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Archive for May, 2010

Take a baseball blender and mix together Kirby Puckett and Andre Dawson.  What do you get?  Vladimir Guerrero.  Since 1996, Guerrero has been very quietly compiling a hall of fame career.  You could say he played for a large-market team with his six years with the Angels, but he still managed to keep his career quiet.  He’s playing in his 15th season in the game; his first with the Texas Rangers. 

Kirby Puckett and Vladimir Guerrero have similar strike zones ... or lack there of.

 

As I was saying … if you take equal parts lemonade and iced tea you get an Arnold Palmer and if you do the same with Puckett and Dawson you have Guerrero.  Like Puckett, Guerrero with swing at anything and everything at the plate and hit all of it.  Kent Hrbek once said he couldn’t count how many times he followed Puckett at the plate after a hit with the catcher shaking his head saying, “I don’t know how he hit that ball.”  It’s a sure bet the batters following Guerrero have heard the same.  The Rangers’ DH has been known to hit balls on the bounce in his career.  Guerrero will strike out, but in small doses compared to today’s sluggers.  His highest season total was 88 in 2001.  Jose Hernandez led the National League that year with 185 strikeouts.  

The comparisons to Dawson are even more relatable.  Both players began their careers in the confines of Montreal.  Both played a good right field with the best arms of their era.  Dawson and Guerrero were also known for their base-stealing abilities early in their careers.  Guerrero stole 123 bases in his eight seasons north of the border; Dawson took 253 in 11 seasons.  Of course, those numbers dropped dramatically after that many years playing the outfield on the hard Astroturf of Olympic Stadium.  Dawson stole 61 bases in his 10 years following Montreal while Guerrero has taken 56 in his six-plus seasons.  

Not only did Montreal drop their stolen base totals, but it also did a number on their knees.  Dawson and Guerrero have each had knee problems, especially Dawson.  

Andre Dawson and Guerrero both started in Montreal and both had knees damaged thanks to Olympic Stadium.

 

Neither player has ever seen a World Series.  Guerrero came close last season when the Angels lost to the Yankees in the ALCS.  Dawson saw the NLCS in both 1981 and 1989, but nothing more.  Guerrero’s Rangers sit in first place as of now and stand a good chance at seeing the postseason.  

Perhaps the recipe should be 1/3 Puckett and 2/3 Dawson? 

Beginning in 1996, Guerrero has amounted a .322 batting average, .386 OBP, .569 SLG, 2,312 hits, 419 home runs, 1,361 RBI, 1,214 runs and 179 stolen bases.  Add to that the 2004 American League MVP trophy and he’s well on his way to the hall of fame.  If he could only add a trip to the World Series and he’d probably be a sure bet.  

Vlad leads a quiet career.  His only real trademark is the fact that he doesn’t wear batting gloves.  I think he was born with the superpower to project pine tar from the pores of his palm like Spiderman can project webs.  I have never read a bad word about the man in the press.  He’s not a showboat and he plays the game with class.  

When Vlad won the MVP award in 2004, he hit .337 and drove in 126 runs for the Angels.  He hit 39 home runs and 39 doubles and led the AL with 124 runs scored.  He also slugged .598.  Making the playoffs and winning awards could easily constitute for a player’s best season, but his best individual year could have happened in Montreal.  Was his best season in 2000 with a line of .345/.410/.664 with 123 RBI and 44 home runs?  Could it be 2001 with .307/.377/.566 and 108 RBI, 34 home runs and 37 stolen bases?  A case could also be made for 2002 and his line of .336/.417/.593 with 111 RBI, 39 homers and 40 stolen base?  

Add to all of Vlad’s accolades the fact that he’s never been linked to performance enhancing drugs and there’s another bonus for the hall of fame voters to consider.  That puts him in a rare group of sluggers from the “steroid” era of Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome and Chipper Jones.  

From my own personal experience, I have two in-person memories of Mr. Guerrero.  The first was in 2001, my first game at Miller Park.  I bought seats in right field in hopes of seeing him gun down a Brewer trying to get from first to third.  It didn’t happen.  The second was in 2005.  It was a pitchers’ duel between Johan Santana and Bartolo Colon at the Metrodome.  Colon won the duel 2-1 mostly because of a Guerrero home run that  seemed to still be rising as it struck the left field foul pole.  The force of the blast made the nylon pole flop back and forth for seconds after being struck.  It was one of those no-doubters you knew was gone before it left the infield.  

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIN/MIN200505010.shtml 

Perhaps his most memorable moment came just last October in the third game of the ALDS with a 2-0 series lead on the Red Sox.  Down by a run with two outs and runners on second and third, Guerrero delivered a clutch single off Jonathan Papelbon to score both runners and eventually give the Angels a 7-6 win and series sweep.  

