Friday, May 27, 2011

My First Cardboard God

I don't know how old I was or how I first learned about Harmon Killebrew, but I would approximate the moment at sometime in 1984.  I was six and a half years old that summer.  After kicking the tires on my baseball interest for the two previous years, '84 was the year I dove in and started this lifelong obsession.  That was also the year Harmon was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  I'm sure I had heard of him before then, but it was probably then, when I saw his picture on my very first Official Twins Program, that I first realized his significance.  I learned that if I was going to become a Twins fan, I'd better know that Harmon Killebrew was the greatest Twin.

By 1986, baseball was my life.  I had been seriously collecting baseball cards for a couple years, always under the belief that Topps was the best brand to buy.  Something seemed to change at the precipice of the trading card boom around that time.  In 1981, upstart companies Fleer and Donruss were granted licenses by Major League Baseball to print their own trading cards.  It was the first time in about 20 years that Topps had competitors, but they were still kings of the market.  Around '86, though, when collectors started going crazy for 1984 rookie cards of young New York superstars Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry, they noticed that their 1984 Donruss cards seemed to be much more difficult to find than the Topps counterparts.  Also in 1986, the hottest new name on the scene was Oakland rookie sensation Jose Canseco.  Jose did not have a card in the Topps set that year, but he did have a "Rated Rookie" card in that year's Donruss set.  Suddenly Donruss was the must-have brand.

My parents had bought me Topps sets for the previous two years, but in '86 I begged for a Donruss set.  My mom called around and the one place she could find that carried the complete set was Grand Slam Sportscards in Uptown.  I saved up and she drove me to the hole in the wall joint on Lyndale and Lake Street.  It was a revelation.  I would later experience that same feeling the first time I walked into record stores like Oar Folkjokeopus and Garage D'or, the first time I went to First Avenue, the first time I visited Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium, and Target Field.  I couldn't believe it.  An entire store devoted to baseball cards and memoribilia.  It was amazing.  We were there to get the set, but I couldn't resist looking at the single cards they had for sale.

My first Killebrew. Warts and all.
I saw, for the first time in my life, Harmon Killebrew baseball cards.  They were mostly priced at well over a few bucks each.  But then I noticed one priced for 75 cents.  It was his 1975 Topps card - his final appearance on a card as an active player.  It was in awful condition (hence the price), but I neither knew nor cared about the importance of condition.  It was a Harmon Killebrew baseball card and I could afford it.

Over the next two years I learned more about baseball, more about Killebrew, and more about cards, and I became a regular customer at Shinder's.  I became so regular at the Crystal location, in fact, that they let me start volunteering there on Saturday mornings.  It was my first real work experience.  They wouldn't (and couldn't) let me touch the register.  They were very careful to shield me from the porn.  I simply showed up for three hours on Saturday mornings and sorted and priced baseball cards for them.  I got paid in store credit.  And I was working for something specific.

A 1955 Topps Harmon Killebrew rookie card!

At the time, a near mint Killebrew rookie was listed in the price guide for around $100.  This one was priced at $30.  I had learned a bit more about the importance of condition, and I understood that this one was not in the greatest shape, but it was right in front of me and seemed like the only realistic shot I ever had at a real Killebrew rookie card.

After about a month of volunteer work, I had it.  My mom asked if I was sure I wanted to spend all the credit I had saved on one card.  The store manager (and my first "boss") Tom made sure I understood that because of the card's condition it would never be worth the full value of its price guide listing.  I understood and I didn't care, for I was now ten years old and owner of a Harmon Killebrew rookie card!

The 1955 Topps Harmon Killebrew rookie card I worked toward at Shinder's in 1987.
Over the next several years I eventually acquired every other Topps card of Killebrew.  Every one of them was in significantly better condition than the rookie card I worked for at Shinder's and the 1975 card I bought at Grand Slam.  I had many opportunities over the years to upgrade the '75 card.  And if I really had wanted to I probably could have upgraded the rookie, too.  I guess it wasn't important to me.  And why should it be?  There's no sentiment in going on ebay to pluck down a few extra bucks for a mint 1975 card.  A mint 1975 card will never capture the exhilaration of finding that first beat up card at Grand Slam and buying it with my own money.  Giving a couple hundred bucks to some random dealer for a nicer rookie will never replace  skipping cartoons on Saturday mornings to work toward my Killebrew rookie.

