front office knew they would have jobs in Florida, once Jeffrey Loria finished swapping teams. But in Minnesota, no one had any assurance of anything. Not the players. Not the beer salesmen. Not even GM Terry Ryan.

So it would have been easy, even logical, for Ryan to accept an invitation to interview for the Blue Jays' GM job last November. But Ryan looked at all the nervous people around him, people he worked with and cared about. Then he told the Blue Jays, "No thanks."

"I was very grateful for that invitation (in Toronto)," Ryan said. "But I thought about it for a day, and I couldn't do it. Whether I would have ended up getting the job, I don't know. But I just couldn't leave this franchise where it was at that time. I felt I needed to stay and see it through, whatever happened."

"That," said new manager Ron Gardenhire, "was the biggest moment of the whole winter. If he had taken off and done that interview, a lot of people would have said, 'I guess it doesn't look very good.' But when he said, 'I'm going to stay right here,' that did a lot of good for a lot of people."

Ultimately, not one Twins employee quit all winter. Not one scout. Not one minor-league pitching coach. Not one ticket salesman. Nobody. It tells you all you need to know about this operation and why it deserved to live.

"One thing we've always tried to do here," Ryan said, "is to do things right. We promote from within. We treat people with respect. We never make excuses. We don't talk much about payroll. We don't talk much about new ballparks. We are who we are. And I think people respect us for that."

So when Terry Ryan stayed at the captain's wheel, the Twins' ship continued to sail, with one eye on the courts but another eye on what might be out there over the horizon if they survived.

"And now," Ryan said, standing on a glistening green baseball field on the first day of spring training, "we're rewarded. Here we are. Not a lot of people thought we'd be standing here today watching batting practice. But we are. And now maybe we can do something about our own fate."

In the commissioner's board room, the feverish fight to contract goes on. But everything about the Twins this spring feels more alive than ever.

  • There is serious hope for a new ballpark, either in St. Paul or Minneapolis.

  • There is a prospective buyer, Donald Watkins, trying to rescue the franchise from widely loathed owner Carl Pholad.

  • There are real fans, passions awakened by their team's near-death experience, threatening to swell attendance beyond 2 million (the Twins drew 1.78 million last year).

  • And most of all, there is a baseball team with a legitimate chance to win the American League Central.

    "We have a chance," Mientkiewicz said. "A legitimate chance. We still need a lot of things to go right. We know that. But for the first time in a long time, last year guys were proud to put 'Twins' on their chest. And there was a time I never thought in my wildest dreams I'd ever hear that.

    "If someone had tried to do this (contract them) two years ago, no one could have said anything, because it didn't look like we knew what we were doing. But then, finally, we had a good season -- a great season from a Minnesota standpoint -- and they want to get rid of us? We need to do everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen."

    In many ways, Mientkiewicz is the perfect symbol of the Twins. He rose through the system alongside so many of these men he now plays with. Three years ago, he was a .229 hitter on a 97-loss team. He was back in the minor leagues the next year, wondering if he'd ever again get to hang out in the shadow of the Metrodome Hefty bag.

    And then came last year, a year when many an innocent American learned how to spell M-i-e-n-t-k-i-e- w-i-c-z, a year in which he hit .309 and won a Gold Glove.

    So how fitting was it that on Nov. 7, the day he learned he'd won that Gold Glove, he also learned something else -- that his commissioner had other plans?

    "I had my highest point of the winter and my lowest point on the same day," he said. "Terry Ryan called and said I'd won a Gold Glove. But he said I might not be able to receive it in front of my home fans because we might be contracted."

    It was the beginning of a long, nerve-wracking winter -- a winter in which Twins players had to have a conference call every week with player rep Denny Hocking, just to be updated on the latest twist in the contraction saga.

    "Right at the beginning of January," Pierzynski said, "we had a conference call with Don Fehr. I know it's Don's job to give us the worst-case scenario, but when he was done, it really seemed like all hope was lost, that we were really in trouble. As soon as that call was over, Denny got like 10 calls from the guys on the conference call. But he kept saying what he'd told us the whole time: 'Don't worry. We're going to play.'"

    And now, play they will. So as they ran those wind sprints Monday, as they fielded those comebackers and hung around the clubhouse afterward making each other laugh, they couldn't help but think about how unjust it would have been had a couple of guys in expensive suits broken them up just when they could see their sun rising.

    "It would have been like the Expos in '94, when they didn't have the playoffs," Mientkiewicz said. "Those guys, deep down, have to think all the time, 'What could have been?' And for us, it would have been the same feeling if they'd gotten rid of us: 'What could have been?'"

    Now contraction has turned them into a team on a mission, a mission to save themselves and their team and everyone who cares about them.

    "What happens if we go out and win the World Series?" Pierzynski wondered. "I mean, say we win the World Series and Bud Selig has to walk out and give us the trophy. What could he say? I'm not saying we're going to win the World Series. But if we win, how could they contract us?"

    "I'm telling you," Guardardo said, "if we do win the World Series after all this, I might faint -- right there on the damn mound."

    "No," someone nearby said, "Bud Selig might faint."

    "Nah," said Eddie Guardardo, "if we win the World Series, I think Bud would just go into a little cubby somewhere."

    But if he did, he might be the only American who wasn't cheering.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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