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BOS/BOS200910110.shtml 

Guerrero isn’t what he used to be.  He rarely plays the outfield and he isn’t nearly as fast as he used to be.  Of course, he’s gotten even smarter.  So far this season he’s stolen four bases.  The 35-year old is hitting .342 with 42 RBI and 12 home runs.  He’s still strong, he can still hit and you can still count on him in the clutch. 

Here’s hoping Vlad can deliver a few more of those clutch hits this fall (as long as it’s not off the Twins). 

Vlad is fitting in perfectly with Texas this season.

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20
May 16,
2001, Metrodome, Twins vs. Red Sox
If you’ve never seen a knuckleball coming at you, there are two ways to envision it. One is to watch the movie 61*. In the film about Roger Maris’s chase to beat Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, Maris faces knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm. Director Billy Crystal portrays the pitch from the batter’s perspective as it floats through the air without any spin. 

The other way is to imagine a wiffle ball coming at you. 

This is what the Twins had to face the day Trevor and I saw them face Boston’s Tim Wakefield. Trevor told me as the game began, it usually takes teams a trip or two through the lineup to get their timing down to get some wood on the magical pitch. He was right. 

Tim Wakefield

 

After Wakefield left after giving up three runs in the fifth, the game was tied in the bottom of the eighth.  The Twins’ Brian Buchanan stepped to the plate.  There was plenty of anticipation for something to happen as we sat ten rows up in left field.  

There is a great excitement when a fan sees his/her team belt a home run, but the excitement is very different when the ball is coming at you.  Buchanan’s homer landed about three rows above us. If I’d had a glove, I might have been able to make a Torii Hunter-esque jump to snare it.  I was just happy the Twins took the lead and eventually won. 

 Trevor was happy as well, but was also upset I didn’t go for the ball. 

“What are you doing? You gotta go after those!” 

“It was out of my reach,” I said, trying to contain my laughter from Trevor’s humor-filled freak out. 

“If I’d been in your seat, I would’ve had that,” Trevor said. 

“Whatever; you would not.” 

“I’m disappointed in you, Jeff.” 

I never lived that down in Trevor’s mind. Whenever that game was mentioned, I talked about Buchanan’s big home run. Trevor talked about my lack of ambition. 

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIN/MIN200105160.shtml 

19
August 21, 1999, Metrodome, Twins vs. Yankees

Before getting to the game, I didn’t realize the draw the Yankees would have. I saw them as just another team, so I thought my friend Teresa and I would have little trouble getting good seats. The lower level was sold out, so we had to sit in the upper deck of left field – miles from the action. 

Roger Clemens was on the mound that night. It was 1999, so the Twins were still in the doldrums. Looking back, the Yankees seem to have trouble with the “easy” games. They always had trouble with the Devil Rays, the perennial doormat of the AL. 

The Twins surprised everyone and beat Clemens and the Yankees. The reason this game is in my top 30 is for one play that was so incredibly risky, yet pulled off to perfection, that it made the game one of the greats. 

Clemens was still pitching, there were two out with Ron Coomer on third and Cristian Guzman was batting for the Twins. Teresa and I were in mid conversation when I saw it.  “SQUEEZE!” I yelled and pointed to the field. I think I scared Teresa since I was in mid sentence — but I always keep an eye on the field. Another great thing about the game is it’s a social sport. A fan can have two great nights — one involving the game and the other the company. 

Back to the game. Tom Kelly, the Twins manager, called a squeeze play! Against Roger Clemens! With two outs!!! For those who aren’t familiar with the squeeze play, the batter bunts while the runner takes off for home. If the batter misses the bunt, the runner on third is likely to be thrown out. If the batter does get the bunt, the runner usually scores, but the batter is thrown out as a sacrifice. 

This means that the usual sacrifice can’t happen since there are two outs. If Guzman is thrown out, the inning is over and no runs score. 

Guzman beat the throw and the run scored. 

After the play, Teresa giggled for the rest of the night thinking of my random baseball freak out. The joke about the “Squeeze!” still lives on today. 

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIN/MIN199908210.shtml 

18
August 2006, Midway Stadium, St. Paul, Saints vs. St. Joseph, MO
St. Paul lost by two runs. That’s not too important. What is in this game is the most exuberant, entertaining and drawn out ejections I have ever seen. 

Kate and I were enjoying our fourth or fifth Saints game of the year in the top of the eighth and St. Joseph is threatening to score with runners on second and third, two outs and a 3-2 count on the hitter. 

The Saints’ pitch is close as the batter checks his swing. The ump called a ball, loading the bases. Saints from all corners of the field and dugout begin to argue the batter swung and it should be strike three, end of inning. 

First, it’s the St. Paul shortstop to get thrown out and leaves the game in disgust. The the manager gets in the face of the home-plate umpire and gets tossed, but he doesn’t leave the field. As he’s yelling, the Saints’ first baseman, former Twin Brian Buchanan, chimes in. Buchanan is tossed after about three words and he leaves for the dugout, screaming back in frustration as he walks away. 

