Archive for the ‘Minnesota Twins’ Category

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Harmon Killebrew (1st row, 2nd from right)

May 18, 2011

“I think I should take the hardest swings I can every time I’m at the plate.” – Harmon Killebrew

A while ago I wrote about how much Harmon Killebrew’s 1975 baseball card meant to me, but I don’t think I mentioned that one of the reasons I was drawn to it so much was that it was my only Harmon Killebrew card, a singular tangible connection to the unusual, powerful name and the staggering statistics reaching back toward the dawn of time, or at least to the pre-expansion days of the original Washington Senators. I saw Killebrew, towering in my mind among the whippet-thin, polyester-clad, Astroturf-skittering rank and file of the mid-1970s, as some kind of miraculous survivor from a prehistoric age of giants.

Just this morning I discovered that I had one other trace of Killebrew in my collection, and it seems to suggest the other side of the man who was both a giant and a regular guy, a mensch. He’s off to the side in the first row, number 3, looking like he could just as likely be an older fellow on the coaching staff as the greatest player in the history of the franchise.

He didn’t hold himself above anybody else on his team or in life, and he made the most of his at-bat.

***

The Sports Illustrated archive offers some excellent glimpses of Killebrew through the years.

Below is an excerpt from a 1959 piece on Killebrew as a young slugger:

Killebrew’s swing is designed for the home run. He stands deep in the batter’s box. He grips his 33-ounce bat at the end and holds it high. When he swings, it is a brutal stroke. His home runs are long ones. But he also strikes out a lot. In the past he has often been attracted to the chin-high fast ball that sends so many promising hitters back to the minors. This year he has been trying to wait for strikes, but even so he has struck out frequently. One night against Cleveland, he struck out three times, then hit a 430-foot home run.

A few years later, he had matured into a Buddha of the long ball:

Killebrew has grown into a proud, private man whose approach to hitting, he says, is a good reflection of his life-style. Killebrew puts on his hard hat one turn before he is due in the on-deck circle and stands motionless next to the bat rack, staring at the pitcher. When his time comes, he moves to the on-deck area, takes three or four bruising swings and then kneels motionless, again staring at the pitcher. In the batters’ box he makes one cursory swish with his bat between pitches. Then he simply stands, again stock still, with the bat resting on his shoulder. He waits to cock his bat until the pitcher, whose hands Killebrew has been concentrating on, begins his windup. The whole process is done with a let’s-get-down-to-it air. “That’s pretty much the way I am,” says Killebrew. “I’m not a fidgety person. I try to stay as calm and relaxed as I can. It helps me concentrate, which I think is the most important thing about hitting.”

And then, in 1999, many years after his playing days were over, he got so sick that doctors believed there was nothing to be done and that he should go home to die. He went into hospice care but recovered, miraculously, and this glimpse of what comes next for all of us caused him to respond with kindness and compassion:

“Hospice is such a tremendous thing,” Killebrew says. “Patients seem to reach an inner peace. Society doesn’t like to deal with death, but it’s a natural part of living.” Never a big talker, Killebrew, 63, developed excellent listening skills, which helped him conduct a pregame radio interview show for 12 seasons while he was playing for the Twins. Now he listens to patients, providing happy memories for them in their final days.

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Larry Hisle

March 11, 2011

According to the Gods: a 2011 Team-By-Team Preview

Minnesota Twins

The center of my identity is my childhood, and the center of my childhood was baseball, and the happiest time of my childhood in terms of baseball were the two years when my brother and I played on the same little league team while our favorite big league team, the Red Sox, had their best two-year run in franchise history in terms of games won, with 97 in 1977 and 99 and 1978, and during those years I deepened my attachment to baseball statistics, as if they could be a way to hold onto the happiness, and I held above all other statistics the triple crown categories of home runs, RBI, and batting average. There was something comforting about believing that if a player, such as Jim Rice, was able to consistently rank high in these three statistics, it was inarguable proof of that player’s greatness. In terms of a high ranking in those categories, Rice towered above baseball in 1977, 1978, and 1979, but for the first of those two years, the two years at the center of my identity, a player named Larry Hisle was right there with him. There was something mysterious about this triple-crown rival of Jim Rice, even before he vanished from the leader boards in 1979. While Rice stayed with the Red Sox and would,  I assumed (as I did with all the 1970s Red Sox stars, though as it turned out only Yaz and Rice would stick around for the duration), stay with the Red Sox forever, Hisle played for one team in 1977 and another team in 1978, both teams somewhere out there in the middle of the country and the middle of the standings, far away and never seen by me, this hint of transience in association with Larry Hisle blooming into his complete disappearance from the leader boards in 1979.