I think that to my mom I justified spending so much of my allowance on expensive Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, and Tony Oliva cards as a sound investment.  But deep down, even then, I think I probably knew that I was never going to sell them.  Those were keepers.  Over twenty years later, I still have every one.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Scout's Honor

While browsing hot MLB Winter Meetings rumors on my Twitter feed tonight, I came across this note from SI's Jon Heyman:

"Legendary Twins scout from New York Herb Stein has died. Signed Rod Carew, Frank Viola, many others. Great man.."  

Herb Stein was 92.

He had an incredible run.  Herb was hired as an amateur scout by the Washington Senators in 1952.  He would spend 42 years as a scout for the Senators and Minnesota Twins before being unceremoniously kicked to the curb by Terry Ryan and Mike Radcliff in 1995.

The most famous of his 100+ signings happened in 1964, when he and fellow scout Monroe Katz discovered a 17 year old Panamanian kid playing sandlot ball in the Bronx.  Legend has it that Rodney Cline Carew was given a top-secret workout by the Twins at Yankee Stadium.  After being awed by his already sweet swing, Twins brass whisked him away before the Yankees noticed him.  Upon graduating high school, Stein signed Carew to a pro contract.  Less than three years later, the future Hall of Famer was in the big leagues to stay.

Stein struck gold again in 1981, when he convinced the Twins to spend their second round draft pick on a lefty from St. John's University.  Six years later, Frank Viola was the World Series MVP.  The year after that, he was the American League Cy Young Award winner.

(Fun Fact: On August 4, 1985, Carew notched career hit number 3,000.  The pitcher who gave it up: Viola.)

In all, eight of the players signed by Stein made it to the big leagues.  Among them were 1991 World Series hero Gene Larkin, 1991 World Series third baseman Scott Leius, and longtime Twins coach Scott Ullger.

For all his success, there were disappointments along the way.  After all, there's only so much a scout can do.  In 1991, the Twins held the third overall pick in the June amateur draft.  Stein was extremely vocal in his opinion that the Twins should use that pick on a talented, skinny New York kid who spoke very little English and had not graduated high school.  The Twins decided to go with the "can't miss" Stanford-educated power hitter.

From Becoming Manny by Jean Rhodes and Shawn Boburg:
Stein pushed the Twins to take Manny Ramirez with their third overall pick.  But he was rebuffed by his bosses - a source of bitterness even today.  The Twins chose Stanford first baseman David McCarty, who wound up hitting 36 career home runs and batting .242 in eleven major league seasons of part-time duty.

The 1994-1995 strike left a broad and grotesque stain across all aspects of Major League Baseball.  No doubt, uncertain front offices were feeling the heat.  That is not an excuse for the way the Twins regime handled Herb Stein's dismissal.  Early 1995 was an especially trying time for the Twins, though.  Following the 1991 World Championship and a 90-win, second place finish in 1992, the club fell on hard times in 1993.  They finished 71-91 that year, fifth place in the AL Western Division.  They were sitting in fourth place in the brand new, five-team AL Central Division when the strike ended the season.  Then things started falling apart for real.  Kent Hrbek abruptly retired.  Two-time World Series architect General Manager Andy MacPhail left to become President and CEO of the Chicago Cubs.  Scouting Director and Director of Player Personnel Terry Ryan was promoted to MacPhail's position.  During this time of economic uncertainty across baseball, and given the dwindling interest in and unfriendly stadium revenue situation of the Twins, the first order of business was to cut organizational payroll.

Stein wasn't the only guy to find himself on the chopping block, but he was probably the highest profile.  New Scouting Director Radcliff (now the team's Vice President of Player Personnel) gave the 77 year old Stein his figurative walking papers on November 10, 1994, in the form of a brief, emotionless mid-afternoon phone call.  Stein claimed to have tried contacting Carl Pohlad to beg for his job, but never received a response from the team owner.  When inquiring about a possible severance package from the job he held for four decades, Radcliff allegedly told him, "Nobody ever paid to see a scout.  No scout has ever gotten a severance package and no precedent will be started now."  In an interview with the New York Daily News in February of 1995, Stein said, "I've always been a Twin.  I devoted my life to the club.  I can't believe they would do this to me."