Mr. Buchanan is featured in two of my top 30 games: one in the big leagues and the other with the Saints.

 

This entire time the pitcher stood with his back turned to the arguments with his wrists resting on his hips, one hand with his glove and the other holding the ball. After Buchanan was gone, the pitcher turns to the ump, who’s arguing with the manager and probably said something in reference to his mother, and was tossed. In retaliation to show the umps how well they were doing, the pitcher winds up and tosses the ball over the left-field fence on to the railroad tracks, a good 250 feet away. It was a toss that would have impressed Roberto Clemente. 

After the pitcher got to the dugout, he found a bucket of balls and tossed it onto the field along with another empty bucket. 

It seemed as if the arguing was done, but the already ejected manager was still on the field, arguing with one ump while two others held him back. Every now and then, one of the ones holding the manger would offend him and the umps would have to rotate so the two least offensive could hold him back while he screamed at the newly offensive ump. At this point, they were arguing about more than just a checked swing. 

This went on for 15 to 20 minutes before the crowd got impatient with the home team and began to boo. After play resumed, St. Joseph went on a two-run rally and won 6-4. 

Kate and I beat each other with rally flags as we walked back to the car. 

17
April 26, 2006, Busch Stadium, St. Louis, Cardinals vs. Pirates
Many say St. Louis is America’s best baseball town and I can’t argue. I’d gone to the game the night before and I think I was one of ten in the capacity crowd not wearing Cardinal red. 

I donned red for the Wednesday afternoon game. 

The park was barely three weeks old, so I wasn’t the only one looking around in awe and snapping pictures.  Mark Mulder was on the mound for the Redbirds and sophomore Zach Duke was pitching for the Pirates. After my trip to PNC Park the previous year, I’d become a bit of a Pirates fan. 

Batting third for the Cards was Albert Pujols, one of the most talented playeres in the game. He is quickly becoming a Barry Bonds like player, without the nasty attitude, large ego and steroids. Pujols was walked intentionally twice that Wednesday afternoon. They should have walked him three times. 

Arguably the greatest of his generation, Albert Pujols.

 

With the Cardinals winning 3-2 with two outs in the top of the ninth, I started to get sad. I’d really enjoyed my time in St. Louis and especially at the ballgames. I wasn’t ready to leave.  Jose Hernandez made my day while angering the rest of the park when he launched a solo homer over the left-field fence to tie the game at three. More baseball! 

In the bottom of the ninth, with one out, future World Series MVP David Eckstein singled for St. Louis. Hector Luna did the same sending Eckstein to second. Up stepped Albert Pujols.  He is St. Louis’ hero. Pujols jerseys blanketed the park.  There was as much excitement flowing through the park as there was fear through Pittsburgh’s closer Roberto Hernandez. 

With a flick of his bat,, Pujols send a hit down the third-base line past a diving Joe Randa. Eckstein rounded third and scored the winning run.  A crowd of teammates gathered around Pujols, smacking his helmet in thanks as if to say, We couldn’t have done it without you. 

The great thing about this game is 25 years from now when Pujols is in the hall of fame, I’ll be able to say I saw the great Pujols the same way old men today talk of Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente or Sandy Koufax. 

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/SLN/SLN200604260.shtml 

16
August 30, 2009, Metrodome, Twins vs. Rangers
It was supposed to be my last game at the Metrodome and I was happy to see it go.  Thanks to one of the hottest September’s in Twins history, I managed one more game (No. 163 of the season, to be exact) at the football stadium, but didn’t see that coming at the time.  

The decision was last-minute, which usually work out well.  A Sunday afternoon game, I got a good seat just past third base, bought a scorecard and sat down to see what Kevin Millwood and Scott Baker could do.  There were no memories of the friend I came with or the significance; it was just a great game.  Of course, if the Twins had lost, there wouldn’t have been a game 163, but no one knew that at the time. 

The highlight of the game may have been a play that had nothing to do with the outcome of the game with exception to a possible momentum shift for the Twins.  With two outs and no one on in the fourth inning, backup catcher Mike Redmond stepped to the plate for Minnesota.   Redmond had been in the big leagues since 1998 and up until then, he had two career triples.  His line drive went into the left-center field gap.  As the outfielder threw the ball in I could see Redmond rounding second and I could only smile while thinking, Oh no.  If he would have been thrown out at third, it would have been worth it to see his effort.  From my seat the vantage point was perfect.  I think Redmond set the major league record for slowest time from second to third base.  If the throw hadn’t been off to third baseman Michael Young, he would have been out.  Redmond slid head first into third base, pointed to his ecstatic teammates in the third-base dugout and screamed, “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”  

Justin Morneau began that inning with a double and Jason Kubel belted a home run that barely cleared the right field baggie giving the Twins a 2-1 lead.  The Rangers’ Nelson Cruz launched a two-run homer of his own in the seventh staking Texas to a 3-2 lead.  The three runs the Twins put together in the eighth doesn’t get much better to a pure baseball fan.  