This morning I learned that Hisle’s disappearance was caused by a rotator cuff injury in early 1979 that effectively ended his career as a regular. I also learned that Larry Hisle became an orphan at age 11 and that he mentors at-risk children in Milwaukee. He is thought of by those who know him as an extraordinarily nice and generous man. I didn’t know any of this back when I was a kid, of course, so Larry Hisle, Jim Rice’s vanishing rival, will always have to me an aura of mysterious greatness. If you could take a picture of the center of my identity, that picture would show a kid with glasses and a baseball cap studying the list of league leaders in the paper, and the kid would mostly be reveling in the seemingly immortal presence of Jim Rice, but the kid would also be wondering, just a little, what happened to Larry Hisle.

This 1975 card predates that moment, of course. I wonder if I ever pulled this card from my pack of Twins in hopes of discovering why Larry Hisle and not Jim Rice (or I) had suddenly been removed from the visible world. With his furrowed brow, he looks old in this card, older than Rice, none of the sense of crackling power in Hisle’s card that seemed to emanate from the photos of Rice. The back of the card shows that he’d already kicked around for some years as a moderately successful regular before 1975, the year Jim Rice sprung into the league as an instant rookie sensation. At this remove, decades after the years at the center of my identity, Larry Hisle’s card looks more like what I would come to know as life: Some ups, some downs, some moves from here to there, some signs of the inexorable march of time.

The 2011 Twins will be human, which doesn’t mean they can’t be great but only that the greatness won’t last.

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How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 12 of 30: Check in with Aaron Gleeman for passionately gathered Twins news, keen baseball analysis, and dizzyingly prolific pop culture links/appreciations; Gleeman’s current well-researched series counting down the best Twins of all time is up to number 21 (Larry Hisle showed up at number 27

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2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees; Cleveland Indians; Detroit Tigers; Milwaukee Brewers

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Jerry Terrell

August 11, 2010

Jerry Terrell made the Topps rookie all-star team in 1973, then began experimenting the following year with switch-hitting, taking up batting from the left side. This card provides some rare evidence of that brief, doomed experiment, both in the photograph on the front and in the listing on the back (“Bats: Both”). By midseason, a prolonged slump prompted Terrell to junk switch-hitting and go back to the way he was before, a right-handed hitter.

That season, Terrell’s chances at the plate dwindled, but he made himself useful by playing several positions and appearing more times as a pinch-runner than anyone ever had before in a major league season. Unfortunately, in terms of his legacy, if such a thing as the record for most pinch-running appearances in a single season can be considered a legacy, 1974 was to pinch-running what 1998 was to home runs, and in 1974 both Larry Milbourne (Astros) and the Lord of All Pinch-Runners, Herb Washington (A’s), surpassed Terrell on the all-time single-season list. A look at Brandon Isleib’s interesting 2007 Baseball Prospectus article on the history of pinch-running suggests that the cardboard gods era (which dawned in 1974 and which is an absurdly demarcated span of time in that it derives solely from the intersection of baseball and my childhood) was the golden age of pinch-running. The plethora of 1970s fast guys on the list of all-time appearances as a pinch-runner is of course propped up to a large extent by Oakland’s attempt to elevate pinch-running to a level of importance in the game equal to relief pitching (the latter an element of the game that the A’s also leaned on with uncommon gusto but that, in contrast to pinch-running, actually led both to wins and to changing how the game was played). But the presence of non-A’s on the all-time pinch-running list—Terrell, Willie Wilson, Miguel Dilone, Mike Jorgenson, Ted Martinez—suggests that managers in the 1970s were more willing to yank a slow guy for a faster guy to try to eke out a run.

