MINNEAPOLIS — Ten years ago, approaching a promising 2002 season, the Minnesota Twins nearly had their franchise wiped out.
Then they finished three wins short of the World Series.
"It was one of those 'take that' kinds of things," said manager Ron Gardenhire, reflecting on his first year running the team. "Take that, baseball."
Gardenhire's bunch of outspoken, scrappy, prank-prone characters used strong chemistry, the best defense in the majors and a relatively weak division to win 94 games and reach the playoffs for the first time since the 1991 championship season.
The Twins will mark the 10-year anniversary of that team as part of their home opener festivities on Monday, when they host the Los Angeles Angels to start their third season at Target Field. Doug Mientkiewicz, Eddie Guardado, Brad Radke, Jacque Jones, Corey Koskie and Denny Hocking are scheduled to take part in a pregame rally downtown, throw out ceremonial first pitches and lead the singing during the seventh-inning stretch.
After a plan hatched by baseball's owners to get rid of the Twins and the Montreal Expos for financial reasons was thwarted in a Minnesota court, they became the sport's classic overachievers by reaching the American League championship series with a bargain-store budget. A young group of players drafted and developed by the organization that learned and matured together in the minors began to flourish at just the right time, making Twins games a popular way to spend a summer night again in Minnesota.
"We had an attitude," said first baseman Mientkiewicz, now a hitting coach in the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league system. "We finally got good, and we knew what we were walking into. We were like, 'You can't take that away from us now.'"
Gardenhire was given the job before he knew whether the job would still exist.
"We're very proud of this baseball team, and it was a slap in the face to say we were going to get contracted," he said. "The expectations from the outside world weren't that high, but we all felt pretty good about ourselves, so we just ran with it."
The Twins love their reunions, having held several celebrations of their 1987 and 1991 championship teams over the years at milestone anniversaries. The 2002 team didn't win a title. But purely from a popularity standpoint, it's up there with any in the franchise. And considering the dark contraction cloud that hung over their heads entering that season, their accomplishments were remarkable.
The Angels are a fitting opponent for this event. Outfielder Torii Hunter and reliever LaTroy Hawkins are with the Angels, 10 years after playing key roles for those Twins. Manager Mike Scioscia was in the dugout back then, too, when the Angels beat the Twins in the ALCS.
Hunter and Hawkins are part of a dwindling number of players from the 2002 Twins whose careers are continuing with other teams, along with Pierzynski, David Ortiz, Michael Cuddyer, Johan Santana, Kyle Lohse and J.C. Romero. Mientkiewicz, Jones, Hocking, Tom Prince and Matthew LeCroy are either managing or coaching around the minor leagues. The others have scattered about, but the memories remain strong. Many of them are close friends.
"When we broke that group up, I thought I'd never play with another group like that. That was a group that you really call family," said Guardado, the gritty All-Star closer from that team. "Not only that, but everyone contributed. We all picked each other up. We all got on each other and nobody took it personally."
Like the day during spring training when Koskie put peanut butter in an unsuspecting Ortiz's underwear and lined his pants with ice cubes.
"That team had everything. We cheered for one another. We spent so much time with one another that we didn't need to be told to do what to prepare," Mientkiewicz said. "We had our shortcomings on the field, but the fact that we were together and that we knew what to expect from the guy to our right and to our left won us a lot of games."
The Twins are trying to rediscover that spark, following a 63-99 finish in 2011.
They'll send Nick Blackburn to the mound on Monday, his first attempt to rediscover the rhythm he had his first two years in the majors. The last two seasons have been rough, the last one cut short by a forearm problem, and for a pitch-to-contact right-hander who can't strike many batters out he needs to get his sinker going against this imposing Angels lineup.
"We've got some talent, and I feel like we're going to be a competitive team," Blackburn said. "We've picked up a lot of guys after last season, and I feel like it's been a good change. I personally have confidence going in with this team."
The Twins will find out quickly whether that's true. The Angels are on their schedule nine times in the first 31 games. Two-time defending AL champion Texas comes to town after Los Angeles leaves, and a seven-game road trip to New York and Tampa Bay is followed by three games at home with Boston.
That's 16 of the first 19 games against five of the top six AL teams from last year. And that was before Albert Pujols joined the Angels.
C.J. Wilson was added, too, at the price of $77.5 million over five years. The lefty will make $10 million this season, and his first start for his new team will come Monday.
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