Morneau led off with a walk followed by a single by Kubel.  With one out, Brendan Harris singled past Young at third base, sending Morneau home to tie the game.  Redmond stepped to the plate and hit a hard two-hopper to first base.  Carlos Gomez was pinch running on third and came charging home.  This is what is to love and hate about Gomez.  He can be too aggressive.  The man stole many extra bases for the Twins, but he was also thrown out by ten feet more often than he should have.  My heart cringed when he took off for home as I thought he’d be out for sure.  Safe!!!  Twins lead!!!  The throw was high and Gomez’s head-first slide went under the tag.  

Not known for his baseball smarts, Carlos Gomez was still fun to watch.

 

With Harris now on third and Nick Punto at the plate, the first pitch came in.  Bunt!  Squeeze!!  Everyone’s safe!!!  It wasn’t a suicide squeeze, but a safety squeeze and it worked to perfection as the Twins added an insurance run and were able to pull off the 5-3 despite a shaky ninth inning from Joe Nathan.  

As I left the football stadium I could only smile knowing my last memory at the dome would be a good one.    

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIN/MIN200908300.shtml 

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Continuing with my greatest games attended … 

25
August 9 2003, Comerica Park, Detroit, Twins vs. Tigers
Strangely enough, the 2006 AL champs were one of the worst teams in MLB history in 2003. I believe the Twins won 16 of 19 games against the Tigers that year. This was one of them. 

Trevor and two of his friends and I took a weekend trip to see our Twins in a real park. After being up all night driving, we stayed up all day and went to the game. The Detroit fans did not like us Minnesota boys cheering for our team. 

There are two dominant memories from this game. One was the Twins winning in extra innings. I almost felt bad for the Tigers fans. The other was the short happy life of a Lance Parrish bobblehead the nice people at Comerica Park gave out to 10,000 or so fans. When some fans from 10 rows behind us started yelling, “Go back to Minneapolis,” Trevor stood up, turned around to face the fans, held his bobblehead over his head so everyone could see it and severed the head. 

We made it out of there alive and even went to the Sunday afternoon game the next day and saw Kirk Gibson, the Tigers batting coach, get thrown out of the game … and the Twins won again. 

Ballparks don't get much better than Comerica Park in Detroit.

 

Despite being located in Detroit, Comerica Park is one of the most beautiful parks I’ve been to.  It has a great connection to the team’s history and is very fan friendly.  

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/DET/DET200308090.shtml 

24
April 28 2001, Miller Park, Milwaukee, Brewers vs. Expos
A few weeks before my college graduation and as sports editor of the college newspaper, I convinced the university to pay for my ticket as gas money to write a review of the Brewers’ new ballpark. I brought my attorney Leviathon with for any legal advice I might need. 

Milwaukee was taking on the late Montreal Expos and sitting half way between first base and the right-field wall in the lower deck, I was hoping some unlucky Brewer might try to go from first to third on a single and test the arm of Vladimir Guerrero. No go. 

Instead, I saw Geoff Jenkins have one of the greatest games of his career for Milwaukee. All he did was hit three home runs for the red hot Brewers. His attempt at a fourth landed in the glove of the Expos’ left fielder as his back was against the wall. 

I was also able to take one of my favorite baseball pictures. I managed to get to field level in the stands (proof it’s a good park) behind Montreal’s on-deck circle before Guerrero was up to bat. With his back in the foreground, the panoramic picture shows the new park with some rookie pitcher named Ben Sheets delivering to the Expos hitter.
It was a fine way to finish up my writing career for the college newspaper. 

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIL/MIL200104280.shtml 

23
Sunday night, July 13 2003, Wrigley Field, Chicago, Cubs vs. Braves

I had a three-day weekend and I thought, “What the hell, I’m gonna catch my first Cubs game at Wrigley Field.”
Took the red line to the Addison stop, bought one ticket from a scalper in an office down the street from the field and killed time in a local pub waiting for the ESPN Sunday night game of the week to begin less than a block away. 

I told myself before I went in the park I wouldn’t look up to see it until I was at the top of the steps of the lower deck so I could take it in all at once. It was as beautiful as I’d hoped. 

It turned out, the first person I saw taking batting practice was the mighty Sammy Sosa. With one swing of his corked bat, his undetectable steroids helped launch the pitch over the left field stands and onto Sheffield Avenue.
Before the game I saw the crew for ESPN’s Baseball Tonight, who were about to broadcast on the field. Along with Karl Ravich, Bobby Valentine and Tim Kurkjian were commentators Jon Miller and hall of famer Joe Morgan. I was star struck and the game hadn’t even begun. 

As I watched the live taping of Baseball Tonight, during a commercial, it looked as though the three men behind the desk were waving at me. I noticed the woman next to me waving back. After talking with her I found out she was the wife of baseball writer Tim Kurkjian. 

