Historically, who are the Twins biggest rivals?
Nope, not the White Sox. They’ve the rivals now, but that’s a recent development. They just weren’t good enough before this last decade. Really, what drives that rivalry is the obnoxious fans. (Oh, and their loudmouth starting left-handed pitchers. I haven’t forgotten you Mark Buehrle.) There's nothing scarier than a couple of shirtless father-and-son White Sox fans.
The Indians are probably your next guess, because the Twins have a nasty beanball history with them. But for most of the Twins history the Indians weren’t in their division. And once they were, the Indians were dominant (the 90s), followed by the Twins being dominant. (the 00s) We haven’t seen much back-and-forth there.
The Tigers also joined the Twins division in the mid-90s. I suppose you could get fired up about the 1987 ALDS, but that was a sweep by the Twins. And since joining the AL Central, the Tigers were mostly pathetic up until a few years ago. It’s been fun to dance with them in 2006 and 2009, but that's because we won, and that’s as far back as the rivalry goes.
Instead, the team that seems to rise and fall with the Twins isn't in their division any more. It’s the Oakland A’s. At the end of the 1960s the Twins were battling them for the division, with the Twins winning it in 1969 and 1970 and the A’s then dominating the early 70s. And the rivalry became especially feisty back then because Billy Martin was involved.
While most people remember Martin as a manager of the Yankees or A's, he started his coaching career with the Twins. In 1969 as the Twins manager, he made sure he sent a message to the rival A's:
This is an excerpt from a new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers by Chris Jaffe. I've seen several excerpts, which have been fantastic. You can find the following in a longer excerpt here and you can order it here.
Minnesota hosted Oakland over Fourth of July weekend, with the A’s leading the Twins by a game heading into the three-game series. In the first contest, the Twins exploded with an 8-0 lead after four innings. Rather than relax, Martin rubbed it in so everyone would know who was the big dog in the division. Martin twice ordered Tovar to steal second base even though the lead was safely iced. After his last steal, Tovar took such a big lead at second that Oakland’s pitcher tried to pick him off. In frustration, he instead threw the ball into center. The rattled hurler immediately surrendered back-to-back doubles to the Twins, who romped to victory.
Seeking revenge, the A’s beaned Minnesota’s leadoff batter the next day, which played right into Martin’s hands. The beaning rallied Minnesota’s troops, who scored four runs before the first out was recorded in what proved to a 13-1 blowout. A come-from-behind victory the next day solidified their new division lead, which they never relinquished the rest of the season. Martin had not played to win; he came to castrate.
Martin’s unsporting conduct potentially could motivate the opposition to try harder. Martin never cared about the downside, though. He knew repeated humiliation would cause the opponent’s morale to collapse, while these tactics gave his team more confidence in their future fights. Prior to that series Minnesota had gone 5-4 against Oakland on the season. From that series onward, they won eight of nine games, outscoring the A’s 85-37 in the process. In those future showdowns, Martin asserted Minnesota’s supremacy by intentionally baiting Oakland. He once had a batter steal a base with the team leading 14-4 in the seventh inning. In their final showdown, Minnesota swiped a base when up by six runs. Animals who mark their territory by urination were subtler than Martin.
As the Twins rose again in the 80s, you’ll recall that the other superpower in the division was the A’s, fueled by the Bash Brothers. From 1987 through 1992 the only two teams to with the AL West were the Twins and the A’s.
That final year the race was especially close. With a 60-38 record, the Twins had a chance to deliver a knockout punch to the second place A’s, who were three games back when they visited the Metrodome in late July. Instead, the A’s swept the Twins, including a 5-4 loss in which Rick Aguilera gave up a 3-run home run in the ninth inning. The Twins were swept again in Oakland later that year, and finished the year in second place, six games back.
And in the last decade, even though they were in different divisions, the two team still butted heads. On the field they met in the playoffs twice, with each team knocking the other out in one ALDS series. And off the field, you had the two little engines that could, the low-revenue darlings of either the sabremetric or traditional crowd.
That's three generations of Twins teams that successfully made their way to the postseason, and in each case they needed to tangle with the A's. By most measurements, this should be what makes a rivalry.