1984 was a landmark year in my life. Not in a revisionist Replacements/Husker Du/Prince way - I was six or seven years old when most of that was going down - but in a very literal, definitive sense that would shape my life forever.
1984 was the year that I fell in love with the Minnesota Twins.
In the summer of 1982, when I was four years old, I idolized my older cousin Eric. My imitation of him reached its apex when I discovered his baseball card collection. If Eric collected baseball cards, then I needed to collect them, too! He started me off by giving me some of his duplicates from the 1981 and 1982 Topps sets. I remember the first pack of cards that I got of my very own. At the Red Owl grocery store in St. Louis Park, I begged my mom to buy me a pack of baseball cards. She gave in, without possibly knowing the monster she would create. In the car, I ripped open the pack. No Twins. I was crushed. I probably cried, but I don't know for sure. My memories as a four year old are less than crystal clear. I did pull a Cal Ripken, Jr. rookie card out of that pack, which I still have, but having no concept of keeping the cards in mint condition at that age, the card is in pretty rough shape.
I would study the statistics on the backs of the baseball cards, though. Relentlessly. I taught myself how to read the box scores in the newspaper before my 5th birthday, just as I had taught myself to read Little Golden Books a couple years earlier. Despite missing an understanding on how baseball was actually played, I knew everybody's batting average and home run totals. The 1982 edition of the Twins were awful. In their first season inside the brand new Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the finished with 60 wins and 102 losses. The only Twins club to ever post a 100 loss season, the '82 Twins finished 33 games behind the first place California Angels.
However, there was still reason for optimism. Because of owner Calvin Griffith's all-about-the-bottom-line ownership style, his resistance to pay star players, the Twins fielded a team that featured over 15 rookies! In fact, 9 of the 12 players who reached 200 plate appearances on the 1982 Twins still had rookie status (second baseman John Castino and outfielders Gary Ward and Mickey Hatcher were the only veterans in that group). Many of the rookies on that squad never amounted to anything in the big leagues (Jesus Vega or Paul Boris anyone?) but six of them - Tom Brunansky, Randy Bush, Gary Gaetti, Kent Hrbek, Tim Laudner, and Frank Viola - would be the foundation of a team that would in just five years WIN the World Series!
While 1987 was arguably the greatest year in Twins history, I will argue here that the 1984 team should have given these young Twins their first taste of postseason play. Chances are they would have been swept out of the American League Championship Series just like the Western Division champion Kansas City Royals were, after all nobody was going to beat the Detroit Tigers in 1984, but the Twins should have had that opportunity. But they did not. And I put the blame for this on one man.
Ronald Gene Davis.
Four games into the 1982 season, the Twins traded their best player, shortstop Roy Smalley, to the New York Yankees for Ron Davis and two minor league prospects. As it turns out, without this trade the Twins would likely not have won in 1987 as one of those minor league prospects was Greg Gagne, who would become the reliable shortstop of both the 1987 and 1991 World Champion teams. (Smalley would also return to the Twins in 1985 and became an important role player on the 1987 team as a designated hitter, pinch hitter, and backup infielder in his final major league season.) But Gagne was still in Triple-A ball for all but two games of 1984 while Ron Davis was throwing away the Twins first division championship since 1970, gopher ball after gopher ball.
At the time of the trade, Roy Smalley was just over three years removed from his 24 home run, 95 RBI All-Star season of 1979 - extraordinary power numbers for a middle infielder in that era - and was still regarded, along with Brewers' Hall of Famer Robin Yount, as one of the two best hitting shortstops in the American League. (It was, after all, still early in Cal Ripken's rookie season and Detroit's Alan Trammell had not yet developed the power that turned him into a perennial All-Star throughout the '80s.)
The Davis-Smalley trade was not one of Calvin Griffith's typical cost-cutting deals. Griffith's thrifty ways throughout the 70's, accellerated by the introduction of free agency to the game, had cost the Twins Larry Hisle, Bill Campbell, Dave Goltz, and Geoff Zahn, to name a few, with no compensation. Much like today's Twins, it became a given that the team's best players would eventually price themselves out of the team's budget. This started with 1976's trade of Bert Blyleven to the Texas Rangers (for, ironically, a young Roy Smalley and a few other prospects) and culminated in 1979's trade of franchise icon Rod Carew to the California Angels for prospects Kenny Landreaux, Dave Engle, Brad Havens and Paul Hartzell.