Runs were a little tougher to come by back in those days, and I’m glad that lately things seem to be trending back closer toward the average runs-scored-per-game marks of the 1970s. It’s better when a guy like Jerry Terrell can make a difference, and it stands to reason that he has a better chance to do that during a tight 3-2 game than in an 11-6 slugfest. He can fill in defensively all over the diamond, he can pinch run, and he can—I have no evidence of this but I am as sure of it as I am of my name—lay down a good bunt. He had a mind trained on the little things that could possibly provide the winning edge in a game, as shown by his later career as an advance scout (he helped the Royals win the 1985 World Series in this capacity) and by a rule-breaking incident that occurred during his lone season of switch-hitting, 1974. From a 2002 Baseball Digest article by Rich Marazzi:

Umpires are also given the authority to be mind-readers to determine intent via 4.06(a) that stipulates a batter cannot call “Time” or employ any other word or phrase or commit any act while the ball is alive and in play for the obvious purpose of trying to make the pitcher commit a balk.

Minnesota’s Jerry Terrell snubbed his nose at the rule and beat the system on the night of May 29, 1974, when the Twins hooked up with the Red Sox in Boston.

The score was tied 4-4 in the top of the 13th inning. Minnesota had runners at the corners and one out with Terrell at the plate. Red Sox pitcher Diego Segui became confused while in his delivery and balked when he noticed Terrell reaching down in the batter’s box for some dirt. Terrell had learned the trick when he played amateur baseball and admitted so. Because of the balk, both runners advanced one base, giving the Twins a 5-4 victory.

Although the thinking among many umpires is that big league pitchers should know enough not to stop their windups and balk in such situations, Terrell’s deceitful act created an unfair advantage and the balk should have been nullified. The umps could have also ejected Jerry from the game.

 

Terrell never tried such a thing again, as far as I can tell, possibly because of a change that occurred in his life the year this card came out. “The Lord has been in control of my life since 1975,” Terrell said in a 2002 “where are they now” article. A few years later, in 1980, Terrell’s religious devotion was cited as the reason for his decision to cast the one dissenting vote in the leaguewide ballot proposing a player strike. (The other players did not resent Terrell’s decision, respecting the sincerity of Terrell’s beliefs, according to an entry on Terrell in the always excellent Baseball Biography Project series.)

By the time the players acted on their vote and went on strike, in 1981, Terrell had been released from his last major league team, the Royals. His biggest moment with the Royals had been a testament to his greatest skills—his versatility and his willingness to do whatever the team needed: During a blowout loss in 1979, he pitched the ninth inning and retired the Yankees on three pitches (grabbing what has to be a share of the all-time record for fewest pitches thrown in a complete inning). The Royals fans gave him an ovation for that effort, and in the bottom of the inning, when he drove in a meaningless run, they gave him another ovation.

We’re all mathematically eliminated. The game is already lost. Why not cheer utility man?

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Butch Wynegar

October 7, 2009

Butch Wynegar 80

The Cardboard Gods era was a golden age in baseball for guys named Butch. Gracing my baseball cards in those years were Butch Hobson, Butch Metzger, and Butch Edge (furthermore, Butch Benton and Butch Alberts also played during that time, but I don’t think I have any cards featuring them), along with arguably the greatest baseball player to ever be saddled with the name: Butch Wynegar. You could make a case that Ken Keltner, whose nickname is listed on baseball-reference.com as Butch, deserves that honor, but in all the many times I’ve heard mention of Keltner (for his role in stopping Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak), I’ve never heard him referred to as anything other than Ken. Conversely, I’ve never heard the player here referred to as anything other than Butch, so I think, considering that and his 13-year career and his two All-Star team berths (the first gaining him the distinction of being the youngest All-Star ever), he’s got to be considered the all-time best Butch.

Why did the number of Butches in the majors spike so much in the 1970s? I don’t really know, but as can be seen on the list on Baseball-Reference.com, no player was ever given the name Butch at birth, so each Butch must have picked the name up somewhere along the way, probably pretty early on, in childhood. And the guys who played in the 1970s pretty much all grew up in the Eisenhower era, which seems particularly fertile ground for the development of such a nickname: too late for a moniker like Babe or Rube, too early for nickname-repelling given names like Sunshine or Moon Unit. Think Leave it to Beaver. Think suburban tract housing. Think freckle-faced, crew-cutted, pug-nosed boys with slingshots sticking out of their back pockets.

