Baseball postsTuesday October 06, 2009
My Top 5 Metrodome Moments
The Metrodome knows how to go out with a bang, doesn't it? No meaningless final baseball game there.
On September 30, 1981, I was at the Twins final game at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., and it was about as meaningless as they come. A cold drizzly day, a loss to Kansas City, a speech by Calvin Griffith. It was the last home game of a godawful baseball season split in two because of a June/July work stoppage. The Twins were abyssmal in the first half (17-39) and merely lousy in the second (24-29), and overall finished in last place in the seven-team A.L. West. Yes, behind even Seattle. Attendance in that final game reflected their record, and the gametime temperatures (in the 50s), and the day of the week (Wed. afternoon). Only 15,900 bothered to show up to say good-bye.
In the middle of Calvin's speech, one of those 15,000, a lanky fan with long hair, jumped onto the field and loped from first base to home, where he did a bellyflop onto the plate; then he stood, arms raised, like he'd accomplished something. Since no security guard stopped him, others jumped onto the field, too. They ran the bases, gathered infield dirt, tore up the grass. They tore up seats and signs. My friend Brian McCann and I dropped onto the field, too, ran the bases, gathered nothing. Former cross-country runners, we'd brought socks to keep our hands warm, and we walked out to left-center field and took turns tossing the balled-up socks to one another, as if the balled-up socks were a ball, as if were making a great catch against the wall. It was fun but melancholy. We were 18 and already nostalgic. We were all moving indoors.
The final regular-season game at the Metrodome was supposed to be Sunday but the Twins went on a tear, winning 16 of their last 20, and caught first-place Detroit on Saturday, stayed even with them Sunday—both teams won—and beat them in a 12-inning, back-and-forth, incredible 163rd game this afternoon. No hippies rushed the field. No seats were torn up. It was a party, not a wake, and now the party's moving outdoors.
Everyone and their brother is counting down their favorite Metrodome Memories—Hrbek's grand slam in '87; Puckett's catch and game-winning homerun in '91; Gaetti and Brunansky and Morris and Knoblauch and Hunter and Santana and Mauer and Morneau. Here's mine. It's limited to the games I went to, which wasn't many. I was living in Taiwan during the '87 Series, Seattle during the '91 Series. The only post-season game I attended at the Metrodome was Game 1 of the 2006 ALDS, Oakland vs. Minnesota. My boss had a luxury suite and me and my friend Dave P. got in on the action. Except there wasn't much action. We had Johan Santana going, the surest thing in baseball, but freakin' Frank Thomas hit two homeruns, and the Twins lost, 3-2, on their way to being swept by the freakin' A's, who would then lose to the freakin' Tigers in the ALCS, who would then lose to the freakin' St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, in what was, give or take a Yankee trouncing, a pretty lame post-season.
Here are my moments. I'd love to hear yours:
- 5. Murderball at the Dome. In May 2006 I invited family and friends to the company suite for a Twins/Mariners matchup. Around the seventh inning, the son of my friend Jim Walsh, leaning out of the box, pointed out someone on the walkway below and Jim began to chat him up. I assumed an old friend. But it was Mark Zupan, the poster boy for the 2005 documentary “Murderball,” a scene from which had topped my MSNBC list of the top 10 scenes of 2005. A bunch of us went down, talked to the dude, and had a great time.
- 4. Caffeinating Jordy. My sister, Karen, found it funny that I was nervous about being solely responsible for my nephew, Jordy, 5, for an August 2006 weekday afternoon game, but I was. I imagined, in the huge crowds, taking my eye off him for a second, turning around, not seeing him. Jordy? Jordy? That panic. Nothing like it happened, of course. We had box seats along the first-base side for Francisco Liriano's comeback game, but Liriano, injured worse than they thought, lasted, I believe, three innings. Jordy lasted five. At first I tried to get his attention away from the puzzles in his program and onto the field by talking up numbers: on the players' backs, and on the radar gun that measured the speed of each pitch. He liked this last part—even if it was the fact of the number, rather than what the number represented, that impressed him. “Wow: 93 miles per hour!” he said. “Wow: 72 miles per hour!” he said. Then I made a rookie mistake. Buying him a slice of pizza, I asked what he'd liked to drink with it. Lemonade? Coke? Oh, Coke? You want Coke? I think I bought the medium, 20 ounces, for a kid who'd never had caffeine before. By the time I gave him back to his mother at the nearby Star-Tribune, he was climbing the walls. Literally. The two rode the elevator to the third floor and Jordy tried to scale those walls. No need to thank me. It's what uncles are for.