I don't know if there ever was reconciliation.  The decade of the '90s represented a giant, pus-filled cold sore for all of baseball, and it was easily the darkest period in Twins history.  The Twins have done a remarkable job - especially in the inaugural year of Target Field last season - of bringing back and honoring figures from their past.

I, for one, hope they do something special in 2011 to preserve the memory of one of their great baseball men.

Godspeed, Herb Stein.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Missing Twin

Juan Veintidos never played for the Minnesota Twins.  He was as close as one could possibly be, but cruel fate intervened.

Veintidos didn't look like he had much of a future when the Twins acquired him from the Mets before the 1974 season.  He split the 1973 season between the Mets' A and AA affiliates in Visalia and Memphis, posting underwhelming numbers (a combined 6.21 ERA and 2.22 WHIP in 58 total innings).  He blossomed for the Twins in '74, though.  After going 2-1 with a 1.74 ERA for AA Orlando, he was promoted to AAA Tacoma for the rest of the season.  He ended up 12-4 with a 3.67 ERA there, in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.  He became a top pitching prospect, so highly regarded that Topps included him in their 1975 baseball card set.

He made the team out of spring training in 1975 and came north to Met Stadium with the Twins.  He was sent back to Tacoma before he could get into a game, though.  He imploded in the minors that year, going 5-11 with a 6.20 ERA and 1.85 WHIP.  Despite rebounding with a respectable 11-8, 3.81 year at Tacoma in 1976, he still simply walked too many guys (107 in 163 innings).  1977 was his final year in Tacoma, with the Twins organization, and in pro ball.  His ERA ballooned to 6.98 in only 40 innings.  Just like that, two years after coming so close to getting his shot, his career was over.

I'm a huge, obsessive baseball fan, but even I have never really thought about or tried compiling a list of players who got the call to the big leagues, were issued a uniform, hung out in the dugout with the team, but never actually played.  How do you get over that?  You can go the rest of your life telling people, "Yeah, I was a major leaguer."  But there's no evidence.  Until you see your first pitch, you're not part of the box score.  And if you don't have the stats, you're not going into the official record.  If not for Juan's appearance on a Topps baseball card, there's no way I (or any Twins fan my age or younger) would have ever heard of him.

Around 1992 or so, baseball card companies started rushing young prospects into their sets in attempt to have the sought after "rookie" cards of those who panned out.  Prior to that, it was pretty infrequent for a guy to appear in a major set without having a big league game under his belt.

Veintidos has been elusive to Twins autograph collectors while living in his native Puerto Rico for the past 30+ years.   Last month, Noel Martir Arcelay, a member of the website (SCN), tracked him down and arranged a private signing.  Figuring it was a rare opportunity, I paid the modest $6 fee and mailed my '75 Veintidos rookie card in to Noel for the signing.  I just got my card back the other day, and am very happy about this cool addition to my collection of Twins memoribilia.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Myth of Momentum

Brian Duensing hands the ball to Ron Gardenhire after a disappointing start in Detroit on Sunday.
My, oh my... how things can change in a week.  Judging from Facebook and Twitter feeds, we might as well stick a fork in the Twins.  After clinching the division last Tuesday, the Twin Cities were positively buzzin' with playoff fever.  There was talk of having the best record in baseball and home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs.

All because of momentum.

Yes, the Twins were rolling last week after sweeping Cleveland out of Target Field.  By the time they hit Motown for a hugely anticipated Liriano vs. Verlander pitching matchup on Friday, there was even talk of a 100 win season.

But Liriano left that game with a tummy ache.  The Tigers teed off on Jeff Manship and Alex Burnett (two guys who will not be on the playoff roster), and the Twins winning streak was over.  They finished the sweep by destroying Carl Pavano and by cashing in on an uncharacteristically wild Brian Duensing.  No matter, though, because the last-place Kansas City Royals were next on the schedule.