So here’s to one of those All-American slingshot boys, Butch Wynegar, who I’ve elected to toss out the first pitch of the cardboard version of the 2009 playoffs. Wynegar has dual citizenship in the Twins and Yankees franchises that will face off today, less than 24 hours after the end of the Twins’ electrifying extra-inning one-game playoff win last night. Wynegar never did get into a playoff game himself, despite playing on some pretty good Twins and Yankees squads. He had some big moments as a Yankee (he caught Dave Righetti’s July 4 no-hitter), but I’ll always think of him as a Twin, and as a young Twin, part of a promising switch-hitting duo with Roy Smalley that was going to eventually lead the Twins to glory. I actually can’t believe he was ever a Yankee, or even that he is no longer in his early 20s. The idea of time’s relentless march seems ridiculous, even unfair, and particularly when applied to boys named Butch.

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Pete Redfern

September 25, 2009

Pete Redfern 78

This’ll have to be a quick one because this morning my wife and I are driving up to St. Paul, MN, to the Midwestern Booksellers Association trade show. My publisher, Seven Footer Press, wants to start drumming up interest in my book, Cardboard Gods (due out April 2010). I guess I’ll be signing some advance review copies of the book on Saturday (according to page two of the conference schedule).

Anyway, since this is my first ever visit to the Twin Cities, I wanted to pay tribute to the first-ever Twins pitcher to start a game in the Metrodome, which the Twins will be vacating forever in less than two weeks, after 28 memorable seasons there. Pete Redfern, a highly touted prospect who ascended very quickly to the majors after being taken first overall in the January 1976 draft, lost that first game in the Metrodome in 1982, to Floyd Bannister, and didn’t do much better the rest of the year, which would prove to be the last in a career that didn’t quite live up to the sky-high expectations that naturally attach themselves to the distinction of being chosen number one. But everything is relative. For example, after all, for several years, he was in the major leagues, one of the chosen few. For another example, the year after his career ended, he was paralyzed in a diving accident.

As can be seen (not really) and heard (sort of) in a fan-shot video on youtube, Redfern recently returned to the Metrodome with his son, Chad, also a talented athlete who played professionally in the Atlanta Braves system. It’s difficult to get a read on the elder Redfern in the video, but he comes across as loving and tough and wise in articles about his accident and about his son.

For some reason this doesn’t surprise me. When I was a kid growing up far from Minnesota in the 1970s I always assumed, for reasons I can’t place beyond the perception of a certain aura of gentleness emanating from Rod Carew, that the roster of the powder blue Minnesota Twins was populated entirely by nice guys.

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(Love versus Hate update: Pete Redferns’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)

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Terry Bulling

January 22, 2009
 Untitled 

Somewhere I Lost Connection

Chapter One

This was Terry Bulling’s first baseball card, and it probably seemed for quite a while as if it would be his last, since he dropped back out of the majors for several years after his short stint in The Show in 1977. But he resurfaced in 1981 with the Mariners, and in 1982 caught Gaylord Perry’s 300th win. In the blog of cheating-in-baseball expert Derek Zumsteg, Bulling is featured prominently in an anecdote that, if accurate, sheds further light on the extent of Bulling’s famed battery-mate’s desire to gain a competitive edge. According to the anecdote, Bulling reported that “Gaylord coats his entire body with Ben-Gay before the game, and when he sweats during the game his entire uniform becomes a big greaseball. He can touch any part of his uniform to throw a greaseball. The umpires can check him all they want, but Ben-Gay isn’t illegal and there’s nothing they can do about it.”

