In Baseball, Hope Springs Eternal

The Minnesota Twins won the World Series in 1987 and 1991, but they haven’t been a serious contender since the early ’90s. Still, over the last decade or so the franchise has fielded a good, competitive team. Their typical pattern was to make the postseason, and then lose ignominiously to the Yankees. That wasn’t so bad, especially since, for the last few years, we have enjoyed the world’s best baseball stadium, Target Field.

But in 2011 the bottom dropped out. Due to inept starting pitching and a power drought–a perennial Twins problem–the only suspense during the last two years has been whether the team would lose 100 games. This year the Twins are better, but still playing below .500.

But baseball is all about hope. Years ago, I read a quote by a New York sportswriter named Dick Young. Baseball owners don’t understand their product, he said. They think they’re selling entertainment, but they’re not. They’re selling religion.

Which is to say, faith. And hope. Here in Minnesota, hope has been rekindled by the most exciting group of young prospects since Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti and others were tearing up AAA ball. Some of those youngsters–Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia, to name two–are already with the big club. But the real excitement has been in the low minors. A massive, 20-year-old Dominican named Miguel Sano has been dubbed by some the best prospect in the minor leagues. He plays third base, although there is some concern he may outgrow that position, as he is already 6′ 5″. But man, the kid can slug the ball. Will he make Twins fans forget Harmon Killebrew? Time will tell.

Six months ago, if you had told a Twins fan that Sano might not be the top prospect in the Twins organization, you would have been scoffed at. But last year, with the second pick in the draft, the Twins chose an 18-year-old high school player named Byron Buxton. The kid, now just one year removed from high school baseball, is a phenom. Miguel Sano wears number 24, but it is Buxton, a center fielder with sensational speed and plenty of power, who looks like a 19 year old Willie Mays.

Is that an absurd claim? Normally you would say, sure. But Buxton is something special. In 57 games with the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels, he is hitting .342, with 7 home runs, 44 RBI, and an astonishing 59 runs–more than one per game. That is partly due to the fact that he has stolen 26 bases. Here in Minnesota, some people still remember Mays. His last stop before joining the New York Giants in 1951 was with the Minneapolis Millers. At age 20–one year older than Buxton is now–he was hitting .477 for the AAA Millers when the Giants called him up in May.

Is that an impossibly high standard? Of course. But Buxton has a flair for the dramatic. Last week he missed a couple of games with a jammed thumb, then returned to the Kernels’ lineup and went 5 for 6 with two triples and a double. With Buxton in the lineup, the Kernels are selling out Class A games. People are lining up to see him play. Last month, Byron hit a walk-off 9th inning grand slam:

Excitement about our young prospects is running high in the Twin Cities, so today the Twins broadcast a Kernels game live to give the fans a look at Buxton. Byron lived up to the occasion, making this running, diving catch in deep left-center field:

One year ago, he was playing for his high school team. Willie Mays? Nah, don’t be ridiculous.

Earlier today, the Twins announced that three players, including Miguel Sano and a hot second base prospect named Eddie Rosario, had been promoted to AA ball. Sano hit two home runs in his last Class A game. In his stay at Ft. Myers, he hit .330 and led the league with 16 home runs and 48 RBI.

Baseball is, really, all about hope. And these days, Twins fans have plenty of it. Who knows whether it will all come together for the team someday; apart from anything else, the Twins need a whole lot more pitching. But beneath the surface, the excitement is palpable. Hope does indeed spring eternal.

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