Two games into the three-game set in Kansas City, people are starting to freak out.  Kevin Slowey was horrible on Monday, probably pitching himself out of a post-season roster spot.  Nick Blackburn was equally atrocious tonight, putting his #4 playoff starter spot at risk (Scott Baker has a huge opportunity if he can come through with a big game on Wednesday).  The Twins have suddenly lost five in a row, mostly on account of lousy pitching.  They have given up ten or more runs in four of those five games.  Now there is panic.

All because of momentum.

Here is my plea, Twins fans.  Settle down.  Relax.  It's going to be okay.  Yes, home field advantage would be nice, but it's not as important as being healthy and rested.  (It should be pointed out, though, that neither the Yankees or Rays have capitalized on the Twins slump.  The Twins are still only two games behind Tampa with five games to play.)

  • Joe Mauer and Jim Thome have not played in any of these last five games.  (Do you think it's a coincidence that Mauer hasn't been behind the plate for any of the recent pitching meltdowns?)  
  • J.J. Hardy has only played in one of them.  
  • All the relief pitchers who will make the post-season roster (Capps, Fuentes, Crain, Rauch, Guerrier, Mijares) have been fine.  
  • Clinching early has given Gardenhire the ability to set up his rotation for the playoffs.  There will be no repeat of last year, when Brian Duensing and all nine of his career major league starts was matched up against CC Sabathia in Game 1 of the ALDS.  This year it will be Liriano, at home, against either Sabathia or David Price.
Yeah, they'll be fine.  Especially since... you know... momentum doesn't mean shit.

The post-season is a new season.  There are countless examples in baseball history of teams who have momentum crashing and burning come October.  There are just as many examples of teams with no momentum, who are able to turn it on with the bright lights.  Let's use a couple of examples from Twins history

The 1987 World Series Champions had no momentum heading into the playoffs.  After clinching the weak American League Western Division in Texas on September 28, the Twins dropped their final five regular season games.  Their 85-77 record would have only achieved fifth place that season in the AL East.  The Detroit Tigers, their ALCS opponent, finished the season on a four-game winning streak, including a victory over the Blue Jays on the last day of the season to give them the division title and a league-best 98-64 record.  They had their aces Doyle Alexander and Jack Morris lined up to pitch the first two games of the ALCS.  They were huge favorites and were, obviously, the team with momentum.

The Twins finished them off in five games.

So much for momentum.

Fast-forward to 2006, and the Twins were on the other side of the coin.  The Tigers dominated the American League all summer.  The Twins were hovering around .500 in early July, about 10.5 games behind Detroit.  You may remember the Twins' unbelievable second half that season, though.  That was the year that we were able to boast the MVP (Justin Morneau), Cy Young winner (Johan Santana), and batting champion (Joe Mauer).  The Twins were able to make up that huge deficit, thanks in no small part to the Tigers collapse.

The Tigers needed just one win in their final regular season series, at home, against the 62-100 Royals, to clinch the AL Central.  They were swept.  The Tigers had a 10 game lead in the division on August 7.  They lost their final five regular season games.  They still made the playoffs as a Wild Card team, but instead of hosting Oakland in the Division Series, they had to travel to Yankee Stadium.  The Tigers did not have the momentum that year.

Because the Twins did.  The Twins topped off their incredible two-month long hot streak by watching the end of the Tigers' loss on the Jumbotron at the Metrodome.  When it was over, the team celebrated on the Dome's turf with the fans.  They were staying home to open the playoffs against Oakland.  They were a clear favorite and were the fashionable pick among baseball experts to win the World Series.  The Twins had all the momentum in the world in 2006.

They were swept by the A's in three games.

Meanwhile, the ice cold Tigers upset the Yankees and dominated Oakland, easily advancing to the World Series.  There, they would meet the only team who entered the 2006 post-season with less momentum than them - the St. Louis Cardinals.

