JIM THIELMAN: Twins Have A Bead On A Mardi Gras Season

The American League Central standings have barely shifted since the Cleveland Indians fell from a first-place tie with the Minnesota Twins on April 21. The turbulent April weather that could have crinkled a pitching staff has been forgotten. The Twins lead their division by 11.5 games.

It could become a Mardi Gras season.

This franchise has reached 100 wins just once in its 119 years. And that incandescent record came more than a half century ago, in 1965. The best the franchise had done before that was 99 wins in 1933, when the Twins were the Washington Senators.

How lame is that?

Three Major League Baseball teams won 100 games in 2017 and again in 2018, including the Houston Astros back-to-back. Fourteen of the current 30 franchises have reached the 100-win mark at least twice. The New York Yankees’ franchise debuted two years after the Senators. The Yanks have won 100 or more games 20 times. That’s more than once every six seasons.

The 2019 Twins are on breathless pace compared to the ’65 Twins. This club could win a franchise-record 103 or more games this season.

With a 40-18 record, this year’s team is four games ahead of the ’65 team, which was 36-22 at the same point in the season. That same “point” came June 18 back in ’65. The season didn’t begin in March back in the days when you won a pennant or went home.

Unlike this year’s team, after 58 games the ’65 Twins had a scant half-game lead in the 10-team American League.

Fans can’t do much but sit and watch the parade go by. It’s a good bet that’s why they draw comparisons to past teams that won big. It’s probably reassuring to convince themselves of the parallels between a World Series team and one that hopes to play in the World Series for the first time in nearly 30 years.

After moving to Minnesota from Washington in 1961, the Twins were known as a team that lofted baseballs into the cheap seats. Both the 1962 and 1963 teams hit more than 220 home runs. No other team in baseball hit 200 home runs in either season.

Fans associate home runs with that 1965 team. It was much the same power lineup, comprising Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Jimmie Hall, Don Mincher, Earl Battey and even a shortstop, Zoilo Versalles, who hit 19 home runs, rare for the position at the time. But that wasn’t a power team.

Killebrew was hurt for much of the season. As Paul Shaffer sang during Harmon Killebrew Night on David Letterman’s show in ‘86, “Harmon Killebrew … A long home run. A sharp line drive. A dislocated elbow back in ’65.” Killebrew led the team with 25 home runs as the group hit just 150 home runs. This year’s team might hit that many by July Fourth.

There won’t be any passionate intensity for this comparison, which has nothing do with the success of the ’65 team. It won’t magically anoint this year’s Twins with a special power. But both the 1965 and 2019 Twins carried three catchers. That’s rarer in the game today than it was decades ago. Why the Twins carried that third catcher in ’65 is also rare.

John Sevcik was a fine college athlete and a smart man who made a very good living after baseball, but not much of a living in the game. For the local angle, Sevcik married Glenda Klipstein in Bismarck, before the ’65 season. Sevcik was a 23-year-old catcher on the 1965 Twins team. Barely.

When a team signed a player for $8,000 or more in that era, that player had to stay with the big league club all season. Other clubs had a chance to claim him if demoted. The bonus that Twins’ owner Calvin Griffith had paid to Sevcik — a collegiate football and baseball standout at Missouri — triggered that possibility.

Griffith insisted that Sevcik not be demoted. Manager Sam Mele knew that didn’t mean he had to let Sevcik play. Sevcik played so little that it’s fair to say the Twins won the ’65 pennant with a 24-man roster, rather than the allowed 25.

Sevcik spent seven seasons in pro ball. His only season in the Majors was 1965. He was all but Moonlight Graham from “Field of Dreams” fame. Sevcik played in 12 games, had 16 at-bats and one hit — a double. Until late September, the Twins’ 158th game of the season, Sevcik started only once. Mostly, he entered in the eighth or ninth innings the scant times his name appears in the box score.

Sevcik said his teammates treated him like any other, except when they ate out. He said his better paid teammates would often tell him to put away his money when the bill came.

Sevcik, pitchers Dave Boswell and Jim Merritt, along with Frank Quilici, were rookies on that team. Quilici started all seven games at second base in the ’65 World Series. Decades later, he said of the club, “You get that kind of talent put together and you usually get some explosions. But that was as fine a Major League team as you’ll ever find from a standpoint of camaraderie.”

So far, we’re told the 2019 Twins are also a happy bunch. Winning makes it easier to arrive at the clubhouse.

A baseball season unravels into long prose. It’s not a short story. Teams have collapsed before. But right now, at a record pace, the Twins are busting up clouds that have hung over Target Field for years.

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