There have been countless articles written about the Twins‘ failures this season.
Some blame the offense. Some blame the pitching. Some blame the injuries. Some blame Ron Gardenhire.
The reasons listed above are valid, but I really think it’s deeper than that. It is indicative of something that goes back even to the last few postseason failures and it is what makes teams successful at any level, be it high school, college, or professional.
Success, when it comes down to it, is first about getting the right people on the bus, then worrying about where the bus is going.
If you have the right people on the bus, no matter what direction it may turn, the right people will adapt and thrive in whatever conditions are presented before them, so long as the opportunity to proceed forward exists
If you worry about where the bus is going, you are going to build a team for that specific destination. If you stay on script and everything goes to plan (see 2010 Minnesota Vikings), you look like a genius. If not (see 2011 Minnesota Vikings), you look like a fool.
Unfortunately sports, like life, rarely follow any script. So success on any level then becomes a question of not how do we get there, but who can take us there.
The right people allow for flexibility to achieve goals and sustained growth even in the face of adversity. Emphasis on the destination leads to inflated expectations, pigeonholing players into exact roles and “all or nothing situations,” where the “chips are all pushed to the center of the table.”
It’s the reason we see teams regardless of level or sport, like the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Los Angeles Angels and the Atlanta Braves of the 90‘s; they contend each year regardless of obstacles like injury, personnel turnover and bad luck.
Think of great sports dynasties in the past. They were never built with step one being win a championship.
They were built on two steps. Step one was find the right people, and step two was letting the right people take you to a championship.
Which brings me back to the Twins. What exactly are they missing then?
They have the superstars in Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. They have a competent coach in Gardenhire. They have quality role players throughout their roster. They have solid veteran leadership in the form of Jim Thome. The Twins have enough talent to compete, but something is missing.
The Twins are missing a certain toughness and grit; focus under pressure and a little bit of a mean streak.
The Twins are missing some foxhole guys.
If you were in a foxhole in dire circumstances, who are the guys you would want in there with you?
You want the guys who will always have your back, always stand up in the face of adversity, never give up and never give an inch. Some would categorize them as wild, crazy, emotional or intense. They are essentially unconscious on a mental level. They have short memories of what happened in the past instead of focusing on what is next. They play through injuries and have the same approach in game 22 as they do in 154 as they do in the playoffs.
These are the foxhole guys, and every successful team, no matter the level or the sport, needs a couple of them. See, foxhole guys aren’t necessarily the best player on your team. In fact, most times they are only above average.
Foxhole guys aren’t even necessarily always the best teammates, but they are always coveted by smart coaches and players.
You could never have a team of all foxhole guys. It would never work. It would be a never ending cycle of fights, 10-0 wins, 10-0 losses and guys who only play six seasons before their bodies break down.
But great teams need those guys to rub off on the great players.
And here is the dirty little secret of the Twins organization. Mauer is a great player, and by all accounts a great teammate, but he is NOT a foxhole guy. Neither is Cuddyer or Thome or Morneau or Nathan.
This year's club seems to dwell too much on what happened, worry too much about their own long term health, and are swayed by the grind of the season.
The Twins used to be a haven for foxhole guys.
Former GM Terry Ryan was adept at drafting and bringing in players he felt fit the “Twin Way” of character and fundamentals. Players used to pride themselves in being the scrappy underdogs who clawed for everything, but the cold fact now is that this team is no longer comprised of those players. The Twins aren’t a small market club anymore. Their payroll is in the top half of the league and the foxhole guys have been replaced by “five-tool players” with higher VORPs and aging free agents.
You know what play epitomizes a foxhole guy. In 2004, the Twins were being challenged in the second half of the season by an upstart Chicago White Sox team. The Twins had a couple game lead as they entered a crucial July series with the Sox. In the eighth inning of the first game of the series, with the Twins leading by two or three runs, Torii Hunter tagged up from third on a fly ball to the outfield.
As Hunter sprinted home, it became obvious the play was going to be close. Then in an instant, it happened. Hunter beat the throw and leveled the Sox catcher Jamie Burke, who was blocking the plate, in a bone rattling collision.
It wasn’t dirty. It wasn’t cheap. But there was a reason behind it.
“That was a message," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said at the time. "Whether it was dirty or not, I can't tell because I haven't seen the replay. But I know if that had happened for my side, I'd be high-fiving my players. If they don't like it, fine. But that's a message. That's the way I learned how to play the game. That's the way I want them to play the game."
Hunter got up immediately, stood over the fallen White Sox catcher and walked to the dugout. The Twins went on to win that night and sweep the series in Chicago.
That play both metaphorically and physically eliminated the White Sox from contention that year.
That's a foxhole play.
So you tell me, who on this year’s team would do that?