Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for April, 2010

When former New York Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton told baseball fans everywhere that their beloved hero, Mickey Mantle, was a drinking, partying womanizer who loved to look up the skirts of the girls in the stands, many fans were outraged.  Bouton published his daily thoughts of the 1969 season in the book Ball Four.  Fans and players alike believed, what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse.  

I think many sports fans don’t want a man, they want a hero.  After a hall of fame career, I saw my childhood hero, Kirby Puckett, go from a legend to a man.  

Being a baseball fan born in Minnesota in 1978 meant I was lucky enough to watch Kirby Puckett’s entire career.  The greatest sports star in the history of Minnesota began his career with the Minnesota Twins in 1984 and ended in the middle of the 1996 season.  I was six when he started and 18 when it was all over.  Sadly, I was 27 when he died.  

I’m 32 years old and I know the people I look up to are human, just like me.  The only difference is they can hit or pitch a baseball far better than me or they can play a musical instrument and write a song to go with it.  They can do things I can’t do, but they make the same mistakes I make every day.  

After being one of the youngest players in the history of baseball to reach 2,000 hits, Puckett’s career ended quickly and unexpectedly.  Days before the 1996 season began, the Twins’ centerfielder noticed a black dot before his vision in his right eye.  After the Twins nation waited months to see if their greatest player would ever return, Puckett finally held a news conference in early July to announce his retirement after the doctors diagnosed him with glaucoma.  I could only reminisce of his career, especially Puckett’s most famous game of all, the sixth game of the 1991 World Series. 

After telling a solemn clubhouse of players, who were down three games to two in a best-of-seven series, they could jump on his back because he was going to carry them that night, Puckett went to knock in three runs.  Puckett capped off the night with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the Twins the victory as well as the unforgettable seventh game showdown the next night.  If it wasn’t for Puckett, the Braves would have won the 1991 World Series in six games.  

A statue celebrating Puckett's Game Six walk-off win stands outside Target Field in downtown Minneapolis.

 

As a kid I had the future hall of famer’s picture all over my walls.  I had posters, magazine and newspaper cutouts, and even statistics from the sports section on my bulletin board.  I, and the thousands of other kids at the stadium, couldn’t help but smile and get excited when Twins public address announcer Bob Casey would call out, “Now batting, number thirty-four, the centerfielder Kirbeeeeeeeeeeeeee, Puckett!”  Baseball fans couldn’t help but like his 5-foot, eight inch, 210-pound frame.  He didn’t look like a baseball player, but there weren’t many who played better than him.  He never seemed to stop smiling, laughing or joking with teammates and fans.  His optimistic views on the game combined with his character were the perfect fit for Minnesota Twins fans, including myself.  

Sometimes I wish I never knew about the real Kirby Puckett – the man who was charged with groping a women in a bar restroom in 2002.  He divorced from his wife Tanya after she told the courts he repeatedly cheated on her.  Puckett wasn’t the perfect guy his unending smile and laugh on the field showed.  He wasn’t the unbeatable force I saw him as while I was trying to top 100 pounds on the scale.  Kirby Puckett was a man just like me and he made mistakes. 

The thought that Kirby Puckett was a real man never crossed my mind as a kid.  He was just the superstar I saw on TV and at the stadium.  Age helped me discover that the people on TV are far from perfect, but still I never saw this in Puckett.  He could do no wrong.  When allegations came out about what he’d done to a woman in a restroom, I couldn’t disagree with them.  It was then I realized I had no idea who Kirby Puckett was.  I get upset when I saw Pete Rose fans protesting in his behalf that he didn’t bet money on baseball like the commissioner was alleging.  Those fans are defending a hero, a myth, but not a man.  I’m willing to bet all of those fans have never talked to Pete Rose for more than five minutes.  They don’t know what kind of man he is.  

I can remember basketball star Kobe Bryant telling the press, “C’mon, you guys know me,” when allegations came out that he raped a woman in a Colorado hotel room years ago.  No, Kobe, we don’t know you.  We know you can score 70 points a game, but we don’t know you personally.  

As for Kirby, he wasn’t perfect and I’m okay with it.  I cherish his memory through his baseball career.  I’m a fan, not a friend.  I can overlook his personal life because I wasn’t a part of it.  The good memories won’t go away.  

When the six-time gold glove winner died of a stroke in 2006, I couldn’t help but wonder how his life would have gone if he could have left the game on his own terms.  Many close friends said Puckett was never the same once he left the ball field for good.  

