Detroit - While we weren't looking and couldn't hear
anything but George Steinbrenner, the American League Central season took a
quiet U-turn in the quiet of All-Star Wednesday while the quiet main character
quietly ate lunch at the Roaster N Toaster on Dixie Highway in his hometown,
Shannon Stewart's cell-phone screen showed a call from his agent, so he
dialed back, whereupon he learned that the struggling Toronto Blue Jays had
traded him to the struggling Minnesota Twins, whereupon a nation reacted with
utter silence, fittingly somehow.
Voila. The 44-49 Twins became 90-72, but meanwhile, "You hardly know he's
here," former Met Rick Reed said of Stewart. "You hardly know he's here."
You hardly know, Reed hastened to rave, except on the basepaths of America,
where Stewart has parlayed his .322 Minnesota batting average and his
steadfast student-of-the-game ethic into roaming and disrupting and altering a
season's tone and generally playing himself into press-box Most Valuable Player
discussions, while not prone to discussion himself.
Along with breakthrough 24-year-old lefthander Johan Santana, he's the
reason that the Twins who will start an American League Division Series
tomorrow afternoon at Yankee Stadium differ fundamentally from the Twins who
went a lambasted 0-7 against the Yankees in April.
Everybody will tell you this except Stewart, who will say little except "I
mean, it makes you feel good." In a culture obsessed with home runs, a leadoff
hitter redecorates the Metrodome.
It's just one more installment in one of the more unusual baseball
biographies, which begins with the 29-year-old Stewart's early childhood spent
playing soccer. Soccer, as it happens, bestows body awareness that comes in
handy on other playing surfaces, or so went the demonstrably astute thinking of
Stewart's father, Harold. So the ludicrously talented forward would bolt
through the other kids like, like ...
"No," Stewart grins. "Pele."
And he would come to idolize Magic Johnson, play basketball until his high
school coach foolishly told him he had to quit other sports, take up defensive
back in football, and welcome a visit from that Mom-charmer of all recruiting
Mom-charmers, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.
"Nice dude," Stewart says, but adds, "I didn't get on the field with him,
and that's how most of them are, nice, until they get on the field."
The baseball scouts flocked to Miami Southridge Senior High games, and they
would clock this Stewart going from home to first, and as fact mixed with
legend has it, they would quibble amongst themselves over the veracity of their
stopwatches with readings like 3.75 and 3.9.
Stewart starred but, his coach Jeff Curry says, "If we asked him to
sacrifice bunt, he would do it without giving you that dirty look."
By June of 1992, Toronto took him with the 19th overall draft pick, 13
places after the Yankees took Derek Jeter.
Then this multi-mega-sport star who also snared some track-and-field
trophies had to say a polite no- thank-you to Bowden - as a "Spartan Patrol"
student hall monitor in his enormous school, he majored in polite - and head
for baseball, where his career somehow grew quiet, which might matter more than
we think. "He hasn't been a person that demands the limelight and, you know,
at times I think that's hurt him," Curry said. "With Toronto, he never got his
due. It seemed like they always promoted other guys like Jose Cruz Jr., who to
me is a .240 hitter. They always seemed to think somebody else was going to be
the next coming of Mickey Mantle, when they had a ballplayer right in front of
them, and it just seemed like they never gave him the credit."
Fighting through injuries of a maddening variety, he finally reached the
big leagues in 1995, but missed his first start while stuck in the wretched
Chicago traffic. He climbed by 1998 to fulltime status in the quiet country
north of the quiet border, and registered 3,450 at-bats for Toronto with a .303
batting average while known only to the baseball nuts, and sometimes not to
One day, Reed witnessed Twins manager Ron Gardenhire telling Stewart, "I
knew you were good, but I didn't know you were this damn good."
As such, the trade wrought shrugging or worse, lampooned even in venerable
corners of the Twin Cities media. The other end of it, popular outfielder Bobby
Kielty, arrived in Toronto and homered and had two other hits the first night.
But bit by exemplary bit, Stewart began his quiet influence on the Twins, who
came to lead baseball's second half in total hotness.
You could spot the patience at the plate.
"When he got here," reliever LaTroy Hawkins said, "you'd start to see guys
taking better at-bats."
You could spot the preparation.