I was able to tell her I respected her husband’s work and I enjoyed listening to his commentary on the Tony Kornheiser radio show. “Oh, he loves being on the Kornheiser show,” she said. 

Sammy Sosa, Dusty Baker, Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Joe Morgan, Jon Miller … the list went on and on. But none were bigger or drew a bigger ovation that who was to come. The ballpark announcer told us all.
“And now, here to throw out the ceremonial first pitch — you know him from such films as Stripes, Caddysh…” Wrigley Field erupted in applause before the announcer could get any further. Through the roar of the crowd I could barely make out the words from overhead, “…Bill Murray!” 

The man is funny even as he walks to a pitching mound waving to the crowd. He was even funnier when he wound up to throw the first pitch as if he were a real major leaguer and then chucked it ten rows into the seats. 

A lifelong Cubs fan.

 

Oh yeah, the game. The Braves trounced the cursed Cubs something like, 8-3. Sosa came up once with the bases loaded and popped out. 

A few months later Moises Alou threw a hissy fit and Alex Gonzalez followed that up with an error that should have been easily avoided at shortstop in Game 6 of the NLCS, helping the Florida Marlins to defeat the Cubs and go on to win the World Series. 

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CHN/CHN200307130.shtml 

22
June 2000, Lewis and Clark Stadium, Sioux City, IA, Sioux City Explorers

I had just begun an internship with the Sioux City Journal. A woman in the office heard I was a baseball fan and offered me the company’s season ticket for the evening.  My roommate Josh couldn’t make it, so I went alone. 

I’d been to Lewis and Clark Stadium the previous season when Josh and I saw the St. Paul Saints play.  Walking to my seat, I contained my joy as I sat in the first row behind the screen, about 30 feet from home plate. 

This is Northern League baseball, which is on par with a double-A team. The majority of the game is a blur, but it was the first of many that summer, and it was filled with the excitement of the summer to come. I was beginning a long and interesting journey in the world of journalism that would last over five years. Later that summer I wrote my first published article on the Explorers’ Clay Calvert, who would later play for the Australian Olympic baseball team. 

The game was tied in the bottom of the ninth. Sioux City had a runner on third when a pitch got by the catcher. I saw it hit the backstop a few feet to my left. I looked up to see the Explorers’ runner trying to score from third.  The catcher tossed his mask and ran back to get the ball. The pitcher ran to cover the plate as the runner sprinted for home. The catcher threw a strike to home where the runner was sliding feet first. Dirt was flying everywhere from the slide.
Safe! Myself and the crowd went wild as the Explorers’ dugout poured on to the field to celebrate with the winning run.
The icing on the cake? Wait for it… 

There it is… 

I had to cover my mouth so as not to inhale the cloud of dust from the slide that had drifted to my front-row seat seconds later. It’s something you won’t experience in the majors. 

21
June 1996, Metrodome, Twins vs. Yankees
Thank you Jeremy Hursh for the tickets. Thank you Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for allowing the Yankee Stadium rainout to be rescheduled in the doubleheader-deprived Metrodome – two games for the price of one. 

With high school graduation fresh in my mind, Nick and I went inside for six hours of baseball.  I know the Twins won the first game and dropped the second. What I didn’t know at the time was how that Yankees team would become one of the greatest teams of all time. The late 90’s were a time, like all others, to hate the Yankees. But at least those teams a baseball fan could respect. New York was a lot more home grown back then and not just the best free agents of the year. The Yankees would go on to defeat the Braves in the World Series that year and then the Padres in ’98, the Braves again in ’99 and the Mets in 2000. Their overall World Series record in that time was 16-3. 

During the doubleheader, some guy I’d never heard of named Bernie Williams hit two home runs off the Twins. A middle reliever by the name of Mariano Rivera shut us down in game two for three innings and Don Zimmer, the Yankees’ bench coach, was thrown out for arguing with the umps with New York up something like 8-2. Nick and I screamed in joy at the baseball legend from the third row above the Yankees’ dugout. “Only the Yankees would argue when they’re up by six runs late in the game!” 

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIN/MIN199606251.shtml
http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIN/MIN199606252.shtml

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I have compiled a list of the top 30 baseball games I’ve attended.  I’ve done my best to consider the game and not the surroundings, but sometimes they can’t be ignored (i.e. PNC Park).  Most of the games are at one of the worst ballparks in the history of the game which held the greatest team in the history of the game.  Some are surrounded by 55,000 other screaming souls and some have only a few hundred nearby.   

This list is highly debatable, but only by myself and those who were fortunate enough to see these great games with me.  I was always accompanied by good friends and family.  The timeline runs from as early as I can remember to last October.  For those who joined me to these great games, thank you as you were as much of the story as the games themselves.   

We’ll start with games 26 through 30.   