I imagine that Terry Bulling, or Bud Bulling as he was apparently more commonly known, was the perfect guy to catch Perry’s 300th win. For one thing, he seems to have felt at worst neutral and more likely even a little amused by Perry’s unorthodox methods. Also, as a little-known journeyman he presumably didn’t have the authority to impose any kind of a plan on the game, having to defer to the slippery gray foul-smelling eminence on the mound. According to the Sports Illustrated article about Perry’s 300th win, the pitcher shook off Bulling’s signals constantly, something that I imagine was done by Perry more than anything to add even more ambiguity to his pre-pitch ritual stew of tics and shrugs and scratching and licking and rubbing, thus further crawling into the mind of the batter, who was already jittery over the prospect of loaded pitches dipping and diving in all directions. But I can’t see Perry constantly denying the choices of, say, Carlton Fisk or Johnny Bench. If he did, they’d eventually come out and slug him, or at least try to. (I’m not sure happens when you try to punch a guy covered in slime.) But Bulling just went with the flow, the perfect receiver for Perry’s unpredictable junk. Who better to roll with whatever comes his way than a journeyman? A journeyman knows you’re never anywhere very long, and even if you try to imagine something connecting one fleeting moment to the next the only path you’ll be able to trace will be irrational, spasmodic, inane, the ungodly flight of a doctored pitch.

Furthermore, a journeyman knows that even when you stand still you’re part of a greater unstoppable movement. This phenomenon underscores the Creedence song “Lodi,” one of my favorites, in which the singer laments the disintegration of his dreams while stranded in a nowhere town. I thought of that song when I perused the back of this Terry Bulling card. Bulling spent his first three years after college in one minor league town, something I don’t think I’ve seen on any other card. He didn’t even split a season and spend some time elsewhere, just stayed in a place abbreviated on the back of this card as “Wisc. Rapids.” It’s a place-name that implies swift movement, yet there Bulling stayed, year after year on the lowest rung, and at a time in his young life when years must have seemed long instead of the quick blurs they become as you get older.

Those are hard years, the first years after school. They were for me, anyway. There certainly weren’t any major or minor league teams of any kind, literal or figurative, knocking on my door. I had no skills, no connections, not even much ambition beyond a hazy collection of vague, ridiculous, impossible hallucinations about a future involving writing, some shattering moment of lasting spiritual enlightenment, rooms full of people cheering for me, and fucking.

My first year out of college was going to be spent in Shanghai, teaching English, but then I got a rice paper letter from my girlfriend over there, saying that she’d met somebody else, so I spent the money I’d saved up for my ticket to China on a trip to Europe. I tried to do the trip as cheaply as possible so I could make it last. The first step in that strategy was to use a service that got you onto random flights that had empty seats. You couldn’t pick the city you wanted to go to, just a general region, then you’d go to the airport and hang around until they could shove you onto an unpopular flight.

This was just after the Berlin Wall came down, so I had a sketchy idea that I’d eventually make my way beyond the vanished Cold War divider to the Central European region my paternal grandparents fled from in the early 1900s, Galicia. The closest I could get using my mode of cheap air travel was Frankfurt, Germany. I didn’t know anyone there or speak the language or have any plan on where I was going to spend the night. The plane landed in the early morning, and as I was walking down an airport hallway after exiting the plane my transcontinental daze slowly gave way to a mixture of terror and self-hatred. I was about to start punching myself in the head as inconspicuously as possible. But then, in one of those rare times when the absurd illogic of dreams spills over into waking life, one of those moments when you can almost see the gleam of some beyond-law substance on the doctored pitch of your life, I ran right into someone I knew.

(to be continued)

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(Love versus Hate update: Terry Bulling’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the
ongoing contest.)

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Johnny Sutton

September 12, 2008
 Untitled 
The Two Freaks
(continued from Greg Gross)

Chapter Four

Contrary to what you might guess, a baseball is not hidden inside the glove of Johnny Sutton, but rather a crumpled wad of lined notebook paper the approximate size of a baseball. The wad struck Johnny Sutton in the head with a barely noticeable impact just moments before this off-center picture was taken. He was stepping across the foul line and felt something tap him. He picked it up and looked around but saw nothing. Whoever had tossed it at him had somehow almost instantly disappeared. Johnny Sutton noticed writing on the wad’s inner folds but didn’t have time to open the wad before the photographer brusquely and distractedly waved him into position and snapped the photo with an apathy that would result in the finished product we see here:

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