It’s a sad ending to a fantastic story.  I can compare Puckett’s career to the film Moulin Rouge.  In the film, the audience learns very early that Satine, Nicole Kidman’s character, dies.  After the final scene in which the main characters fall in love and the bad guys are eliminated from the story, Satine dies of an unknown ailment behind the curtain of the theater.  I like the ending, but I’m not always in the mood to watch it … so I don’t.  Most of the time I simply stop the DVD after the characters fall in love and before she dies.  

The same goes to my childhood hero.  I won’t forget how his life ended, but I’m not going to dwell on it.  I’m going to remember when he went 10-for-11 against the Brewers in 1987.  I’m going to remember his home run to win game six and TV announcer Jack Buck screaming over the Metrodome crowd as the ball left the field, “To deep left center for Mitchell … (ball goes over fence) and we’ll see ya tomorrow night!”  I’ll remember Kirby signing his picture in my 1987 Twins yearbook before a game that season.  He didn’t stop for long since there were dozens of other kids trying to get the same thing.  But my childhood hero stood before me for a brief moment and did something for me. 

When the man who signed my 1987 yearbook died, I knew I’d never look at another person the way I looked at Kirby Puckett with my Twins hat, t-shirt and uneducated 10-year old face.  He was a hero, a legend and a myth.  I wish I could still see him as I once did because sometimes ignorance is bliss.  Luckily, I’m intelligent enough to focus on the positives and realize no one is perfect, even our heroes. 

Read Full Post »

Nick Punto will never win a batting title.  Not only that, but he’ll probably never bat .300, hit more than 10 home runs in a season or drive in over 50.  He’s played more than 125 games twice in his 10 seasons in the big leagues and has a career slugging percentage of .326.  It’s statistics like these than make Punto one of the least-liked current Minnesota Twins (most Twins fans don’t hate their players, they just like them less than others).  But it’s for everything outside the boxscore that also make him one of the most respected on the team.  

Punto is the sometimes-starting third baseman for Minnesota.  The 2010 season is his seventh with the team after being traded by the Phillies in exchange for Eric Milton after the 2003 season.  Carlos Silva also came to Minnesota as part of that trade.  Punto will platoon with Brendan Harris at the hot spot.   

Patrick Reusse, columnist for the Star Tribune, recently wrote that Punto plays third base as well as anyone in Minnesota since Gary Gaetti.  He’s right.  Not only does he play third base as well as anyone in years, but he can also make an argument for shortstop and second base.  When someone has gone down with an injury, Punto fills in.  Rarely does he replace the bat, but it’s a sure bet the pitcher feels more secure knowing his glove is behind him.  

Despite his glovework, Punto will probably never earn a Gold Glove award.  He doesn’t play enough, and even if he did, he wouldn’t be as recognized by the voters due to his lack of offense.  Sadly, that seems to factor into the voting: i.e. Seattle’s center fielder Franklin Gutierrez or any season for Doug Mientkiewicz aside from 2001.  Complaints about the Gold Glove award voting can be saved for another column.   

The main problem with Punto in the past was his lack of offense in a lineup that needed all the runs it could muster.  The Twins haven’t had a full-time third baseman they could count on since Corey Koskie who departed after the 2004 season.  The great news for Punto this season is his lack of offense isn’t as big of an issue as there’s more than enough sluggers in the rest of the lineup.  He’s about half way between a great hitter like Justin Morneau and any National League team’s pitcher in the lineup.  With seven hitters in the lineup capable of hitting at least 20 home runs, there’s little need for the Twins to ask for more than a .250 average from Mr. Punto.  

Of course, that’s not saying he can’t deliver when needed.  In the Twins’ 163rd game of the 2009 season, a one-game playoff with the Tigers, it was Punto who singled to start the seventh inning and was on first base when Orlando Cabrera homered to put the Twins ahead.  Punto also gutted his way through a 10-pitch walk to start the bottom of the ninth.   

That was just his offense.  In the Tigers’ half of the 12th inning with one out and the bases loaded, Brandon Inge hit a weak ground ball to Punto at second base.  With the game on the line and pinch runner Don Kelly approaching Punto’s line of sight, the wily second baseman didn’t hesitate and threw to Joe Mauer at the plate to make sure Detroit didn’t score the winning run.  After the game, manager Ron Gardenhire told reporters, “People always ask me why I put Nick Punto in the game – that’s why I put Punto in the game.”  