30
1984, Metrodome, Minnesota Twins vs. Seattle Mariners

If I recall correctly, and there’s probably no one to back this up; this was my first baseball game ever. I don’t remember anything about the game other that who we played. What I do remember is feeling almost queasy when my parents and I walked from the concourse to the upper deck seating area. The immenseness of the stadium was something I’d never experience before. I’d never seen so much green (even if was Astroturf).  

Thinking back, it’s really sad I began going to games at a dome. I think it has helped me appreciate real ballparks even more. It’s kind of like starting your career at Wal-Mart. Every other job is that much better knowing you’re not at Wal-Mart.  

I always dreaded going to church Sunday mornings.  Of the 52 Sundays in a year, my family skipped morning mass about three or four times.  I always felt relief those mornings, but there was no better feeling than my dad popping into my room Sunday morning with a coy smile and asking, “Instead of church, do you want to go to the Twins game?”  This is the equivalent of asking a soldier if he’d rather be stationed in Costa Rica or Afghanistan.   

I’m pretty sure the Twins lost because I can remember asking my dad as we began to leave if we won and he said no, Seattle won.  

Also in attendance at my first game.

 

Seattle! I saw the Mariners prior to Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro and Edgar Martinez. Maybe they had Alvin Davis, but there wasn’t much to the Mariners back then.  

The Twins may or may not have had Kirby Puckett at that point. Kind of makes me feel old knowing I went to a game Puckett wasn’t on the team yet. That was his first season and he started in May. If he was on the team, it was definitely before he became the legend he is now.  

This may or may not be the game I was at: http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIN/MIN198404150.shtml 

29
July 3, 2006, Kaufmann Stadium, Kansas City, Twins vs. Royals
It wasn’t the prettiest Twins’ win I’d ever seen, but we did manage to win the one game out of three my friend Nick and I saw.  

There was a pretty big crowd since there were fireworks after the game. It was my first trip to the beautiful Kaufmann Stadium. We sat next to a local guy who gave us his fifth row tickets behind third base for the next game since he wasn’t going to be able to go.  He sent Nick and I on a scavenger hunt into downtown Kansas City to where the tickets were hiding behind an ashtray attached to the building of the business he worked at.  We had our doubts free tickets would really be where he said they were.  Good people in Kansas City.  

As for the game, the Twins pulled ahead in the ninth after a wild pitch. The Twins really didn’t win it; it was more of the Royals losing it. Johan Santana started it and looked like his usual self until he gave up three or four runs in the seventh. The crowd went crazy with every run he gave up. I think they knew getting runs off Santana is like seeing a shooting star. For the lowly Royals to score three runs off the former and future Cy Young winner was a treat.  

After the Twins pulled ahead in the top of the ninth, manager Ron Gardenhire brought in his closer, Joe Nathan. Santana was great, but Nathan stole the show.  

While Santana fools hitters with a wicked change in speeds, Nathan confuses them by throwing balls that look as though they’re coming nowhere near the strike zone. He struck out two of the three batters looking — they never took their bats off their shoulders. They didn’t argue with the ump and they didn’t complain. They knew they had no chance.  

It reminds me of a story I heard of a rookie batting against Walter Johnson in the beginning of the century. After two called strikes, the rookie walked from the plate. The ump said, “You have one strike left.” The batter said, “And you can it. It won’t do me any good.”  

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/KCA/KCA200607030.shtml 

28
Sunday, June 22, 2003, Miller Park, Milwaukee, Twins vs. Brewers
My Godbrother Nick and I spent Saturday night at the Pearl Jam concert in East Troy. Sunday morning we drove from Janesville with my Godfather Steve to see our beloved Twins, hopefully, take one out of three from the Brew Crew. They did.  

The game was pretty one sided. The greatness of the game came from the bats of utility man Denny Hocking and the 2006 AL MVP Justin Morneau.  

Denny Hocking hit a home run. Need I say more? To the casual fan, yes. Hocking hit with very little power. He was mainly used to rest the full-time players and for late-inning defensive substitutions. His home run went over the right-field fence and I can remember yelling as the ball made its way, “Denny Hocking! No! Denny Hocking! Yes!”  

As for Morneau, he hit the farthest home run I have ever seen. The fans knew it was gone before it left the infield. Blasted to dead center field, the ball hit the bottom of the scoreboard. To those who know Miller Park, it’s at least 460 feet from home plate. Nick, Steve and I were laughing in excitement as it screamed over Brady Clark’s head.  The ultimate compliment to a baseball play is giddy school-girl laughter from Nick and I.  Torii Hunter has stole many bases standing up, Johan Santana has struck out many batters with his Bugs Bunny changeup and Justin Morneau hit a monstrous home run to the sound of our giddy laughter.   

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/MIL/MIL200306220.shtml 

27
July 22, 2005, Jacobs Field, Cleveland, Mariners vs. Indians
On the baseball trip of my life I dragged my poor girlfriend Candice to four major league parks in five days. After RFK in Washington D.C., PNC Park in Pittsburgh and before Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, we hit the home of the Twins’ division rivals, the Cleveland Indians.  