For the next four years, constant rebuilding way the Twins way. Landreaux was the prize of the Carew deal and the investment returned two solid seasons with the bat: a .305 batting average with 15 home runs, 83 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 1979 followed by a 1980 season where, although his numbers slipped across the board (.281-7-62-8, albeit in 22 fewer games) he set a team record that still stands with a 31-game hitting streak and was named to the AL All Star team. The 25 year old star's reward? A trade to the Dodgers for Mickey Hatcher and two other prospects who never sniffed the big leagues.
I hesitate to say the Twins traded all of their "stars" because the fact of the matter is they didn't have many, but here are other examples of the Twins trading their best players for younger and/or cheaper talent from 1979-1982:
- 12/4/78 ~ "Disco" Dan Ford to the Angels for Ron Jackson and Danny Goodwin
- 8/23/81 ~ Ron Jackson to the Tigers for Tim Corcoran
- 8/30/81 ~ Jerry Koosman to the White Sox for Ivan Mesa, Ronnie Perry, and Randy Johnson (no, not that Randy Johnson... this one!)
- 12/28/81 ~ Hosken Powell to the Blue Jays for Greg "Boomer" Wells
- 5/12/82 ~ Doug Corbett and Rob Wilfong to the Angels for Tom Brunansky, Mike Walters and cash
- 5/12/82 ~ Butch Wynegar and Roger Erickson to the Yankees for John Pacella, Larry Milbourne, Pete Filson and cash
Unlike any of these other trades, the Smalley-Davis trade was different because the Twins actually did receive a bona fide major league player. Sure, Ron Jackson and Landreaux were decent enough before they were jettisoned themselves, Pete Filson was a nice left arm out of the bullpen for a couple years, and the Brunansky acquistion would turn out to be one of the better trades in Twins history. But Davis had in fact been named to the American League All Star team in 1981 as a setup man for Goose Gossage. While it's more common today, it was rare back then for a middle relief pitcher to earn an All Star selection, but the Goose had perhaps the finest season of his Hall of Fame-worthy career with a 0.77 ERA and 20 saves in the strike-shortened season and Davis' selection to the All Star team was probably just as much a reward for his combined 23 wins in relief over the two previous seasons and Gossage's remarkable year as it was for his solid 1981 numbers (4 wins, 2.71 ERA, 83 strikeouts in 73 innings, and 6 saves of his own), but clearly R.D. would have been closing on many major league teams.
In 1982, Davis finally got his chance to be a closer when he threw on that #39 Twins uniform. Even if he didn't look the part - with his large bifocals and greasy hair you could have thrown an argyle sweater on him and called him your math teacher... hardly the intimidating look of Gossage's mustache and chops or the bushy black beards and steely-eyed stares of Bruce Sutter and Jeff Reardon - he fared decent. His 4.42 ERA was high, but I've always thought that was an overrated stat, especially for relievers. He did serve up 16 homeruns out of the bullpen, which I suppose should have probably raised a red flag, but in '82 balls were flying over the fences at the Dome at a record pace. (You didn't think it got the nickname "The Homerdome" from the likes of Scott Stahoviak and Pedro Munoz, did you?) But Davis did save 22 games in 27 opportunities for a team that won only 60 games and had NOTHING in front of him in the bullpen.
In 1983, Davis was even better. It was easily his best year as a closer as he finished third in the league with a career high 30 saves, posted a 3.34 ERA (his best as a Twin), cut down his home runs allowed to only six and, most importantly, only blew three save opportunities all season. 1983 may have been the finest season of Ron Davis' career, and he surely would've been given All Star consideration again if he were pitching for a contender. The Twins improved their team record by 10 games in 1983, finishing at 70-92. Still pathetic, but definitely improving. At this point it was obvious that they had a very talented young nucleus of hitters, and while the starting rotation was still full of holes behind a still-unreliable young Frank Viola and the surprising Ken Schrom, the bullpen actually had a pretty solid year with Rick Lysander, Len Whitehouse and Pete Filson all posting respectable numbers in front of Davis.
