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ISSUE 120 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/6/2006

Inside the Lines: 2006: A Season for the ages

By Matt Tiano
Sports Editor

Friday, October 6, 2006

It was a scene that would have been better recognized as the clichéd sports movie: the dreadful beginnings, the astonishing turnaround and finally, the emotional, exhilarating finish.

On Sunday, the 2006 Minnesota Twins achieved the impossible, winning the American League Central on the final day of the regular season. This team won an unheard-of 71-of-104 games since June 8. Compiling a .684 winning percentage over that stretch, the Twins jumped ahead of the Detroit Tigers for the first time and avoided the bombastic Bronx Bombers in the first round of the divisional series.

While Twins supporters would have been content with a wild-card berth and a shot at the Yankees in the ALDS, Sunday meant much more to the team, its fans and the state.

It was the unremitting pursuit that put this group into exalted company. Every player knew his role and carried it out consistently.

When Shannon Stewart went down with a season-ending foot injury, Jason Tyner hit .312 and delivered outstanding defense in left field. After Rookie of the Year candidate Francisco Liriano went down with a disastrous elbow injury, Boof Bonser stepped up and racked up a 4-1 September record with a 2.63 ERA.

Lew Ford, the second-longest-tenured Twin, found his role to be in late-inning pinch-running situations for outdated and long-winded Rondell White.

Veteran catcher Mike Redmond caught once a week to relieve Joe Mauer from his defensive duties, but also produced offensively with a .341 average.

And who could forget Brad Radke, the man who threw five strong innings while surrendering only one run with a stress fracture in his right shoulder socket? A simple love for the organization and its fans dragged Radke to the mound that day, and the same will ring true this postseason.

The “Hunt for October” scoreboard at the Metrodome had 45,182 sets of eyes glued to it for nine innings, but for seven of those, it appeared as if the Twins were destined to represent the wild card.

But when the Royals rallied from six runs down, tying the score and briefly taking the lead, exuberant “"Let’s go Royals!"” cheers protruded from the Teflon Metrodome roof.

When Joe Nathan secured the 5-1 victory, a brief celebration at the mound was quickly followed by focused viewing of the Royals-Tigers game, now in extra innings.

Twins players congregated in the dugout, cheering right alongside their Metrodome faithful. When the Royals'’ Jeff Nelson got out of an 11th inning bases-loaded jam, screams of loyalty, passion and appreciation erupted into eternity at the request of the Twins players themselves.

Torii Hunter emerged from the dugout like a high school basketball player trying to engage the crowd. Luis Rodriguez'’s strikeout dance was priceless.

And this is what made Sunday such a special experience. The often-difficult aspect of being a professional sports fan is relating to our heroes and feeling that they somehow appreciate our presence. The sold-out Metrodome crowd felt it that Sunday, as fans enjoyed champagne and a victory lap of high fives and playoff fever.

The fervor even escaped the Metrodome. Driving on Highway 35W headed south, Homer Hankies obtruded car windows and horns blared with awe and excitement for 25 miles. The Minnesota Twins put an entire community on its back.

Being at Sunday'’s game was the single- most exciting and touching sports experience of my life. While the Twins do boast a (probable) Cy Young winner (Johan Santana), an AL batting champion (Mauer) and the best bullpen in baseball, historically I have learned my lesson in letting my emotions affect my postseason predictions. Whatever happens against Oakland in the ALDS and beyond, we know one thing: this group has given us more than we ever could have asked for.

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