Much like the '87 Twins, the '06 Cardinals had the good fortune to play in a terrible division.  They backed into the playoffs with a 83-78 record.  They were 35-39 after the All-Star break, and just 12-17 in September.  They squeaked past the San Diego Padres in the NLDS, only to run into the team with the most momentum in baseball, the New York Mets, in the NLCS.

The Mets finished with a league-best 97-65 regular season record.  They ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak.  They swept the Dodgers in three games in their NLDS series, extending their overall winning streak to seven games.

So, of course, the Cardinals beat them in seven games, beat the Tigers in five, and won the World Series.

So much for momentum.

Make no mistake, I am not arguing that the Twins are going to win the World Series in 2010.  They are in the playoffs, though.  Therefore, they have a chance.  As do the Rays, Yankees, Rangers, Phillies, and Reds (so far).  Just like the '06 Cardinals, '06 Tigers, and '87 Twins.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Chart

In 1987, I kept an elaborate Twins home run chart.

My dad helped me make The Chart.  I started by crudely tallying each player's home runs in a spiral notebook.  Dad found a large piece of graphing paper and showed me how to use a yardstick to measure and draw straight lines.  We listed each Twins hitter on the left hand side and numbered each column after that from 1-40.  We mounted it to a large wooden board.

I used a different color of Crayola marker for each player.  All season long, every time the Twins hit a home run, I would color in the next box for the player who hit it.

A husky nine-year old lugging a two-foot wide rectangular board around all summer was probably a pretty hilarious sight.  What can I say?  Once a nerd, always a nerd.  I really did bring that thing everywhere.  While at home, watching the Twins on TV, I would sit on the floor in the family room with The Chart and the markers in front of me.  Every time Kent Hrbek or Gary Gaetti would hit one out, I updated The Chart.

The most romantic memories of The Chart are from my family's cabin in Grand Marais.  With no TV broadcast available there, I would attempt to get the radio signal from Duluth.  Some nights it would come in crystal clear.  Other nights, nothing.  Occasionally, on a clear night, the WCCO broadcast from the Cities would be audible.  On those nights, I would sit by the the old Ben Franklin furnace and listen for a rare longball from Steve Lombardozzi.  If the game wasn't coming in on the radio, I was at the mercy of the sports highlights from the Duluth local news on the portable black and white TV set.

1987 was a fortunate year to have The Chart.  I tracked them all, from the team-leading 34 by Hrbek to the one contributed by reserve outfielder Mark "Country" Davidson.  By year's end, the Twins clubbed 196 home runs en route to their first World Series title.  They have not hit that many in a season since.

'87 was the only year of existence for The Chart.  It was most likely thrown away around twenty years ago.  I had not even thought about it in until the other night.  While watching the 2010 version of the Twins blast off for nine longballs in the season's first four games, I found myself trying to guess how many home runs the team could hit this year.  With a stacked lineup and the new bandbox of a stadium, it's hardly a stretch to think they could finally match the 1987 total.

It might even be time to bring back The Chart.

In the meantime, here's what the 1987 Chart would have looked like if made by a computer instead of a nine year old and his dad.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Freedom Fighter

Some things are even more important than baseball.  You can tell from one look at the face of Al Williams.

Baseball history is filled with players who gave up parts of their careers to serve in the military.  Legends like Ted Williams and Bob Feller sacrificed seasons in the prime of their Hall of Fame careers to fight in World War II.  Yankees greats Bobby Murcer and Thurman Munson were among dozens who served in Vietnam.

A fascinating story that has not been told enough, though, is that of former Twins pitcher Albert (Al) Williams.

In 1977, after spending two nondescript years in the lower levels of the Pittsburgh Pirates minor league system, Williams returned to his home country of Nicaragua.  While there he joined the Sandinistas - the Nicaraguan revolutionaries who were fighting to liberate their country from the brutal dictatorship of President Anastasio Somoza.

Williams fought for the Sandinistas for almost a year and a half.  After the successful overthrow of the Somoza regime, Al returned to baseball, playing first in Panama and then Venezuela.

On January 6, 1980, he signed as a free agent with the Twins.  He started 15 games for the Toledo Mud Hens, posting a 9-3 record and a sparkling 2.10 ERA.  He was called up to the big leagues later that season and went 6-2 with a 3.51 ERA over 18 games for the Twins.