Yes, the man is a great fielder and yes, he can be a clutch hitter.  But that’s still not all that draws me to Nick Punto.  As a kid playing baseball and an adult playing weekly softball games, I can see myself through Nick Punto’s game.  I’ve never had any power, but the power I don’t have I make up for in hustle and speed.  With that hustle and speed comes my favorite part of playing baseball and I’m pretty sure it’s Punto’s favorite too: the head-first slide.  Coaches say not to do it because it is too dangerous.  But who cares about danger when you’re a .248 lifetime hitter and your uniform is sparkling clean?  Without his head-first slides and hustle, Punto not only has a much lower batting average, but he may not be in the big leagues at all.  He knows he’ll never have Joe Mauer’s batting eye or Justin Morneau’s power, so he maximizes the strengths he does have.   

There was a play at Yankee Stadium in 2007 that encapsulated his hustle and defensive prowess.  Playing second base, a soft ground ball was hit to him.  Punto charged and grabbed the ball with his bare hand and, while falling and parallel to the ground, threw to first to get the runner.  The magnificence of the play lies in Punto disregard to injury and also the acrobatics of throwing a baseball with no base of origin to power the throw as well as being less than half a second from crashing into the ground with nothing to stop the collision except his right shoulder.  It’s the same fearlessness Torii Hunter shows chasing a ball against the centerfield fence.  When Punto makes plays like that, it doesn’t matter to me if he goes 0-for-4 at the plate.  That’s why you put Nick Punto in the lineup.   

It sometimes appears the Twins got Nick Punto in a trade with the circus. (Photo courtesy of the Pioneer Press)

 

In regards to his head-first slides, it shows to me that he loves playing the game.  I go out of my way to slide head first whenever I get the chance.  If I’m going from first to third and there’s no play, but I know I won’t be scoring: I slide head first.  It’s fun!  Whether there’s going to be a play or not, I do my best to slide head first because nothing feels better than stopping your full-speed run sliding across smooth dirt on your chest and wrapping your arms around that base.  That base represents your safety in the treacherously dangerous basepaths between the batter’s box and home plate.  So why not greet that safety with a crashing hug?  I could go home after a win and four hits, but I’ll feel empty if my uniform is still clean and I think Punto would agree.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Twins have their own washer just for Punto’s jerseys.     

Punto even slides head first on close plays at first base.  It has been proven again and again that runners will get to first base faster by running through it rather than sliding.  The slide slows down the progress.  I read an interview with Punto a few years back that cleared up his thoughts on why he slides head first and also threw a monkey wrench into the theory that is slows you down.  Punto said if the runner hasn’t actually touched the ground when he touches first, how could it slow you down?  If the sliding is done after the base, then the play has already been decided.  In other words, what Punto likes to do is fly to first base and land after it.  He also believes the chaos of the slide will sometimes confuse the umpire and give the runner the benefit of the doubt.   

Nick Punto represents something in all of us.  Nick Punto is not a superstar and never will be.  But he does his best with the talent he has.  He knows he’s in a very privileged occupation and he never takes that for granted.  He knows there are thousands in the stands who would love to trade places with him and he does his best to give every one of those fans their money’s worth whether it’s with his no-fear defense, extra-base-hustling baserunning, head-first slides, or even the occasional clutch hit.  He won’t go in the hall of fame, he won’t even go in the Twins hall of fame, but he will be remembered and missed when he’s gone.   

Dan Gladden didn't let Gregg Olson get in his way during the 1991 World Series. Punto and Gladden were made from the same mold.

 

He’ll live among other Twins legends who did the absolute best with the little talent they had like Cesar Tovar, Greg Gagne and Dan Gladden.  I never saw Tovar play, but have heard stories from my parents and their peers of his undying hustle.  When I think of Gagne, I remember his wide range at shortstop and his infield single that drove in the winning run in game seven of the 1987 World Series.  As for Gladden, it’s up for grabs who was the bigger hustler: him or Punto.  Gladden will forever be known for his broken-bat single that he stretched to a double to open the bottom of the 10th inning in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series.  Gladden eventually scored the winning run to win that World Series.  I can see Punto playing a similar role for the Twins in the future.

