Archive for category Minnesota Twins

A Twins Fan Again!

bremerblyleven

In 1970 at the age of ten I became a serious Twins fan.  I kept a scrapbook, including a story from the Minneapolis Tribune about a 19 year old rookie named Bert Blyleven who looked “too young to shave yet.”   By the time I was 13 I was keeping score and kept a notebook with info from all the games, including who hit homeruns, the pitcher of record, and if there was a save.  I’d listen to Herb Carneal call the game, glued to the radio.

My first live game was  a double header against the Oakland A’s in 1973.  That was the A’s heyday with Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Gene Tenace, Catfish Hunter, etc.  The A’s would win their second world series in a row that year, but the Twins had their number, winning 14 of the 18 games they played.  That included the two I saw, with the second being exciting.  After starter Jim Kaat was knocked out of the game early, a rookie named Bill Campbell came in and pitched brilliantly as the Twins caught up.  In the 10th Tony Olivia would double and George Mitterwald hit his second home run of the game to win 7-5!

As a kid I thought the outside of the old Met stadium was absolutely beautiful!

As a kid I thought the outside of the old Met stadium was absolutely beautiful!

In 1987 I was in grad school at the University of Minnesota, following the team as Gary Gaetti, Kirby Puckett, Dan Gladden, Frank Viola, Bert Blyleven, Tom Brunansky and Kent Hrbek led an unexpected drive to the Twins first world championship.  In 1986 they had been last in their division.   Nothing can replicate that experience for Twins fans – the first championship (unless you count when they were the Washington Senators in 1924), unexpected, with a core group that had come up through the farm system and endured some rough years.

Then four years later, in Berlin Germany to do research, I listened to every game of the 1991 series as Vin Scully and Johnny Bench called the play by play carried over Armed Forces radio.   In the wee hours of the morning as Jack Morris pitched ten scoreless innings and Gene Larkin hit a game winner I was jumping around the apartment I was in, thrilled!

This all ended in 1995.  I got a job in Maine, loaded a Ryder truck and took off.  I spent the summer in Europe, and as I threw myself into my new job and home, baseball seemed distant.  Moreover the 1994 strike and cancelled world series left a sour taste in my mouth.   Baseball seemed tarnished.   I was surrounded by Red Sox fans, and soon I lost track of the Twins.  Oh, the years they made the playoffs I would watch.   But I didn’t know the players or feel connected.  But now, 20 years later, I’m finally a Twins fan again.

This year I got Directv’s “extra innings” major league baseball package.  And so far I have managed to watch every one of the Twins first 25 games, albeit a few via DVR.  Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven are the announcers – the same Blyleven who was a rookie when I first started following the Twins .

Bert Blyleven as a rookie in 1970

Bert Blyleven as a rookie in 1970

It didn’t take long to get to know the team. Watching daily after following them somewhat close in spring training I am learning about each player.  It’s my team again.   The only bummer is a black hole in my Twins memory.  I can recall Steve Braun, Bobby Darwin, Larry Hisle, Ray Corbin, Danny Ford and a host of others former players, some good some utterly forgettable.  But there are twenty years of names – some very important – that are meaningless to me.  Still, I’m even learning those, bit by bit.

The game has changed some.  They’re really strict on the check swing rule now, pitchers are yanked earlier, even when pitching well, and I can’t believe how the fielders are shifting some hitters.   I like how they show the speed of every pitch as well as keeping the pitch count (which I used to do myself).   Still, it’s like coming home, reuniting with an old friend after 20 years, and realizing that you feel as close and connected as ever.

Jack Morris' ten inning shutout of the Braves in game 7 of the 1991 World Series remains one of the most celebrated individual baseball performances.

Jack Morris’ ten inning shutout of the Braves in game 7 of the 1991 World Series remains one of the most celebrated individual baseball performances.

