#5: Minnesota's All-Star Isn't a Joke
After Kirby Puckett was forced to retire in the spring of 1996, the Twins hit a metaphorical and literal low. A perennial All-Star and link to the success of World Series years, his departure opened up a number of doors. Not all of which the Twins, or Twins fans, wanted open.
It meant, for instance, that Paul Molitor was the new number three batter. Which wasn't that bad. But it also meant that the most common number four and five hitters were Marty Cordova and Scott Stahoviak. It meant that talented veteran Roberto Kelly probably would have gotten a few more opportunities, but it also meant that a short lefty with a batting stance reminiscent of Al Newman got a few more opportunities as well.
Puckett's departure also meant the Twins were entering seasons where, many times, their lone representative at the mid-summer classic was there simply to represent the team. While Chuck Knoblauch wasn't a bad representative in 1996 and 1997, and Brad Radke was certainly an understandable choice in 1998 coming off his 20-win season, the low was obviously Ron Coomer in 1999. His hot start was great, but by the break he was hitting .282/.312/.458 with 11 homers and 37 RBI. Not exactly awe-inspiring.
But in 2000 our representative was Matt Lawton, that short lefty whose batting stance was reminiscent of Al Newman.
One of the greatest things about Lawton, and one of his greatest assets as a hitter, was his incredible eye at the plate. From 1997, when he became a regular, through 2002, the year after his departure from Minnesota, he walked more than he struck out, consistently posting an on-base percentage 100 points higher than his batting average.
As a Twin, there were two-and-a-half seasons where everything really came together for Lawton. The first was '98, the last was the first half of '01, but the second was his lone All-Star season with the Twins: 2000. Going into the break Lawton was scorching the earth with his .330/.432/.482 triple slash. He'd knocked out just six home runs, but he'd also ran up 28 doubles. He'd walked 59 times, struck out just 38 times, and had stolen 19 bases.
And so, in the All-Star game at the turn of the millenium, Lawton was buried on a bench full of outfielders. Carl Everett, Bernie Williams and Jermaine Dye were the starters, while Manny Ramirez, Magglio Ordonez and Darin Erstad joined him as reserves. Lawton was easily the least known of them all.
After Williams went 0-for-3, Lawton did actually get his opportunity to take the field, and trotted out to center to begin the bottom of the sixth. It was a quiet inning, and when he led off the top of the seventh he grounded back to the pitcher for an easy out.
Lawton's moment to shine came late in the game. With the American League clinging to a 3-2 lead, Lawton stepped in for his second plate appearance. Ray Durham was on third, Nomar Garciaparra on second. Facing future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, Lawton lined a single into right field to give the American League some much needed insurance. With Hoffman on the ropes Lawton stole second and then scored when, two batters later, Erstad reached on an error by Edgardo Alfonso.
Was it flashy? Well, the stolen base was. But he came up clutch and played a big role in opening the game up in the ninth, helping the AL route the NL late and come away with a 6-3 win. Because he tallied the fourth RBI, you could say it was the difference-maker.
Part of what made Lawton's appearance so special was that he, if you believe in this kind of thing, put the Twins on the national stage for a brief moment. Mired in losing seasons, things were just turning around for this club and Lawton was an early example of exactly that. He was in the middle of a great season and deserved his roster spot, and he came through off one of the best pitchers in the history of the game when it mattered the most. In some ways, what that moment meant in itself may have been more impressive that Lawton's performance.
Later today: Moment number four.