Read Full Post »

“It’s a great day for a ballgame … let’s play two!” – Ernie Banks  

Unfortunately, there aren’t many days a baseball fan can watch two games.  Sure, there’s the doubleheaders scheduled after a rainout, but even those are mostly day/night where fans have to buy two tickets to see both games.  

I remember getting the 1996 Twins schedule and seeing a scheduled doubleheader against the A’s and knowing immediately I would go to those games.  Why wouldn’t I?  It was two games for the price of one.  

Without scheduled doubleheaders, a long spring training and three rounds of playoffs, the seventh game of the World Series can be in early November.  This can be avoided, but the owners would have to cater to the fans instead of their pocketbooks.  I know, I know; not likely.   

By playing doubleheaders on major holidays and opening day, Major League Baseball could shave a full week off its schedule.  This would make sure the World Series is over by November 1, could increase profits if done properly and give fans a reason to sit in the sun, drink beer, eat bratwurst and watch baseball all day.  Does it get any better?   

This man would like my idea.

 

The entire nation is baseball crazy on opening day.  Even the casual fan can’t wait to see baseball highlights on Sportscenter.  Ballparks across the country sell out even if the team has no chance of a .500 season.  Opening day is an event and owners could be making even more money off of it and fans could be getting twice the baseball fix in early April.  

Ball clubs could also schedule a day at the ballpark on Easter (if it falls in season), Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.  Combined with opening day, that’s seven days of doubleheaders and one less week in the season.   

Owners may look at this proposal and think, That’s seven days with half the profits.  What am I saying?  Owners probably wouldn’t say this as they’d be looking for the best way to increase profits as they are businessmen.  They wouldn’t want to sell one ticket to two games and selling two would defeat the purpose.  Why not sell one ticket at 150% the price?  Don’t want to sell two games for the price of one?  Let’s compromise.  Instead of selling a $20 seat at face value, up the price to $30.  It’s not double the price and it’s still a bargain to watch two games.  Sure, that’s $10 in lost revenue, but it’s a guarantee concession dollars will increase as fans won’t have anywhere else to turn for lunch and dinner; not to mention that overpriced beer.  Give fans twice the baseball, lose revenue in ticket sales but gain in concessions.  The fans’ morale increases at such a fun day under the sun watching baseball and drinking beer that they’re sure to come back for more.

Read Full Post »

Being a kid is never easy.  Being a kid during the 1930s wasn’t much easier, watching the unfolding events that would eventually lead to war overseas in the newspapers every day.  Now imagine being a Jewish kid in the United States watching as the Jews of Europe are being rounded up by the Nazis and forced to work in concentration camps.  Although the Nazis weren’t doing the same in the states, the anti-Semitism could be felt across the Atlantic Ocean in the decade leading up to World War II.

Terrifying facts

America’s anti-Semitism was proven with a 1939 Roper poll that stated only 39 percent of citizens felt Jews should be treated like every one else.  Fifty-three percent in the poll said “Jews are different and should be restricted” and 10 percent said Jews should be deported (Wikipedia).  Jewish children and adults alike needed a diversion from the horrors in the newspaper, not to mention the personal prejudice they might face on a day-to-day basis.

Fortunately for those Jews in the United States, they could turn their newspapers to the sports section and check the box scores and baseball stories to see how the Detroit Tigers’ Jewish great Hank Greenberg did the day before.  In all likelihood, they were greeted with good news.

An ungifted athlete

Greenberg helped the Detroit Tigers to two World Series championships during his career.  He also won two MVP awards despite facing tough odds from the beginning.  Greenberg was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in New York City on the first day of 1911.  Born with flat feet, Greenberg had to work hard to achieve his athleticism.  After being recruited by the New York Yankees in 1929, he decided not to join the Bronx Bombers since they already had a quality first baseman in Lou Gehrig.  Instead, Greenberg attended New York University for a year before signing with the Tigers the next year.

According to an article by Evan Goldstein in The Jerusalem Report, 5 million Jews passed through Ellis Island between 1880 and 1924; New York’s Jewish population grew from 80,000 to 1,250,000.  By 1900, the United States’ Jewish population of 1.5 million trailed only Russia and Austria-Hungary.  In 1939, the United States were still two years from entering the war.  The German army rolled over Poland and France, and Britain had entered the war.