1984 is most notable in Twins history for two things, and rightly so. #1. May 8, 1984, the Twins insert a skinny rookie named Kirby Puckett into the starting lineup, batting leadoff and playing center field. He ties a major league record by recording four hits in his first game. #2. September 7, 1984, Calvin Griffith finalizes the sale of the Twins to Carl Pohlad.
So why wasn't it also notable for a division championship? Good question. I believe the Twins saw a weak AL Western Division in which they thought they could compete with their hitting and bullpen and that facilitated the trade of All Star left fielder Gary Ward to the Texas Rangers for starting pitchers Mike Smithson and John Butcher. 1984 was Viola's breakthrough year as he posted 18 wins and a 3.21 ERA, established himself as the ace of the Twins staff, and as one of the top left-handed pitchers in all of baseball. Smithson and Butcher both came through with career years in '84 as both accumulated well over 200 innings pitched, both posted double-digit win totals, and both had sub-4 ERAs (15 wins, 3.68 ERA for Smithson; 13 wins, 3.44 ERA for Butcher).
Offensively, Hrbek led the team with the best all-around numbers of his career (career-best .311 batting average, 27 home runs, career-best 107 RBI... I love Kent Hrbek - he may be my all-time favorite player - but he really did waste his talent... these are the types of numbers he was capable of putting up every year). Brunansky led the team with 32 home runs, but Gaetti's power numbers took a mysterious nosedive as he totalled only 5 home runs despite playing in every game. (It was the only season from 1982 to 1988 where Gaetti failed to homer 20 times! Really weird stat.) Gaetti's lack of production, as well as the loss of Ward's big bat, and the forced retirement of second baseman Castino due to chronic back pain was made up for in solid seasons from Mickey Hatcher, Dave Engle, and rookie second baseman Tim Teufel. Puckett was, of course, the catalyst with a .296 average, a team leading 14 stolen bases, and a soon-to-be-golden glove in center field.
The Twins finished with a .500 record in 1984. 81 wins and 81 losses. They tied with the Angels for second place in the AL West, just three games behind the Royals. It was their first finish of .500 or better since 1979 and a record that was unthinkable only two years earlier.
As a seven year old, I was on top of the world. I loved baseball more than anything and I had an exciting, young, competitive hometown team with great personalities like Kirby, Herbie, Bruno, the G-Man, and Sweet Music. But now, as a 28 year old, I'm pissed off. The division was theirs for the taking and Ron Davis cost them the pennant.
How did he do this? Well, Davis finished with 29 saves in 1984 - good enough for fifth in the American League. Ron Davis also blew 14 saves. 14. RON DAVIS BLEW 14 SAVE OPPORTUNITIES IN ONE SEASON! Think about that for a minute! I know I can not assume that the Twins ended up losing all 14 of those games. Giving Davis the benefit of the doubt, when a closer gives up the tying run it constitutes a blown save regardless of if his team comes back to win or not. So let's just assume that the Twins were able to come back and win a couple of those games. The stats tell me that they probably didn't, though. Because Ron Davis tallied 11 losses in 1984. Do you have any idea how difficult it is for a relief pitcher to hit double-figures in losses? The numbers do not lie, though. Davis posted 11 losses in 1984. He gave up 11 home runs as a closer, he led the team with eight wild pitches (I'd like to see a list of closers who have led their teams in that statistic... I can't imagine it's a long one), he lost 11 games and he blew 14 saves. In 1983 and again in 1985 Davis blew only three opportunites each year. Had he been able to keep that pace in '84 and blow only three that year as well, we are potentially talking about 11 more wins for the Twins - a 92-70 record that would have buried the Royals eight games back! And while that is a big hypothetical, let's just imagine if Davis were able to cut his blown saves in half. A 88-74 finish would have still put the Twins four games ahead of the Royals and into the playoffs.
Ron Davis, more than anyone else, is responsible for the Minnesota Twins missing the playoffs in 1984.