The park was gorgeous, but it didn’t make me an Indians fan. There was extra incentive to root against the Tribe since they were playing against one of my favorite players, Ichiro.  

An opposing sight to pitchers.

 

We moved toward the third-base line of the lower deck when Ichiro struck. It wasn’t in his usual way either (steals, bunts, base hits). With Seattle down 3-2 and a runner on, Ichiro blasted a home run over the right-field fence. The crowd was silent, but my insides were screaming joy. Candice happened to take a picture of the Japanese star as he struck the round tripper.  

More drama arrived in the ninth inning when the Mariners brought in the former Twin, Eddie Guardado, to close. Eddie was known in Minnesota for getting the job done, but it was never pretty.  

It was his usual routine for Seattle as he got the first two batters out quickly and then allowed the next two to get on base via a walk and single, giving the Indians’ fans hope. The final batter fouled off pitch after pitch while Candice and I waited near the center-field exits. I felt bad for her since she just wanted to get out of there, but I couldn’t leave early knowing I missed something. Eddie prolonged the torment a little longer before finally getting the 27th out for the Mariners.  

Seattle 4, Cleveland 3.  http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/CLE/CLE200507220.shtml  

26
July 21, 2005, PNC Park, Pittsburgh, Rockies vs. Pirates
This is the one exception to my list where the surroundings are more important than the game.  The Pirates won with Zack Duke pitching a great game and Jason Bay hitting a home run.    

PNC Park is the Grand Canyon of ballparks.  It’s the Yosemite Valley.  It’s so well done and beautiful, I found myself gaping at how gorgeous the park is with the game playing in the background.  The only thing wrong with PNC Park is the home team.  However, ever since my visit, I’ve become a Pirates fan in hopes someday the park gets a good team.   

My girlfriend Candice and I grabbed a beer and dinner at a restaurant across the street from the park.  Sitting there, I began to get giddy looking at the architecture of the park.  The bridge crossing the Alleghany River, which is adjacent to the park, was closed to car traffic before games, leaving it open for fans to walk across.  Seeing the inside of the park from the other side of the bridge made me feel like a kid going to his first big league game.  I couldn’t wait to get inside.  The combination of the statues of Honus Wagner, Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, the anticipation to get inside and another beer sitting outside the park, made me act like an eight-year old who’d just downed four Pixie Sticks on Christmas morning.  I think Candice got a second-hand high off my happiness.    

After walking in, I bought a scorecard from the first vendor I found.  If the park wasn’t getting enough points, it got bonus points for giving free pencils with the purchase of a scorecard.  This was a park putting the fan over the dollar.    

After taking a lap around the concourse and taking some pictures from the upper deck, we made our way to our seats in right-center field.  An old man working as an usher approached me as I looked to see where our seats were.  He looked like a baseball fan I’d love share drinks with as he told stories of Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente and maybe even Honus Wagner.  He asked for my ticket and I could only think of the ushers at the Metrodome who would only point 80 yards away to where your seat is.  There’s no sense seating baseball fans in a football stadium.    

What happened next blew my mind and made PNC Park the greatest park I’d ever been to.  The old man took our tickets, walked us to our row, walked up the row to our seats, pulled a rag from his back pocket, wiped off our seats and said, “Enjoy the game, now.”  I could only stand there open-mouthed, astonished over a park that was not only the most beautiful I’d ever seen, but also held the most gracious service.   

I’ve been to the old Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, AT&T Park, Comerica Park and Target Field.  They’re all full of beauty and history, but the park across the Roberto Clemente Bridge tops them all.  

http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/PIT/PIT200507210.shtml 

PNC Park

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Jim Bouton’s Ball Four

                Having recently reread Ball Four by Jim Bouton, it’s hard not to share the humor and wit of one of baseball’s finest books.  Ball Four was written during the 1969 season by Bouton, a knuckleball pitcher trying to get his career back on track.  He’d spent the previous season in the minor leagues after beginning his career in 1962 with the New York Yankees.  He won 39 games in 1963 and 1964 and then his career, and the Yankees’ dynasty, went downhill.  

 

                Pitching for the expansion Seattle Pilots (who would move to Milwaukee and become the Brewers the next season) and eventually being traded to the Houston Astros, Bouton begins journaling his season in the offseason before the season and ends it in the winter after the 1969 season.  The book was extremely controversial when released.  Bouton breaks the code of the locker room that says everything said and done within the team should stay there.  Much of the book reminisces of his time with the mighty Yankees of the early sixties of Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle.  Bouton portrayed those players, and every other one, as human beings, not heroes.  Many players and others involved in the game were angry Bouton let the sec ret out that ballplayers got drunk after games, cheated on their wives and took amphetamines.  