Just like every one else

In the early 1930s, with the Nazis gaining more and more control in Germany, Greenberg was making his way through the minor leagues where he encountered one of his teammates, Jo-Jo White, walking around and staring at him.  When Greenberg asked what he was looking at, his teammate said he’d never seen a Jew before.  “The way he said it,” Greenberg said, “he might as well have said, ‘I’ve never seen a giraffe before.’ (Wikipedia)   The future Detroit Tiger let him look a little longer before asking if he saw anything interesting.  White said, “You’re just like everybody else.”

Taking one for the team

While many common Americans had something to say about the Jews, there weren’t many complaints about one Jew in Detroit through the 1930s.  When Greenberg refused to play on Yom Kippur during the middle of a pennant race in 1934, many fans couldn’t believe their ears.  According to the documentary The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Detroit sports writer wrote of Greenberg’s absence, “We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat, but he’s true to his religion-and I honor him for that!” (Kempner).

Greenberg was one of the few rays of sunshine shining through the newspaper headlines for Jews during the 1930s and through most of World War II.  In a nation with anti-Semitism around every corner, here was a Jewish athlete being applauded for not doing his job on a Jewish holiday.  Not only is he being applauded, but the cheers are coming from the city where Henry Ford made his fortune.  Ford was a known anti-Semitism, published his views in the newspaper The Dearborn Independent.

Just 11 years after Babe Ruth blasted 60 home runs in a season, a record that seemed unapproachable; Greenberg launched 58, nearly eclipsing the record.  He helped lead the Tigers to American League championships in 1934, 1935, 1940 and 1945.  Detroit took home the World Series trophy in 1935 and 1945.

Catcalls gone too far

But it wasn’t all praise Greenberg received during his tenure at Tigers Stadium.  According to Tigers’ fan Dr. George Barahal, “I can recall people yelling from the stands, ‘Hey, you kike!  You’re not supposed to be able to play ball.  You’re just a kike, or a sheeny.’  And, Hank stood proud and tall” (Kempner).

“It was a constant thing,” Greenberg said of the catcalls he heard from the stands years after retiring.  “There was always some leather-lung in the stands that was getting on me and yelling at me.  I found it was a spur to make me do better because I could never fall asleep on the ball field.  As soon as you struck out you were not only a bum, but you were a Jewish bum” (Kempner).

Greenberg wasn’t Major League Baseball’s first Jewish player, but he was its first superstar and he didn’t hide the fact that he was Jewish.  Ira Berkow, a sports columnist for the New York Times said many Jews of that time changed their name to hide their background.  “There were a number of Jewish players before Hank who had changed their names; and Greenberg didn’t” (Kempner).

Tigers’ fan George Shapiro admired the Tigers’ first basemen for his pride in his tradition.  “There was a general aura of anti-Semitism in those days,” Shapiro said.  “Along comes Hank Greenberg: the Messiah; a Moses.  He was especially important because he wore his Jewishness on his sleeve and in his heart and he never denied that he was Jewish” (Kempner).

A Yankee-hired thug

During the 1934 pennant race between the Tigers and the New York Yankees, the anti-Semitism only seemed to increase as the end of the season neared.  Detroit News sports columnist Joe Falls tells of what Greenberg faced when the Tigers faced the Bronx Bombers.  “The Yankees, in key games, would go to the minor leagues and bring up some nasty guy just to sit on the bench and get on Hank’s case.  He (Greenberg) said, ‘I don’t mind it except that the Italians were called dagos and the Polish players were called Polacks and the Germans were called krauts, and of course, me being a Jew, I was the kike (or a) sheeny, and you can live with that.  Except,’ he said, ‘there were a lot of Italians, a lot of Germans, a lot of everything, but only one Jewish ballplayer and they really gave it to me'” (Kempner).

With the Jewish New Year’s holiday nearing in 1934, Greenberg was debating whether or not to play.  “The team was fighting for first place and I was probably the only batter in the lineup that was not in a slump,” Greenberg said.  “I was literally carrying the club with my hitting.”

Taking one for Detroit’s team

“He didn’t want to let the team down and by the same token, he began to recognize himself as a kind of symbol for the Jewish people,” Joe Greenberg, Hank’s brother said.  “So, he really didn’t know how to handle it” (Kempner).  According to Tigers’ radio announcer Ernie Harwell, a rabbi in Detroit looked in the Talmud and found a reference to young Jews playing in the streets of Jerusalem during Rosh Hashanah.  A headline in a local paper read, “Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play” (Kempner).

