Underdogs Outclass Fat Cats

Someone must be tinkering with the human genome up in permafrost country. A professional wrestler with the brain of a hummingbird continues to serve as governor of Minnesota. The other day, a wheat farmer in neighboring North Dakota stood up on a chair in his local post office and announced that he was the only living child of Czar Nicholas II. Even more bizarre, the Minnesota Twins remain at the top of the American League's Central division, an unfamiliar perch they have occupied since the start of the 2001 season. To celebrate two weeks ago, some of the team's newly emboldened fans pelted a visiting player who was once one of their own with hotdogs, golf balls, beer and handfuls of change.

What should we expect next in colorful Minneapolis? Will, say, some ancient Mrs. Magnusson bop her decrepit husband, Lief, on the head with a curling stone? Or is Harmon Killebrew planning to come out of retirement and give his old club some much-needed home-run punch?

The perennially inept and woefully underfinanced Twins, who have not posted a winning record in eight years and had no player with twenty home runs last year, are the most startling surprise of baseball's early season. But it isn't the only one. In Philadelphia, new manager Larry Bowa, a firecracker sitting on a powder keg, has put the habitually awful Phillies on a six-game cushion in the National League East. The Seattle Mariners, seemingly unbothered by the loss, over three years, of the best left-handed pitcher in baseball, the game's most talented outfielder and its most famous shortstop, have cruised to a runaway lead in the American League West via great pitching and a solid lineup at the plate.

We also feel duty-bound to point out that the Chicago Cubs are off to a good start this year. But that's like the weatherman reporting a warm January day in Fairbanks. That Cubs fans are likely to see their dreams dashed by the early summer at the hands of St. Louis and Houston is all but a foregone conclusion: For almost a century, Peril has been the Cubs' leadoff man and Failure has hit cleanup. Jesse Ventura will be president before the Cubs win the pennant.

For now, the uprisings in Minnesota and Philadelphia -- even the one in Seattle -- give new (if temporary) hope to baseball fans everywhere who believe the grand old game has been ruined by inflated player salaries and the power of rich teams over poor ones -- exemplified by the pinstriped arrogance of the New York Yankees. Commissioner Bud Selig, a staunch critic of the game's outlandish economics and a man who's very worried that another work stoppage this fall could put the game in its grave, must be relieved, too -- for the moment, anyway.

The Phillies, who've plodded through seven straight losing seasons, outspent only six of baseball's thirty teams this year, with a payroll of $41.6 million. But they're leading both the Atlanta Braves ($92 million) and the New York Mets ($93 million) in the divisional standings. The Twins' story is even more dramatic. Tighter than Britney Spears's blue jeans, Minnesota owner Carl Pohlad parted with just $24 million this year -- that's dead last on the expenditure list -- but his poverty-row ballplayers are suddenly performing like plutocrats. Staff ace Brad Radke is an astonishing 6-1, and three Twins starters have earned run averages under three. First baseman Doug Mientkeiwicz, seemingly destined for a career in the minors just a year ago, leads all American League batters with a .413 average, and Minnesota has won all six games it played this year against the defending American League Central-champion Chicago White Sox.

When, on May 2, Twins fans in the Metrodome threw all manner of garbage at Yankee second baseman turned left-fielder Chuck Knoblauch -- a guy who demanded a trade from the Twins in 1998 -- it was not just an outpouring of resentment; it was psychological payback. Downtrodden since winning the World Series in 1991, Minnesota was suddenly Cinderella incarnate, and if she felt like throwing her gown, shoes and tiara at the strutting kings of the realm, that's the way it was going to be. Twins manager Tom Kelly, no pal of Knoblauch, pleaded with the fans to stop and apologized for their actions -- but there will be no apologies if his no-name ragamuffins get to the playoffs and maybe kick some hifalutin Bronx butt. The World Champion Yankees, in case you haven't heard, have the sport's highest payroll, at $110 million.

So -- what's happened here? The Twins are in first place and the White Sox are in fourth, eleven games back. So distressed was Sox starter David Wells that he verbally lit into Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas, the team icon. The Seattle Mariners, now absent Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and baseball's $25 million man, shortstop Alex Rodriguez, lead the last-place Texas Rangers -- A-Rod's new team and George W. Bush's old one -- by fifteen. So distressed was Texas manager Johnny Oates after starting 11-17 that he quit "for the good of the ballclub." The New York Mets, the National League pennant winners in 2000, are stumbling around in the murky NL East basement, bumping into the dreadful Montreal Expos, a team that attracts just about 6,000 disoriented Canadians to each of its home games.

A former American Leaguer, Mets third baseman Robin Ventura -- in Denver last week for a four-game series with the Rockies -- may be surprised by his own club's mediocre start, but not by the insurgent Twins and Mariners. "Money helps a team, but it's not everything," he said. "Minnesota has a strong starting rotation, good defense, and they have desire. The kids there have grown up and are ready to play. Don't be surprised if they stick around. Seattle? Very solid: Good pitching, great defense and a great bullpen. They could be very hard to catch."

Of course, this is only mid-May, and the phenomena of spring have a peculiar way of evaporating in the heat of August. Witness the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers. They started with a 20-6 record, just like the 2001 Mariners (payroll: $75.6 million) and were nowhere to be found come season's end. Witness the Cubs in any of a dozen seasons since World War II: They are the embodiment of June Swoon. With this in mind, Seattle ace Jamie Moyer -- a former Cub who's got a sparkling 5-1 record this year -- is cautiously optimistic: "We feel good about how we're playing," he said, "but we realize it's a very long season. We have to stay focused to turn this into something great."

Baseball could use something great. Certainly, the appearance of the Minnesota Twins or the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series this October would do wonders for the game. Americans -- even some Yankees fans -- love underdogs, and the spectacle of blue-collar players, earning relative blue-collar salaries, rising to the heights has a natural appeal, maybe even greater at a time when the Dow Jones is falling down a well. Ironically, even the game's fat cats have an interest, albeit an indirect one, in the success of so-called small-market teams. Should the Twins or Phils hold up this season, the George Steinbrenners and Rupert Murdochs of the baseball world will have a new argument against revenue-sharing -- the plan by which poor teams get a portion of profits from the rich ones -- and against a proposed salary cap in baseball. If Mientkiewicz and company can outscore A-Rod and company, they'd reason, then salaries don't matter and needn't be controlled.

They do matter, of course. At the dawn of the 21st century, payroll continues to rule baseball, despite the common man's fondest hopes to the contrary. If the Minnesota Twins, with their overheated desire and their empty pockets, were to win the World Series this year, it would be a miracle on the order of Cincinnati prevailing in the Super Bowl, Namibia carting off the World Cup or -- here's real pie in the sky -- any baseball team that competes at 5,280 feet keeping its pitching staff on the field and out of the loony bin through mid-September. The world can dream, but at the end of the day, the big dogs do the ass-kicking. So: Go, Twins! Go as far as you can. And if you wanna throw stuff at the Yankees, go ahead. But no more of your spare change. The Damn Yankees are well-paid enough.


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