You may remember that a bit over two weeks ago, CBS Sports' Jon Heyman ran with a story in which he used quotes from Michael Cuddyer and (especially) Torii Hunter in which they claimed that other Twins (not themselves, certainly, which makes it a bit strange that Heyman termed it an "admission" several times) were "psyched out" by the Yankees, and that's why they lost all those playoff series. The centerpiece of the post was a story told by Hunter in which, during the 2004 Division Series, a certain right-handed hitter refused a pinch-hitting assignment against Mariano Rivera, too scared to pick up a bat, forcing lefty Jason Kubel to take the assignment instead.
That young righty is anonymous in the current version of the post, becuase (as TCM recounts here) many of us pointed out to Heyman that that story couldn't possibly have happened the way Heyman told it. But when first published, it quoted Hunter as explicitly naming Lew Ford as the scaredy-pants pinch hitter that wasn't. Which seemed really unfair to Ford, since it didn't happen and no one at CBS Sports could be bothered to take thirty seconds and check. So I wondered how Mr. Ford himself would feel about all this.
And as it happens, I could find out! Ford, now 35, is entering his second consecutive season (and third overall) as an outfielder for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League, for whom he hit .318/.406/.531 in 72 games in 2011.
I reached out to him by email around the time that Heyman published the post in question, and he was nice enough to take the time to reply (twice) over this past weekend. Here's what he had to say (tweaked slightly to make it read better, with his permission, but with content unchanged):
My first question was, "As far as you can remember, is there any truth to Mr. Hunter's story? If so, what's the real story?" I also asked (his answers bleed together a bit) whether he had ever heard of anyone turning down a pinch-hitting assignment like that, and whether he thought the 2003 and 2004 Twins really were intimidated by the Yankees.
Lew Ford: NO. I had my first at-bat off Mariano in 2003, and it was my only AB of the playoffs, and a pinch hit. In 2004, the game Torii was talking about [ALDS Game 2], I did not start that game -- Kubel did. I was not happy I was benched, as I was an important part of the team that year, but I didn't say anything and tried to be the best teammate I could.
I prepared myself for that very situation where I may be needed as a pinch hitter, runner, or defensive replacement. The entire game, I stood right beside Gardy, waiting for him to call on me. He never did.
You can look up those stats. Kubel had a bases-loaded, one-out situation where Torre brought in a right handed pitcher, [Tom] Gordon, to face Kubel so that I would not come in the game as a pinch hitter. He ended up striking out. I played all the other games that series.
I was never psyched out by the Yankees; in fact, I wanted to beat them even more, because they were the Yankees and had the best players. I'm not sure who was psyched out from the Twins. I remember why we lost that series, and anyone that watched it and watched us during the regular season will know what was different and what happened.
It's the playoffs. I want to win. I had always won before that and expected to win everytime I went out there.
I have to note that I can't find the instance referenced in the third paragraph above: Kubel faced Gordon only once, in a game Ford started, and doubled. He may be referring to Paul Quantrill being brought in to face Kubel in the 12th inning of Game 2, when Ford would've been available against a lefty, assuming one remained in the Yankees' pen by that point. Kubel grounded into a fielder's choice, in what ended up being the Twins' final chance in that loss.
I was intrigued by Ford's slightly cryptic "what was different and what happened" sentence, so I asked him for more detail on that, explaining that as someone who did watch them during both the regular season and the playoffs, it seemed to me that the Yankees were just a better team, at least for that week or so. Here was his response:
LF: They had better players, but I thought we were the better team. We had a better pitching staff. We were ahead in at least two of the games we ended up losing. After game 1, I doubt anyone on the team was thinking we were going to lose the series. I'll leave it at that, and watching the games, you can see what happened.
My initial email also asked him, because it seemed highly relevant to whatever his answer was going to be to the first question: "More generally, how would you describe the Twins' atmosphere and culture during those years?"
LF: I loved playing for the Twins. Gardy was the best manager in the league, and the coaching staff over there was top of the line. Gardy kept the clubhouse atmosphere light and comfortable, and got the most out of his players. I learned so much there from the way he and the staff handled the bullpen, the bench, the practices, and the games. They teach you how to play the game the right way and to be fundamentally sound. That's the most important thing.
You can draw your own conclusions from Mr. Ford's responses. I get the following impressions: (1) Hunter invented a story from whole cloth, or conflated several stories, or misremembered the year and the identity of the coward (though if it happened in 2003, the only other Twins-Yankees series Hunter was there for, Ford would've been there too, and would probably have at least heard the story before); (2) as of 2004, according to Ford, there was no sense at all that the Twins were "psyched out" by the Yankees -- quite the opposite, really; and (3) it's really hard to remember the specific details of something that happened at your job eight years ago, even if your job is televised (so Hunter deserves a lot of slack for getting the facts wrong, though not for throwing a teammate under the bus based on those wrong facts).
As for the unnamed culprit in the series loss? The analyst in me still wants to say the Yankees were simply better (they did win nine more games than the Twins did, playing in a significantly tougher division), but my own best guess as to the cause Mr. Ford refers to (assisted by TCM and one or two others) is that the bullpen let the team down: Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon and J.C. Romero combined to throw 228 2/3 regular-season innings with a 2.60 ERA; in the Division Series, they threw 9 1/3 innings with a 6.75 ERA.
But that's just my own guess. At any rate, I'm grateful to Mr. Ford for taking the time to answer my questions.