“We all sat in the synagogue, and the game started,” Tigers’ fan Bert Gordon said.  “We all went out to the parking lot and turned on car radios or went to somebody’s house and got a score.  When we came in through the side doors, everybody would follow us with their eyes.”

Greenberg’s friend, Harold Allen, recalled the day in synagogue the day Greenberg decided to play and hit two home runs in the Tigers’ 2-1 win over the White Sox.  “While the cantor was singing, he would stop for a minute, he says, ‘How’s Hank doing?’  The whole interest of the city of Detroit was Hank Greenberg” (Kempner).  On the front of the Detroit Free Press the next day had the headline, “Happy New Year” written in Hebrew.

“Years later, I heard that the rabbi knew that the Talmud really said that it was the Roman children who played on Rosh Hashanah, but the rabbi didn’t tell Hank that part of it,” sports broadcaster Dick Schaap said.

Even the most devout Jews were rooting for Greenberg to play on a Jewish holiday.  He was a hero to the millions of Jews in America.  He was a spokesman, not through his words, but through his actions.  Greenberg never backed down and didn’t complain when things didn’t go his way.

Baseball fans’ anti-Semitism may have shown through clearly in 1935’s All-Star Game.  All Stars were chosen based on fan voting as well as the team’s manager.  In 1935 the Tigers were coming off of an American League championship and Greenberg was halfway through his first MVP season.  In spite of all these accolades, the Tiger great was not chosen as an all star.

A hero to Detroit, the United States and his heritage

Greenberg showed his patriotism to his country in 1940 when he was drafted by the United States military.  He was later honorably discharged two days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor due to being over the age of 28.  He eventually re-enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces and served overseas in the Republic of China-Burma-India theater, scouting locations for B-29 bases (Wikipedia).

In a time of uncertainty and fear, Hank Greenberg helped lead a nation of Jews to show it was a good thing to be Jewish.

Read Full Post »

Opening Day has become more of an event for me than Christmas.  I look forward to the first day of the baseball season more than any other day of the year.  The nation is baseball starved and there’s proof when PNC Park in Pittsburgh is near capacity.  Rarely do I attend the first game of the year as the parks are usually filled and it seems to be more about the event than the game.  

Whether at the park or in front of the TV and/or radio, I have some great Opening Day memories. 

1992
For the second time in four years, I was watching the defending World Series champs.  The Twins were defending the greatest World Series ever played.  No, it wasn’t officially Opening Day, but it was the home opener for Minnesota and I was at the dome.  

I’d learned from the movie Major League that you could tell how well a team would do by the first at bat of the season.  Once again, it wasn’t the first at bat, but it was the first at home.  Shane Mack led off for the Twins against the Rangers as I sat in the nasty limited-view seats in the upper deck of right field.  Mack took Bobby Witt deep over the centerfield wall and my 13-year old mind was convinced the Twins would repeat as World Series champs.  Minnesota would finish second in the AL West with 90 wins and the Blue Jays would take the trophy that season.  However, the Twins did beat Texas 7-1 thanks to Mack and the pitching of Kevin Tapani. 

1996
I’m always baseball starved on Opening Day, but 1996 was much worse than other years.  Following the strike of 1994 and early 1995, I choose to boycott all Major League games for one season.  In 1995 the most I did was follow the standings.  I didn’t watch any games and I definitely didn’t attend any.  When 1996 rolled around, I was about to graduate high school and, for the first time, had a reliable car and the freedom to use it.  

The Twins played a day game against the Tigers on April 1, Opening Day.  I skipped out of school early (which I did a lot in those last few months) to attend the game with my friend Steve in my 1991 Honda Civic.  

In 1996, I got back together with my wife after a one-year separation.  I didn’t know what I had until it was gone.  Or, if you will, in 1996 I got back off the wagon.  I fulfilled my old addiction and it felt better than ever.  

A little known rookie named Alex Rodriguez helped lead the Mariners to an opening night victory in 1996.

 

There was also the memory of the one game played the night before between the White Sox and Mariners.  Others in the stadium were talking about it also.  The Mariners won 3-2 in 12 innings.  The game was won when some rookie batting ninth for Seattle named Alex Rodriguez singled in the winning run. 

The Twins won 8-6 thanks to Matt Lawton’s two RBI.  At the time, Twins fans thought Lawton would be a temporary replacement for Kirby Puckett until he figured out his eye problem.  A second-year pitcher named Brad Radke got the win.  

