“I hate that guy. Rad would get
you 0-for-4 and you’d go home wondering, ‘How did he do it?’ That’s the
type of guy he was. He was one of the best pitchers they had in a long
time.” -Ozzie Guillen
- Twins induct Brad Radke into franchise Hall of Fame
Radke was honored
in a pregame ceremony before Saturday’s loss to the White Sox, and that
turned out to be the only thing worth watching in that game (well,
maybe Joe Crede’s two homers). I’ve written a piece about Radke here, and I think this is the perfect time to post this commercial he did for SEGA “World Series Baseball” way back in the day:
Radke has always been a fan favorite, and it’s really no wonder
why. Besides being a consummate professional and (as far as we know)
decent human being, he gave us something to cheer for during the lean
years when there wasn’t much to look forward to. To be honest, he was
really the only decent starter on the staff for about half of his
career, and though his career numbers certainly aren’t good enough to get him into Cooperstown, they sure look good compared to Frankie Rodriguez.
Fans probably love Radke the most, though, because he turned down
more lucrative offers from other teams to remain in Minnesota. He had
never been particularly overpowering, and he certainly wasn’t a
dominant pitcher by any stretch of the imagination, but his ability to
rack up strikeouts and eat innings was valuable enough that he could
have gotten a better deal elsewhere. The era of free agency was just
hitting its peak, and pretty much everyone was eager to cash in. Not
Radke, though. He opted to re-sign with the Twins simply because he
liked it here. He liked the organization, his family loved the area,
but he also wanted to see the team through its rebuilding process.
After years and years of being one of the worst teams in baseball, the
Twins had finally started to put together a decent team, culminating in
a string of four playoff appearances from 2002-2006. Unfortunately,
his arm started to give out during the 2006 season, and he decided to
retire rather than have surgery and try to keep his career (and chances
of winning a World Series) alive.
- The late George Brophy was inducted, as well
Brophy is often overlooked by fans, since his job as the director of
scouting and minor-league operations was mostly behind-the-scenes, but
he did play an important part in building the 1987 World Series-winning
team. Patrick Reusse wrote a very good article (as well as this one
from 1998) about former farm director last week, detailing the conflict
within the organization at the time and his thankless task of trying to
build a championship-caliber team on a shoestring budget (seriously,
then-owner Calvin Griffith made the Pohlads look like the
Steinbrenners). Obviously he played a key role in drafting and
developing players like Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett, but he made a
number of other moves that would help shape the 1987 team. He was the
one who insisted that the Yankees throw in Greg Gagne as part of the
Roy Smalley trade, and demanded the Angels throw in Tom Brunansky as
part of the Rob Wilfong-Doug Corbett deal. He also found guys like Larry Hisle, Bobby Darwin, and Doug Corbett (who, like I said, was instrumental in bringing Brunansky to the Twins). Brophy
was one of the original members of the Twins’ front office when he was
hired in 1961. He was later fired by then-team president Howard Fox in
1985 (the two never did get along), and he served as a scouting
assistant for the Astros before his ill health forced him to retire in
1996. Sadly, he passed away in 1998.
Scott over at I’m Not a Headline Guy wrote a lovely entry explaining his devotion to the New York Yankees. And it got me to thinking about my beloved Twinkies, and, well, why they’re my beloved Twinkies. Of course, a lot of it has to do with the 1987 World Series, which I am just barely old enough to remember. Nobody expected the ’87 Twins to win it all, and with good reason I might add. They finished with a mediocre 85-77 record, which was good enough to win the weak AL West division, but was the worst winning percentage of any playoff-bound team in history (a record that would stand until the 83-78 Cardinals won it all in 2006). The 98-64 Detroit Tigers were heavily favored to win the AL pennant, with most analysts predicting a sweep of the supposedly hapless Twins. Instead it was the Twins who nearly pulled off a sweep of their own, beating the Tigers four games to one to clinch the ALCS and advance to the World Series for the first time since 1965. Once again, the Twinkies were up against a heavily-favored opponent in the St. Louis Cardinals, who were about to make their third World Series appearance in six years. And once again the Twins would pull off a stunning upset, beating the Cards in seven games and clinching their first World Series title since moving to Minnesota in 1961 (and second in team history). Frank Viola, Kirby Puckett, Dan Gladden, Gary Gaetti, all those guys on that team would become great heroes in Minnesota sports history.
And then there was the ’91 World Series, the greatest World Series of all-time. This Series had everything: dramatic walk-off home runs, fantastic pitching performances from youngsters Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and veteran Jack Morris, wrestling (Braves fans still haven’t quite gotten over that one), a new MLB record for extra-innings WS games, and two teams that had finished in last place in their respective divisions the previous season. This time around the Twins weren’t exactly considered underdogs, having finished the regular season with a 95-67 record. They steamrolled over the Blue Jays in the ALCS, winning four games to one on the way to their second World Series title in four years.
The Braves would prove to be a much more challenging opponent, however, and the Twins would have to grind out five one-run games and three extra-innings games before clinching the title. The most dramatic game of the series, however, had to be game six. The Twins were facing elimination, having dropped three straight games to Atlanta, including a 14-5 blowout in game five. The Twins took a 3-2 lead into the seventh inning, when Atlanta 2B Mark Lemke scored on a fielder’s choice with the bases loaded to tie the game. The score remained even until the bottom of the eleventh, when Kirby Puckett untied the game with a solo shot off of Charlie Leibrandt to left-center field. That shot, and Jack Buck’s now-famous call, has to be the single greatest moment of my entire childhood. The Twins would go on to win game seven in ten innings, with a walk-off bloop single by Gene Larkin. Jack Morris pitched a ten-inning masterpiece (yes, you read that right, ten innings) in that game, which to this day is one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen. Good times.