My nine year old son is watching with me quite often.  I explain the game to him and he’s a quick study.  He impressed me after a runner was held at second by a ground out to short.  “Dad,” he said, ” you know, if you have a guy on second you should hit it on the other side, then he’d be able to get to third.”   So cool that my son, on his own, re-discovered one of the fundamentals of baseball.   “Yes,” I said, “that’s right – they say you should hit behind the runner.”  He thought about that and smiled, “I get it!”

It’s not just about baseball, or the Twins, it’s about my youth.  How often did I hear on the radio, “The Minnesota Twins are on the air!”  Followed by the jingle, “We’re going to win Twins, we’re going to score…”  Following Rod Carew’s quest to hit .400, every year thinking “this will be the year!”  Even now when short stop Danny Santana makes eight errors early in the season I think, “wow, he’s fielding like Danny Thompson back in the 70s.”

The 1987 World Series victory is a unique and cherished moment for every Twins fan

The 1987 World Series victory is a unique and cherished moment for every Twins fan

Seeing the fans in the stands at Target Field – a place I have not yet visited, but will with two sons on July 8th – has me remembering many games at the Dome and the old Met.  Back in grad school I’d often on rainy days get a $3 outfield bleacher ticket just to watch the game.

One of the more surreal experiences I had was at the Metrodome. It was 1986 and the Twins led the Angels. Ron Davis, their “ace reliever” (who that year blew almost all his save opportunities) was pitching and a storm outside caused the roof to tear and the dome to start to collapse.  People went running for the exits, one lady screamed and pushed me aside as she dragged her kids down – I stayed on the second deck to watch.    Soon the dome re-inflated, and then the Angels defeated the Twins.  I miss the dome, but am glad they’re playing outdoors again!

Sunday after my son and I batted and played catch for about an hour we went in.  We were watching the Twins together when they loaded the bases.  I had told Dana about what a grand slam is, but he never saw one.   “Maybe you’ll see your first,” I said.  We then watched together as Trevor Plouffe launched a home run to left to give the Twins the lead.   Dana jumped up and down with excitement and I realized that he’s where I was all those years ago, starting to become a fan.  I’m glad I’m back and who knows – maybe this will be the year!

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Twins Win! 25 Years Ago

In 1987 the Twins defeated the St. Louis Cardinals to win their first World Series

Can it really be 25 years since that magical 1987 victory of the Twins over the St. Louis Cardinals?   Going through some old material I found a Twins Yearbook from 1987, and paged through it.    A number of that year’s championship team were born the same year I was: Frank Viola, Kent Hrbek, Steve Lambordozzi, Al Newman and Tom Brunansky.   Over half the team was born within two years of me — that team was my generation of Twins!

It was an amazing year.   Along with a bunch of others at the University of Minnesota I attended home opener and followed the Twins through the year.     On rainy days I’d often buy $3 bleacher seats, sometimes going to the game alone just to watch.     The Twins went 85 – 77 that year, barely enough to win the division championship.   I don’t think I saw them lose a game when I attended;  their home record was 66-25 (road: 29 – 52).    Luckily they had home field advantage in the series, which they won 4-3, losing the three games at St. Louis.  I’m tempted to go watch the tapes I made of the series, but I no longer have a Beta-max to play them on.

What a team!  Gary Gaetti, the efficient third base slugger, Greg Gagne at short stop, Steve Lombardozzi at 2nd and Kent Hrbek at first.   Superb defense!   The outfield was Brunansky in right, Gladden in left and Kirby Puckett in center.  Viola and Bert Blyleven lead the pitching staff, with Jeff Reardon closing out games with brutal efficiency, usually set up by Juan Berenguer.   It’s like it was yesterday.

Alas, time may heal all wounds but it also dampens all worldly joy.   As I googled the names of the players it was clear that their glory days are behind them.   One of the brighter stories belongs to Frank Viola.    Viola, nicknamed “Sweet Music” was one of the most amazing pitchers to watch back in his heyday with the Twins.