The ballplayers, most of whom hadn’t read it, picked up the cue.  The San Diego Padres burned the book and left the charred remains for me to find in the visitors clubhouse.  While I was on the mound trying to pitch, players on the opposing teams hollered obscenities at me.  I can remember Pete Rose, on the top step of the dugout screaming, “Fuck you, Shakespeare.”  … I dedicated my second book (I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally) to my detractors.  I don’t think they appreciated the gesture. 

                Ball Four is an important baseball book and it’s also an important American book.  It lets the reader inside the clubhouse, behind the curtain.  It shows us baseball players aren’t what they appear on television.  Yes, they’re talented athletes, but they’re also human.  They deserve our attention … in moderation.  But the book also tells some hilarious and insightful baseball stories.  

Jim Bouton, 1969.

 

                Ball Four is too good not to share.  If you have yet to read it, I hope the following quotes will persuade you to pick it up.  If you have read it, but it’s been a while, it’s a great book to pick up again.  It doesn’t work like a novel where it needs to be read from front to back.  It can be read between other books.  A random page can be turned to and appreciated as much as if you’d been reading it for a week. 

                Here are some of my favorite quotes.  

                I know a lot of guys on the club.  Greg Goosen is one.  He’s a catcher, a New York Mets castoff, and is up out of Triple-A.  Two years ago I was playing against Goose in the International League.  There was a bunt back toward the pitcher and Goose came running out from behind the plate yelling, “First base!  First base!” at the top of his lungs.  Everyone in the park heard him.  The pitcher picked up the ball and threw it to second.  Everyone safe.  And as Goose walked back behind the plate, looking disgusted, I shouted at him from the dugout, “Goose, he had to consider the source.”
                I guess I got to him, because the first time he saw me – two years later – he said, “Consider the source, huh?”
 

                We’ve been running short of greenies.  We don’t get them from the trainer, because greenies are against club policy.  So we get them from players on other teams who have friends who are doctors, or friends who know where to get greenies.  One of our lads is going to have a bunch of greenies mailed to him by some of the guys on the Red Sox.  And to think you can spend five years in jail for giving your friend a marijuana cigarette.   

                Jim Pagliaroni joined the club tonight and is going to be a welcome addition.  He was describing a girl that one of the ballplayers had been out with and said, “It’s hard to say exactly what she looked like.  She was kind of Joe Torre with tits.”  This joke can only be explained with a picture of Joe Torre.  But I’m not sure any exist.  He dissolves camera lenses.   

Proof that Joe Torre does not dissolve camera lenses.

 

                A young girl asked one of the guys in the bullpen if he was married.  “Yeah,” he said, “but I’m not a fanatic about it.” 

                During the game a guy came down from the stands to the dugout and said to Mike Marshall, “Hey, is Mike Marshall in the dugout?  I’m a good friend of his.”
                “No, he’s not down here,” Mike Marshall said.  “Maybe he’s in the bullpen.”
                The fellow went off to look.
 

                John Kennedy flew into a rage at Emmett Ashford over a called strike and was tossed out of the game.  Still raging, he kicked in the water cooler in the dugout, and threw the metal cover onto the field.  Afterward we asked him what had gotten into him.  He really isn’t the type.  And he said, “Just as I got called out on strikes, my greenie kicked in.” 

                Joe Schultz (Pilots’ manager) is not like Sal (Maglie, Pilots’ pitching coach) with the pitchers.  Gelnar was telling us about this great conversation he had with Joe on the mound.  There were a couple of guys on and Tom Matchick was up.  “Any particular way you want me to pitch him, Joe?” Gelnar asked
                “Nah, fuck him,” Joe Schultz said.  “Give him some low smoke and we’ll go and pound some Budweiser.”
 

                Right before the plane landed the guys were telling stories about how much we’d been getting on the road.  And as we were getting ready to leave the plane and dash into the loving arms of our waiting wives, Pagliaroni said, very loud, “Okay, all you guys, act horny.”   

                When Dick Baney went into the game to throw his first major-league pitch everybody in the bullpen moved to the fence to watch him.  We wanted to see how he’d do against the Brew, which is what we call Harmon Killebrew.  Inside I still think of him as the Fat Kid, which is what Fritz Peterson over at the Yankees always called him.  I’d say, “How’d you do, Fritz?” and he’d answer, “The Fat Kid hit a double with the bases loaded.”  Well, the first time the Fat Kid faced Dick Baney he hit the second pitch 407 feet into the left-field seats. 
                After the game I was shaving next to Baney.  “Welcome to the club,” I said.  “You lost your virginity tonight.”
                “The only difference,” he said, “is that all you guys will still be here tomorrow.” 
 

                The kids beat the fathers 40-0, and Sibby Sisti said, “Forty runs, for crissakes, and nobody gets knocked down.” 

                Bullpen humor:
                The attendance at the Baltimore games was respectable, but we’re back to not drawing much for the Tigers.  It is decided in the bullpen that the people who came to see us play the Orioles are the same kind of who went to see the lions eat the Christians.
 

                You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time. 

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