- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

OAKLAND, Calif. Brad Radke, Cristian Guzman, David Ortiz and a handful of other Minnesota Twins were on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train Tuesday morning heading from their downtown San Francisco hotel to Network Associates Coliseum for the biggest game of their lives.

At least, that's where they thought they were going.

Eventually, someone looked out the window, saw the Oakland skyline disappearing over the rear horizon and understood the magnitude of what had just happened. Game1 of the American League Division Series was a couple hours away, and Minnesota's starting pitcher was on the wrong train.

In a moment that should have been greeted by panic, Radke couldn't help but recognize the sheer comedic nature of his predicament.

"I wasn't worried about being late," the right-hander said. "Hey, I didn't have to start warming up until 12:30."

It certainly helped that the Twins, despite some early-inning defensive blunders, came back to beat the Oakland Athletics in the franchise's first postseason game in 11 years. But there's something about this team that makes you think that even had it lost, it would have found time to laugh at its own expense.

"We've had guys go to the Astrodome, where they don't even play games anymore," first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said. "We've had guys go to Shea Stadium when we were playing at Yankee Stadium. You realize we haven't got the smartest group of guys."

No, no one's going to mistake them for a bunch of Mensa scholars, but what the Twins lack in mental aptitude is more than compensated by their clubhouse camaraderie. And given everything they've been through over the last 12 months, can you blame them for banding together with an "us-against-the-world" attitude?

It was Nov.6, 2001, just two days after Game 7 of the World Series, when commissioner Bud Selig announced plans to contract two teams before the 2002 season. Though it wasn't official, everyone knew the Twins were being tagged for extinction, along with the Montreal Expos.

A series of legal challenges helped ensure there would be baseball in Minnesota this season, and this summer's new labor agreement guaranteed there would be no contraction through 2006. But from the moment they gathered in Fort Myers, Fla., for spring training, the Twins had a clear purpose. They had to prove they deserved to exist.

"I know a lot of times in spring training they were pretty fired up about the whole situation," Radke said. "I think we did have something to prove out there this year, and a lot of guys took that to heart."

Mientkiewicz walked around the Twins' clubhouse last spring wearing a T-shirt with the word "Contraction" spelled out below a drawing of a baseball glove with one strategically placed finger extended into the air.

Players openly talked about sticking it to Selig, making him watch the World Series from the front row at the Metrodome. More than anything, this group of players who came up through the minors together talked about how much they wanted to enjoy this season and, in turn, how victory would become a product of that joy.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more laid-back, fun-loving clubhouse in baseball. Nothing is sacred and no one is immune to the pranks and practical jokes that take place seemingly every day.

"I've always said, 'You play this game, you better enjoy it while you have the chance,'" manager Ron Gardenhire told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "I've wanted to do this for a long time, and I want to enjoy it. I like a little bit of atmosphere in the clubhouse. I enjoy the stories, the talk, the practical jokes, as long as nobody gets killed."

They say a team takes on the personality of its manager. That couldn't be truer in the case of the Twins and rookie skipper Gardenhire.

A longtime coach under Tom Kelly, Gardenhire took over managerial duties during a winter of discontent and immediately put his personal stamp on the organization.

Gardenhire's practical jokes have become legendary. In his office at the Metrodome, he's got a slot machine that sends out an electric shock to anyone who tries to pull the handle. He also has a cage with a fake mongoose that leaps at unsuspecting visitors who move in for a closer look.

Tired of being the victim of Gardenhire's pranks, Minnesota closer Eddie Guardado attacked his manager with a shaving-cream pie during a television interview. Gardenhire's retaliation: He placed a live lobster on Guardado's right arm.

"That's the fun part of baseball having fun at the ballpark," the 44-year-old former infielder said. "You spend a lot of time together; you better be able to have fun together."

The Twins laugh together, and they win together. With a roster full of talented but obscure players at least to the majority of the baseball-watching public Minnesota cruised to a 94-67 record and clinched the AL Central crown just two weeks into September.

Utility man Denny Hocking had new T-shirts made to replace Mientkiewicz's. They read: "From Contraction to Champions."

And where some underdog teams would be content simply to make it to the postseason, the Twins say they want more. They surprised the A's to win Game1 of the Division Series and lost Game2 on Wednesday but return to the Metrodome today with a chance to finish off Oakland in one of the most intimidating venues in baseball for visiting teams.

"You hear people say we have nothing to prove," All-Star center fielder Torii Hunter said. "We have everything to prove. We want to win. We want to take it all the way. A lot of people say we have no chance; we have a big chance. I know we've never been here, we don't have any postseason experience, but we're ready to play."

Even Gardenhire shoves his jokester persona aside and turns serious when talking about his team's chances.

"We don't believe we are just showing up," he said in an impassioned moment of serious speech before Game1 this week. "We believe that we are here to play. A lot of people don't believe that, but we are here to play, not just show up. We are not a steppingstone."

After a brief pause, Gardenhire thinks about the dramatic oratory he has just uttered. And like the guys who took the wrong train to the ballpark, he manages to find humor.

"Wow," Gardenhire said. "That was good."

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