"I'll tell you, I know between every at-bat and, I know, at home, he's been
practicing his swings, or he's looking at videotapes of his last at-bat," Reed
said. "The guy studies the game, and he's the only guy I've seen actually do
that on a regular basis. This guy, if he hits a double, he wants to have a
triple. It's never enough. That's the way it's been since he's been here."
You could spot the Twins steadily erasing that 7�-game deficit at the break
to clinch the division last Tuesday night. "Shannon's been, you know,
instrumental in a lot of ways," Gardenhire said.
For emphasis on a leadoff hitter's general influence, Reed said, "Look at
So it happens that, two years after the Twins served as potential
contraction victim, one year after they acquired the commissioner's galling
"aberration" label when they took their meager payroll to the 2002 Final Four,
they're fairly thrilled. Gardenhire's managerial career: two seasons, two
division titles. Unlike last year, which Gardenhire recalls as so stressful he
can't recall much about it, he's dwelling on the fun this time.
He sees the Yankee scouts in the stands - "They're the ones with the big
diamond rings. Those diamond rings have bothered some of our outfielders" - and
he remembers how then-Mets manager Joe Torre kept him around camp until the
end of 1981 spring training "'cause I'd get him coffee."
Now he likes looking over at Torre and Don Zimmer and wondering what
they're thinking over there. He remembers "those eyes" of Torre's, and: "Very
father-like, putting his arm around you and saying, 'Put that in your memory
bank, don't let that happen again, kid.' Very calming."
He can kid around about Opening Day at Yankee Stadium even while calling
the experience "pretty traumatic. We made Matsui a hero right away," he says of
Hideki's debut grand slam that dominated the news reports in Tokyo. "I walked
Bernie Williams to get to Matsui, a grand slam. So I kind of helped 'em out a
He grins. He won't bring up Minnesota's 0-for-13 showing against the
Yankees the past two seasons because, he says, "Everyone else will. We don't
even have to talk about them. Hell, it's 13 games. That's the number. A 13-game
set-up for two years, now it's time to go after 'em."
All this, with a team that tottered into the All-Star break with six wins
in 28 games and had its manager reciting statistics of past teams that made
positive U-turns. Then came a quiet trade, along with Santana going 8-1, and
now the Twins aim to reveal their dissimilarities from what they were in April.
"Well, you know," Hawkins said, "we're definitely a different team.
Mentally. A little bit stronger. A little bit more focus. Everybody's talking
about what the Yankees did to us, but at the beginning of the season, everybody
was doing that to us."
"That's what makes baseball fun," Gardenhire said. "We're already hearing
that we have no chance. What's better than that?"
"I mean, it makes you feel good if your teammates tell you you're part of
this," Shannon Stewart says, three months after retrieving his messages.
Twins' Starting Lineup
Pos. Name 2003 Salary
C A.J. Pierzynski $365,000
1B Doug Mientkiewicz $1.75 million
2B Luis Rivas $340,000
3B Corey Koskie $3.4 million
SS Cristian Guzman $2.525 million
LF Shannon Stewart $6.2 million
CF Torii Hunter $4.75 million
RF Dustan Mohr $315,000
DH Jacque Jones $2.75 million
SP Johan Santana $335,000
SP Brad Radke $8.75 million
SP Kenny Rogers $2 million
SP Kyle Lohse $330,000
RP Eddie Guardado $2.7 million
Mgr. Ron Gardenhire $450,000
Yankees' Starting Lineup
Pos. Name 2003 Salary
C Jorge Posada $8 million
1B Jason Giambi $11.4 million
2B Alfonso Soriano $800,000
3B Aaron Boone $3.7 million
SS Derek Jeter $15.6 million
LF Hideki Matsui $6 million
CF Bernie Williams $12.4 million
RF Karim Garcia $900,000
DH Nick Johnson $364,000
SP Mike Mussina $12 million
SP Roger Clemens $7 million
SP Andy Pettitte $11.5 million
SP David Wells $3.25 million
RP Mariano Rivera $10.5 million
Mgr. Joe Torre $5 million
Twins' Opening Day payroll: $55,605,000
Yankees' Opening Day payroll: $149,710,995
SOURCE: AP, ESPN COMPILED BY JIM BAUMBACH