1998
At some point during Opening Day of 1998 while attending the University of Wisconsin-Stout I must have went to a class or two, but I don’t remember any.  What I do remember is watching baseball games on ESPN from noon until midnight.  My friend Leviathon and I were watching every moment we could while recounting old baseball names from the eighties we’d forgotten that also made us giggle like Ron Kittle, Rob Deer and Dave Dravecky.  

We were getting hungry while watching the Mariners – Indians game.  Would we have enough time to jet to the student center to grab a sub before Ken Griffey Jr. came back to the plate?  Yes, if we ran.  We did.  As I unlocked my dorm room door I could hear John Miller on the TV behind it, “Ken Griffey Jr. has homered to put the Mariners ahead!”  “Damn it!” said I.  The only times you don’t want a slugger like Griffey to homer is when you have the opportunity to watch, but don’t.  

What other games we watched is a mystery 12 years later, but there was the thought that I’d watched 12 hours of baseball when I shut the TV off at midnight.  

1999
After the missed Griffey home run the year before, I’d learned never to miss an at bat – order in.  In my second year at UW-Stout, I learned never to fall asleep – drink coffee.  

At the tail end of another 12-hour baseball marathon, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks went into extra innings.  With no sidekick to keep me up (Leviathon was exiled to UW-Eau Claire), only the voice of ESPN’s John Miller would wake me up.  “Way back! Way back!  Gone!  Raul Mondesi has won it for the Dodgers!”  My eyes opened just as the ball hit the fans.  It was a two-run home run to give Mondesi six RBI for the evening.  Lesson No. 2 for Opening Day – don’t fall asleep. 

2008
The first game of the season was to be played in Washington D.C. in the brand new Nationals Park.  My girlfriend Kate and I hit the Mousetrap bar in Eau Claire with about five unopened packs of baseball cards to add to the festivities.  The Braves were in the nation’s capital and the president threw out the first pitch.  I was never a big fan of George W. Bush, but I will say the man could throw out a first pitch better than any other president.  

Nationals Park looked beautiful, spirits were high in the low-lit bar for the new season, conversation rarely strayed from the great game and I was happy to find an Ichiro card.  

Ryan Zimmerman capped a great opening night game in the nation's capital in 2008.

 

Baseball’s a social sport.  Many who don’t know the game well enough feel I need silence while watching a game as if it’s a golf match and I’m teeing off.  This is not so.  I encourage conversation while the game is going on, just don’t expect any eye contact on my part.  As the game reached the bottom of the ninth inning, the conversation continued between myself, Kate and some friends who had gathered.  The conversation stopped moments after Ryan Zimmerman connected and immediately after I announced what was happening.  The Nat’s third baseman had homered just over the centerfield wall to give Washington the 3-2 win and the hometown fans something to cheer about.  I’m happy to share this memory, but I’m keeping my Ichiro card. 

2010
The Twins are in Los Angeles in the late evening and my favorite bar is closed Mondays.  Research needs to be done for the ultimate setting to watch baseball on the most anticipated day of the year.  Poor teams will look great and fans will contemplate the possibilities.  A large-market east coast team will play poorly and fans and critics alike will jump the gun on what was supposed to be a great year.  Game No. 1 is just as important, or unimportant, as Game No. 162 … or Game 163.

Read Full Post »

Opening day is Monday and I thought it would be appropriate if I gave a few predictions for the 2010 season.  Keep in mind some of these predictions will be made with my head and some with my heart.  I’ll start with my least favorite division and move to the best division in baseball.

AL East
1 – New York Yankees
2 – Tampa Bay Rays
3 – Boston Red Sox
4 – Baltimore Orioles
5 – Toronto Blue Jays

As much as I don’t like to admit it, the Yankees will likely take the AL East title again.  The only upside to the rest of the league is the Yankees are getting older and their top players (Jeter, Posada, Rivera, Rodriguez) won’t keep this up for much longer.  The Rays are nasty with young talent and they do it in a very financially efficient way.  The Red Sox are a much more fundamentally sound team with an emphasis on defense.  However, even if they win 90 games, they still might not take second place.  The signing of Jon Lester will look good for a season or two and then the ugliest man in baseball man also have the ugliest contract.  Keep an eye on Baltimore as they’ll stay in the bottom half of the East, but will improve.  As for the Blue Jays, better luck in 2012. 