When he was on his game, Viola was virtually unhittable

Viola left the Twins before their 1991 World Series season, and had a few good years (and a few mediocre) before he retired with a 176 – 150 lifetime record, with 1844 K’s.   Since then he’s had a nondescript career coaching baseball, currently a pitching coach for the Met’s A team, the Savannah Sand Gnats.   He’s still with the game he loves, but it’s a far cry from winning Game 7 of the World Series.   Still, his daughter Brittany competed in the 2012 London Olympics as a diver.  Though she didn’t win a metal, seeing his daughter perform at that level must be as thrilling as it was for him to pitch in the big leagues.

As her father was an artist on the mound, Brittany Viola is an artistic diver

But some stories are sad.   One that brought tears to my eyes on many levels is that of “The Terminator,” Twins closer Jeff Reardon.   Reardon was rock solid to shut down the opposition when called from the bull pen with a save opportunity.  He is second on the all time save list.  Yet Reardon lost his son Shane to drugs in 2004.    Shane was 20 – my ’87 Twins Yearbook has a picture of the Reardon family with a young Shane.

The Twins would not have made it to the series without the most consistent closer in the business in 1987 – Jeff Reardon.

That is sad in and of itself.   But Reardon could not take the death of his son, he fell into depression, was heavily medicated, and then needed heart surgery.   After that he had a urinary tract infection, and apparently the mix of prescriptions left him out of control.   He tried to rob a store and was arrested.  He had also attempted suicide.

Ultimately he was found not guilty by reason of drug induced insanity, his medications were cut down and from what I can tell he’s doing better.   Still, as a father myself, I really felt for him and what it must have been like losing his son.   Add the psychological issues, medications, and torture he went through, and the glory days were far gone.

A mug shot instead of a baseball card

Perhaps the worst story is that of the all around “good guy” and hero of the Twins, Kirby Puckett.   Nobody was more loved than Puckett who drove in the winning run in game seven of the World Series, and four years later would hit a home run to win game six of the 1991 World Series.    He was generous and well liked, but his career was tragically shortened by contracting glaucoma in 1996 and being forced to retire at age 35.   Later he was arrested amid scandals of his affairs and treatment of women, and he died in 2006 of a brain hemorrhage.

In my 1987 Yearbook Reardon and Puckett’s pages are side by side.

Most Twins fans remember the Puckett who homered to win Game six of the ’91 Series commemorated with a statue at Target Field (Puckett played in the Metrodome)

Most stories are anti-climatic.  Steve Lombardozzi has a son who is also a second baseman, playing for the Washington Nationals.  He was born in 1988, a year after the Twins won their first series.   Many are still in the Twins Cities area, including Kent Hrbek.   Hrbek could have been one of the biggest stars of all time, when he came up he was slender, strong, agile and literally ‘a natural.’   No one could play first base defensively like Herbie.   But he didn’t take care of himself, gained extra weight, had nagging injuries and never dedicated himself to being the best he could be.  But he had fun — and I still remember witnessing some awesome homeruns from him at the Dome.

Kent Hrbek could have been one of the greatest of all time. But I have to respect the fact that he wanted first to have fun. He now does an outdoors show.

Tom Kelly, who became the youngest manager to win a World Series, currently works for the Twins, though he resigned as manager in 2001.   His number 10 uniform will be retired on September 8th this year.  I taped Kelly’s only major league homerun back in 1975, putting my cassette tape recorder up next to the radio speaker as Herb Carneal gave the play by play (I did that with every at bat of every player, then taped over the at bat if he didn’t hit a home run — that gave me a nice ‘home run tape’).

Using Google to find “where are they now,” it was odd to think how fleeting the glory from that World Series was.  As a fan the team is forever young in my mind, the 1987 season and series stands as unchangable event.  In reality, the players moved on, and glory faded.   It’s a reminder that life is more like a marathon than a sprint.

And somehow as I close this post I think it’s fitting to remember Tom Kelly’s baseball philosophy:  stay even, don’t get too high, don’t get too down, just go from one game to the next.    Wise words.

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