- 3. Precursor to the '87 magic. In September 1987, a month before I left for Taipei, Taiwan, I went to a game—my first game at the Dome in a long while—with my friends Dave P. and Terri, who had recently moved (for Terri), or moved back (for Dave), to Minneapolis. The Twins were in the thick of a division race but attendance was slim. We got bleacher seats and kept moving about: Now in left, now in center, now in right. Which is where we were sitting when Kirby Puckett won the game in extra innings with a homerun. Exciting! People cheered a bit, then went home. They expected little because Minnesota never won big. Minnesota comes in second: the '65 Series, four Super Bowls, the presidential elections in 1968 and 1984. That's how we roll. So imagine my suprise, a month later in Taipei, hearing about the huge roar of the crowds at the Dome, and the frenzied fans waving...what? Homer whatsis? When did that start? I got the final skinny listening to the radio in the Chens' living room in the middle of a flood: “The Minnesota Twins, behind the pitching of Frank Viola and the decibels of the Dome, beat...” Half a world away, I made my own noise.
- 2. Kent Hrbek is trying to kill me! In April/May 1991, a month before I moved to Seattle, Dave P. and I bought some scalped tickets, then moved closer and closer and closer. This was the year after the year the Twins finished in last place, so it was a sparse crowd again and easy to move down. By the middle of the game we were maybe 10 rows back on the homeplate/third-base side of the field, but closer to homeplate. Kent Hrbek, a lefty, was up. Here's what Dave remembers: ducking, as the foul ball rocketed towards his head but curved towards mine. Here's what I remember: my hand stinging, and the ball about 10 rows behind me. “If you had worse reflexes, you could've wound up in the hospital!” friends told me. “If I'd had a glove, I could've caught it,” I responded.
- 1. A one-hop strike to third. In August 2006, our publisher got an invite for a post-afternoon-game fundraiser at the Dome. You'd go on the field, meet Tony Oliva, play a softball game. Sounded fun. The publisher couldn't make it but asked me if I wanted to go, and I brought along my sis and her family, and the old man, who even in his 70s plays softball three times a week. Meeting Tony-O again was fun. He was one of my favorite players growing up, and the recipient, on a long-ago Camera Day at Met Stadium, of the butt-hug visible on the bio page. Everyone else gave him fundraiser-provided baseballs to sign but I brought along that picture. “Who's this handsome fellow?” he said, looking at it. One of the organizers took a Polaroid of me and him, along with the picture, 35 years after the original. The greater fun that evening, though, was shagging flies in left field. I'd been playing softball in a tavern league for about 10 years, and was a serviceable fielder with a pretty accurate arm. With someone hitting fungoes from third base—baseballs not softball—I tracked them against that teflon roof and caught them in that Major League stadium. One ball I caught near the warning track, and a bit of the kid got ahold of me. I threw the ball hard against the wall, speared it on a hop, turned and threw a one-hop strike to third base. Just like the big boys. OK, just like the young kids.
R.I.P., ya big marshmallow. You were the only Major League stadium I ever played in.
Straight Line to the Hall of Fame
It's the last day of the regular season, and possibly the last day we'll see Ken Griffey, Jr. playing Major League baseball, but just check out this photo, taken, I believe, Tuesday night, when Junior, who's 39, and an old 39, hit his 17th homerun of the season and 628th of his career:
It would be hard to draw a straighter line than the one you get following the angle of his head to his arms to his bat. It's beautiful.
Junior's put up amazing stats in his career—particularly if, as seems likely, he's one of the few guys who didn't take steroids all this time. Steroids help you heal faster and Junior's been nothing but injured this decade. Even so, he has 630 career homeruns, fifth all-time, after Mays, Ruth, Aaron and Bonds*, so really fourth all-time. He's 16th in RBIs (14th). He's got 10 Gold Gloves—all with Seattle. But it's more than the numbers. Junior is just beautiful to watch. As an old man I'm gonna be the guy going, “Yeah yeah yeah. But you should've seen him play.”
EXTRA: Via MLB's site, here's the 630th, and possibly last, homerun of his career.
Peter Gammons Isn't Serious
Peter Gammons isn't serious. Ten baseball playoff teams? Because the pennant races aren't exciting this year he suggests adding two more teams and beginning the season earlier and lengthening the post-season further. Even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) isn't this stupid. At least they waited five years through a disconnect between popular pictures and nominated pictures before deciding to ruin 60 years of tradition by expanding the nominated pictures to 10—with the hope of somehow capturing a popular picture along the way. Gammons and others are suffering through one September without a legit pennant race (c'mon Twins!) and they want to mess with the whole works.
Or do they? Gammons writes:
I agree with Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who says, "Most general managers don't want it watered down like the NHL or NBA. Not many are wild about the idea."
Oh. So what's the column about then? The answer comes a short paragraph later:
But why not think about having two wild-card teams per league? For instance, in what might be an aberrational season, the Giants, Marlins, Braves and Cubs would be within 2½ games of that NL spot right now.
"I agree with those who aren't wild about the idea...but why not think about the idea?" Nice.
The AMPAS analogy is apt. The Academy is fixing something that isn't broken (the five slots) because of something that is (disconnect between nominated and popular pictures). Gammons wants to exacerbate an exisiting problem (too many playoff teams for a 162-game season), because of, and while ignoring, its biggest problem: the disparity between the "have" teams (the Yankees), the "have some" teams (BoSox, Mets, Dodgers, Cubs) and all of those "have not" teams (most everyone else, especially the Pirates, A's, Twins, Marlins).
