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.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Right on, Target!

Last Christmas, my incredible parents' gift to me was a deposit for two cheap seats on a 20-game plan at Target Field.  With all due respect to the indestructible coffee Thermos my wife Maria gave me a few years ago and the Ewok Village playset that I received from my grandparents in 1983, it's probably the best Christmas gift I've ever received.

I have always had obsessive tendencies toward my interests, and none of those have endured over my lifetime like baseball.  Ever since I first started understanding the game, around the age of four, I have lived and breathed baseball.  Specifically the Twins.  Despite this, my only live Major League Baseball experiences over the first 28 years of my life took place at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.  I had never been to an outdoor big league game until June 2006, when Maria and I visited Wrigley Field on our first trip to Chicago.  We have managed to put a pretty big dent in the MLB stadium checklist since then, each new ballpark increasing the anticipation for this magical day.

So, without further adieu, I give you April 2, 2010.  The very first game at Target Field was an exhibition game between the Twins and the St. Louis Cardinals (Maria's hometown team).

We had a brief scare in the afternoon when a crisis at work cast some uncertainty over whether or not Maria would be able to make it to the game on time, if at all.  She was running behind and offered to meet me at the stadium, but I decided it was more important to me to walk in for the first time with her.  I couldn't wait to get inside the gate, but I didn't want to walk in alone.  I wanted her by my side.  Especially since it was an exhibition game, it was a pretty easy decision.  We missed the start of the game, but the game wasn't the point.  Today was all about the ballpark.

Tickets in hand, we approached the bronze Rod Carew statue on the corner of 7th Street.  We were immediately in total awe.  Before we even made it to the gates, I was stopping in my tracks to view the Twins Hall of Fame plaques and the Minnesota Ballpark History Monument.  Once inside Gate 34, Maria's shiny-sensor was on overload as we noticed the Wind Veil - a giant sheet of thousands of metallic panels draped over the entire parking ramp.  With the help of a variety of LED lights, the veil sways in the wind, giving a smoke-on-the-water appearance.  It's pretty mind-blowing.

We entered on the plaza, walking straight up to a view of the entire field from the patio hanging over right field.  I stopped, took it all in, squeezed Maria's hand a little bit, and may have felt a tear or two form.  "It's here.  And it's ours."

It was already the third inning when we made our way up to our seats in section 303 (on the top deck, down the first base/right field line).  We had just stepped off the escalator and made the turn toward our section when the crowd roared.  Denard Span - our (or at least my) favorite player on the team - hit the first home run at Target Field and we missed seeing it by about 30 seconds.

Our seats were in the second-to-last row of the section (these are not our normal seats, which are in section 304, row 6 - slightly closer).  We were about as far back as we could be in the ballpark, but still had a bird's eye view of the action.  It was glorious.

We only spent one full inning in our seats before decided to explore the stadium.  This was a nice advantage, being able to check out the place during a meaningless game.  I didn't feel compelled to watch every pitch.  Hell, I wasn't particularly compelled to watch any pitch.  I could hear and feel a game happening, and that was enough for me.

After spending 15 minutes in line for a Vincent Burger ($12), we were informed that they were out of them.  We settled for Walleye Fingers w/ Fries, which were solid.  I stopped inside the Twins Pub to grab a pint of Summit EPA.  We then found a nice opening to snap a picture to add to our ongoing photo series "Dan Drinks a Beer in a Baseball Stadium."

From there it was back to the concession stand for the much-hyped Murray's Steak Sandwich ($10.50).  Although quite messy, and especially hard to eat while walking, I'm a believer.  It was, to that point, the best thing I had put in my mouth at a ballpark.

All the while, we were on search for Killebrew's Root Bear Floats.  They were advertised constantly between innings on the TV monitors while we were in line for concessions, but we couldn't find them anywhere.  (I ended up stopping at Lunds on the way home to pick up some ice cream and root beer so we could make our own floats at home.)  We did find a stand for Tony O's Cuban Sandwiches, so we decided to make that our final purchase of the game.  Sorry, Murray, your reign was short-lived.  The Cuban ($9.50) was incredible.  Put it on your must-try list.

We continued our walk throughout the concourses, stopping to snap pictures and watch random at-bats.  It was truly heartwarming when we circled back to right field as Jacque Jones was receiving a standing ovation in his first plate appearance of the game.

We spent most of the ninth inning browsing in the giant Clubhouse Store (and finding ourselves especially drawn to the baby clothes), before exiting the stadium with the masses.  We stopped to sit along the Twins Hall of Fame wall again, in front of Bert Blyleven's plaque, with the Wind Veil in the background.  We ran into my friend Dave Meier (not the 1980s Twins outfielder, but the former bass player for Mike Gunther & His Restless Souls) there and shared some thoughts about our new home.

We stood up to say goodbye to Target Field for the night and found ourselves in a logjam at the bottom of the gate.  One stadium employee shouted out, "They're giving away bobbleheads for the little ones!"  He then patted me on the shoulder and continued, "Or the big ones!"  I eased my way through the crowd and got my hand on a box.  It wasn't a bobblehead, but it might even be better.  It's a motorized Mini-Gardy!

It's one last souvenir from a night we'll remember forever.  Expectations were about as high as they could be, and they were exceeded.  I am so happy.

Click here to see our full photo set from Opening Night at Target Field


Welcome to Twins Citizens.  I tried my hand at a baseball blog a few years ago.  I thought it was pretty good when I actually got around to posting.  As often happens with things of this nature, though, life got in the way.

If I'm using that as my excuse for the neglecting of Foul Tips, the future does not bode well for this venture.  Oh well... I suppose all we can do is give it a shot and see what happens.