NL East
1 – Philadelphia Phillies
2 – Atlanta Braves
3 – Florida Marlins
4 – New York Mets
5 – Washington Nationals

The Phillies won the NL pennant without a frontline starter in the first half of the season.  With Roy Halladay, they should run away with the division.  The Braves could be coming back to their old form in Bobby Cox’s final season.  The Marlins will be right on their tail.  With a new ballpark, Florida could become a middle-market team like the Twins in a few years.  The Mets could sneak their way up to second place if their injured players contribute like they’re supposed to.  As for the Nationals, they have Stephen Strasburgh to look forward to in another last-place season.

AL West
1 – Seattle Mariners
2 – Los Angeles Angels
3 – Texas Rangers
4 – Oakland A’s

Most predict the Angels to win the West, but with the lack of an ace as well as Chone Figgins, the division will go to Seattle.  The team is built for its spacious park and once Cliff Lee gets going, the Mariners and Ichiro will be one of the funnest teams to watch.  I have to give my respect to the Rangers and how they handled the Ron Washington situation.  In the red state that Texas is, I would have thought the team would have landed a harsh penalty on the Rangers skipper.  Instead they did the mature thing (after he did the mature thing by confessing) and gave the man a second chance.  With Josh Hamilton back on track, the Rangers could sneak by the Angels and possibly contend for the wild card.  As for the Athletics, they signed Ben Sheets to a one year, $10 million contract.  I don’t see the logic in this.  Billy Beane needs to find a new strategy. 

NL West
1 – Colorado Rockies
2 – Los Angeles Dodgers
3 – Arizona Diamondbacks
4 – San Francisco Giants
5 – San Diego Padres

Colorado will see its first division title since joining the National League in 1993.  The Rockies are built on quality home-grown talent with a strong rotation to counter the altitude of Coors Field.  The Dodgers will be going back and forth with the Rockies for most of the season, but will fall short of the division.  With a healthy Brandon Webb back, the D-Backs will overcome the pitching of the Giants to finish third and probably near the .500 mark.  San Francisco has too much depending on the pitching of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.  It’s likely Adrian Gonzalez will be wearing a new jersey by the trade deadline, along with Heath Bell (possibly the Twins), leaving San Diego looking to the future – far into the future. 

NL Central
1 – St. Louis Cardinals
2 – Cincinnati Reds
3 – Chicago Cubs
4 – Milwaukee Brewers
5 – Houston Astros
6 – Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s difficult to pick second through sixth place in the NL Central as there’s no clear standout after St. Louis.  With the mediocrity of this division, the Cardinals could win 95+ games based on their schedule.  The Reds, Cubs and Brewers could all exchange places.  Randy Wolf is not the answer to Milwaukee’s pitching problems.  In fact, he will probably eventually contribute to them during his three-year stint.  The Reds are showing promise, but not enough to compete with the Cards.  The Cubs are cursed.  The Astros are way too old and will probably be having a fire sale after the All-Star break.  The Pirates seem to finally be figuring out they shouldn’t try to win now, but build for the future so maybe they’ll crawl above .500 … in 2012. 

AL Central
1 – Minnesota Twins
2 – Chicago White Sox
3 – Detroit Tigers
4 – Kansas City Royals
5 – Cleveland Indians

The loss of Joe Nathan will not be as devastating for the Twins as many have said.  Closers are overrated.  Sure, it’s been nice to have a lights-out closer for the ninth since 2004, but who needs perfection with a 6-3 lead?  Almost anyone can earn a save with a three-run lead and three outs to go … even LaTroy Hawkins.  Manager Ron Gardenhire knows what he’s doing and will handle the ninth inning as well as the other eight.  Should the Twins’ rotation play to its ability (I’m looking at you Mr. Liriano), the Twins will run away with the Central.  The White Sox have gone from a slugging team to a pitching team with the addition of Jake Peavy.  The former Padre could put up Cy Young numbers in a league of unfamiliar batters.  The Tigers will miss the bat and defense of Placido Polanco and will have to be content with a .500 record.  The Royals will look better and have many baseball critics excited about 2011.  Should Fausto Carmona rebound, Cleveland could overtake the Royals, but it’s unlikely. 

Division series
Phillies defeat Rockies
Braves defeat Cardinals

Twins defeat Angels
Mariners defeat Yankees

Championship series
Phillies defeat Braves

Twins defeat Mariners

World Series
Twins defeat Phillies in seven

Read Full Post »