You want to fix baseball, you need to fix this.
You can't fix this? Here's a suggestion to make September easier to remember: Move the trade deadline up to Opening Day. The disparity between teams deepens as the season progresses because contending teams trade for while non-contending teams trade away. The good (and rich) get better; the bad (and poor) get worse. And there go the pennant races.
But would the downside for this be too much of a downside? Sometimes I like that late-July interplay between short-term gain (for the haves) and long-term gain (for the have-nots). Except, of course, the haves keep on having while the Pirates and Royals keep on notting. I'd give it a shot.
In the meantime, to honor Major League Baseball, would you please rise for the playing of our Leonard Cohen anthem:
Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight is fixed
The poor stay poor while the rich get rich
Thats how it goes
As of last night, here's where the Seattle Mariners rank in the following batting categories among the 14 teams of the American League:
- Hits: 11th
- Doubles: 11th
- Triples: 12th-T
- Homeruns: 11th
- Total Bases: 13th
- Runs: Last
- RBIs: Last
- Batting Average: Last
- OBP: Last
- Slugging: 13th
- OPS: Last
It's been a fun summer. But we are first in the league in Sacrifice Hits with 53. Nothing like sacrificing.
Jeter's First HIt
I always thought I was at the game at the Kingdome (R.I.P.) when Derek Jeter made his major league debut. I thought I remembered some announcement or talk: The Yankees have this kid they just brought up... But then I read Jack Curry's piece on Jeter's debut—published on the day Jeter tied Lou Gehrig for most career hits by a Yankee—and this morning I checked the shoebox full of old ticket stubs I have from the '90s that I've never been able to throw away, and discovered I wasn't there for Jeter's first game.
I was there for Jeter's first hit. Tuesday, May 30, 1995. Aisle 313, row 1, seat 8. 7:05 PM. $8.00.
I used to write highlights on the back of the ticket stubs—that's part of why I kept them, I guess—and Jeter obviously wasn't on my mind in that May 30th game. The previous ticket stub, from May 27, simply says: “Balt 11, Seattle 4: First Griffey-less game.” The stub before that, May 26, reads: “Seattle 8, Balt 3; RJ 13 Ks; KGJr solo HR; Junior injures wrist, out for 3 months.” Yeah it was that game. That's what Mariners fans were thinking about when Jeter first showed up.
The May 30th ticket stub simply says: “Seattle 7, NY 3: 5-run 8th inning—all runs with two outs.” The beginning of “Refuse to Lose.”
There might have been talk about it when Jeter singled to lead off the top of the fifth—particularly when they retrieved the ball. “Hey, it's that kid's first hit.” Maybe that's why I remembered it. Or misremembered it.
Or maybe I remembered reading about it in The Seattle Times the next day (warning: clunky writing ahead):
The Mariners had jumped to a 2-0 first-inning lead off Yankee starter Melido Perez. But the Yankees led off five innings of starter Tim Belcher's seven innings with a hit.
They scored single runs in the fifth and seventh. Both rallies were started by rookie Derek Jeter.
Jeter opened the fifth with his first major-league hit, a single to left. He scored on Jim Leyritz's two-out double into the left-center gap. The Mariners nearly escaped without damage but second baseman Joey Cora mishandled a potential double-play ball.
Jeter started the seventh with a single to center. That would be Belcher's 92nd and final pitch.
The other night, the night Jeter tied Gehrig's mark with hit no. 2,721, there was a discussion among the talking heads on the MLB network about Jeter's placement among the all-time Yankees greats. In the background they showed the five players with the most hits in Yankees uniforms—Jeter, Gehrig, Ruth, Mantle and Bernie Williams—and Matt Vasgersian asked the others, Al Leiter and Dave Valle, if Jeter was as great, or greater, than these other guys. I expected laughter. But Al Leiter took the question seriously and said that, yes, Jeter was as great as these other guys. Dave Valle, bless him, looked at Leiter as if he were insane. Because outside of FOX-News, I can't imagine a more absurd conversation on television. Ruth is generally regarded as the greatest player in baseball history—and I wouldn't argue it—while Gehrig is usually ranked in the top 5 or 10. One of the best measures of a player's overall hitting performance is OPS (On-Base Plus Slugging), and Ruth and Gehrig are first and third on this list, respectively, with only Ted Williams coming between them. Jeter? He's 181st and dropping. (2014 update: now 263rd.) That's damn good for a shortstop, but still...
Look, Jeter's fine. He's good. He seems clean in a dirty era. But he led the league in runs once, and hits once, and that's it. He's overrated as a defensive shortstop. Bill James talks about .300/.400/.500 guys and Jeter's not that. He's a .300/.300/.400 guy. Both Gehrig and Ruth are .300/.400/.600 guys. It's not even a discussion.
If you're insulted by this, if you're a huge Derek Jeter fan who thinks I'm dissing the man by saying he's not as good as the best players in baseball history, let me say one thing: I have a ticket stub from the game when Jeter got his first hit. Bidding starts at $10,000.