Williams followed with three more decent seasons as a member of the Twins rotation, and was the club's opening day starter in 1984.  That would prove to be his last season, as he sputtered to a 5.77 ERA in only 68 innings.  He hooked on with the New York Yankees organization in 1985 and spent the year pitching in relief for their Triple-A affiliate Columbus Clippers before disappearing from professional baseball.

In a 1981 quote in the New York Times, when asked about his time away from baseball while fighting with the Sandinistas, Williams said, "I really missed baseball the two years I was out of it, but I wasn't thinking about baseball all the time. I was just trying to stay alive."

Monday, April 5, 2010

Opening Day and The Hatch

Later tonight, the Minnesota Twins will open the 2010 season in Anaheim, California against the Los Angeles Angels.  This season marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my earliest Opening Day memory, also taking place in Anaheim.

A few years back, I wrote a story for my old blog declaring 1984 as the year I fell in love with baseball.   By the following spring, I had already opened my first packs of 1985 Topps baseball cards, had listened to as many spring training games as I could on the radio, and could hardly contain my excitement for the beginning of the new season.

I have always loved the Twins' West Coast road trips.  Perhaps because I've always been a night owl, I'm naturally excited about being able to watch baseball until midnight.  Of course, at seven years old, those late starts can be difficult to negotiate, especially on school nights.  I must have figured out a way to persuade my parents to let me stay up late on Tuesday, April 9, 1985.  Because I vividly remember the ballgame.

Our newly crowned ace Frank Viola had a breakthrough 18-win season in '84, and was set to take the mound opposite the California Angels' workhorse Mike Witt.  Witt's previous start was on the final day of the 1984 season, when he tossed the 11th perfect game in MLB history.

The game lived up to its hype, as Viola and Witt engaged in a pitcher's duel that entered the 8th inning in a 1-1 tie.  Kirby Puckett led off the top of the 8th with a single, but was quickly erased when Mickey Hatcher followed by hitting in to a ground ball double-play.  Figuring the inning was likely over, I ran to the bathroom.  I missed Kent Hrbek and Roy Smalley reaching base, and I missed Tom Brunansky's tie-breaking three-run homerun.

I was certainly excited about taking the lead, but was also pretty pissed at myself (or at least as upset as a seven year old can be with himself) for my poor timing.  The Angels came back with another run in the bottom of the eighth, and with then-Twins closer/human ulcer Ron Davis set to face Reggie Jackson and friends in the bottom of the ninth, a two-run lead was hardly safe.

Mickey Hatcher rectified that.  Hardly a power source (he only hit 38 career homeruns over 12 Major League seasons), the Hatch was an unlikely candidate to blast a two-run bomb in the top of the ninth, but that's exactly what he did.  In doing so, he made amends for his previous at-bat and made me feel much better about missing Brunansky's homer.  The Twins held on to win 6-2.

The Hatch further cemented his status as one of my favorite Twins of the era.  Prior to Bert Blyleven's homecoming later in that 1985 season, Hatcher was the Twins' resident merry prankster.  He was a scrappy player, but really had no business as an everyday corner outfielder.  In 1985, he was coming off consecutive .300 batting average seasons, but it was an empty .300.  He had no power and wouldn't take a walk to save his life.  As a player, he became famous for three things:
  1. "Catching" Dave Kingman's lost ball.  In the Metrodome's inaugural 1982 season, A's slugger Dave Kingman famously hit a pop up that passed through a hole in the roof and never came down.  He was awarded a ground rule double.  The next day, before Kingman came up to bat for the first time, Hatcher had a Dome employee drop a ball from a hole in the roof.
  2. His 1986 Fleer baseball card, where he wore a giant clown-glove (seen at the top of this post).
  3. His homerun for the Dodgers in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, where instead of trotting he sprinted around the bases.
Since 2000, Hatcher has been the hitting coach for the Anaheim.  He'll be there tonight, again in Angels Stadium, again for a late-night season opener between the Twins and Angels.

It's been a good twenty-five years.