There’s been a lot of other good stuff since then, too. The 2002 team was amazingly talented, and looked like they were going to bring us another championship. Alas, it was not to be. The Angels made sure of that. The 2006 team made an incredible late-season run to win the division. Unfortunately that was as far as the Twinkies would go, as they would then get swept by Oakland in the ALDS. They really got under Ozzie Guillen’s skin that year, too. That’s always fun.
And of course, there’s this guy:
Come on, admit it. You know you love him. Even if you aren’t a Twins fan.
- I love the Wild, too, even though I complain about them a lot
Hockey in Minnesota is like hockey in Canada. Or football in Texas. It’s just what you do. It’s what we’re good at. If your hockey team has any Americans on it, chances are pretty good that they’re from Minnesota. Or that they once played for the Golden Gophers. I started off as a North Stars fan when I was a little kid. They weren’t very good for the most part, though they did make a run for the Cup in 1991. But then a very bad man decided to move the team to Dallas after the 1992 season. I was heartbroken. I cried like a little girl (of course, I was a little girl, but that’s beside the point). And I was also torn. I wanted to cheer for my Stars, even though they weren’t really my Stars anymore, because they took Mike Modano with them. And I loved him. But, like any other bitter divorce, the animosity I felt for my ex-team was too great and I just couldn’t get over it. I couldn’t bring myself to cheer for any other NHL team either. It just didn’t seem right. I was a die-hard hockey fan without a team.
So I decided to fill the hockey void in my life with my hometown Gophers. I mean, they’ve done some good things:
It just wasn’t the same as having a professional hockey team, though. So when the NHL granted Minnesota an expansion franchise to open for the 2000-2001 season, I was absolutely thrilled. Though I wasn’t crazy about the team name (what the heck’s a wild?), or the logo (or the home unis, blech), I was excited to have an NHL franchise back in Minnesota. And though the team itself hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations, it’s been better than most of the old North Stars teams. And we have new heroes now:
- I root for the Vikings, and to a lesser extent, the Wolves, too
Why? Because somebody has to, that’s why. Oh there was a time when the Vikings were good. The Vikings of the late ’60s and early ’70s were some of the best football teams to never win a championship, but that was before my time. I remember the 1998 Vikes, though I’ve spent the past ten years trying to forget the NFC Championship game. And the current team is actually pretty good, it’s just missing a few key pieces. Like a starting QB. And special teams that can, um, not give up so many touchdowns (I mean really, when your punter is trying to make a tackle you know you’re in trouble). And some decent play-calling (which, by the way, helps out the starting QB a lot).
I’m not a huge basketball fan, but I do have a soft spot for the Timberwolves. I kind of feel sorry for them because they suck so bad. It’s not their fault, they’ve been mismanaged for years. And before Al Jefferson went down they had a pretty good shot at being a mediocre team this year. At least they aren’t the worst team in the league, so there’s that.
Continuing the tradition of dedicating my ranking to an important player, number 34 of course goes to Kirby Puckett. Yes, I’ve slipped a little in the rankings, but I’m not that worried about it. I don’t even know how much traffic I get on this blog, since I tend to write for myself and my own sanity. Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled that people actually read what I write and I appreciate all of the feedback as it makes me a better writer. But for me, the rankings are simply an excuse to write about my favorite players. To be honest, I wouldn’t even mind falling to number 57 since it would give me a good excuse to write about Johan Santana and how nobody outside the organization thought he would ever amount to anything when he first came up. Now there’s a good story.
Kirby Puckett has long been considered one of the biggest heroes to come out of the Twins organization. He was one of the best centerfielders of his time, and one of the greatest hitters the Twins have ever had. His postseason heroics led the Twins to two World Series victories in four years. His outgoing personality made him a fan favorite, and his teammates obviously loved him. He even mentored a young Torii Hunter, even though he knew Torii would eventually push him out of his job. Puckett was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, his first season of eligibility, based on the numbers he did put up (.318/.360/.477) as well as what he was projected to do if he hadn’t been forced to retire early.
And, of course, there was also his involvement in the community. Puckett would routinely spend his free time visiting sick children in the hospital, and it seemed like he was always going out of his way to make his young fans happy. Of course, it turns out that this was all part of a carefully constructed facade, but at the time people really loved him for it.
The dichotomy between Puckett’s personal life and his public image is striking. He was always so gregarious on the field, always laughing and joking with his teammates. Apparently they all loved him, and with good reason I might add. He always talked about how blessed he was to have the life he’s had, even if his career was cut short when he developed glaucoma and went blind in his right eye. The reality, of course, was much different. Puckett was a bitter, angry man who often took out his frustrations on his wife, Tonya, and later his mistress as well. We first got an inkling of the truth in 1994 (I think, I don’t recall the exact year), when police were called to the Puckett home during a domestic altercation. Tonya, the architect behind Kirby’s carefully-crafted public image, tried to downplay the incident by claiming that she was the instigator and Kirby was simply defending himself. And at first, we believed that. We wanted to believe that. After all, how could the same man who won both the Branch Rickey and Roberto Clemente awards be a wife-beater? It didn’t make any sense. It’s a lot easier to believe that guys like Elijah Dukes and Brett Myers beat their wives, because they seem like such jerks. Good people like Kirby Puckett just don’t do those kinds of things.
There were even more shocking allegations when the couple divorced. Tonya claimed that Kirby would lock her in the basement when he was angry with her, that he had tried to strangle her with electrical cord on numerous occasions, and had once held a gun to her head while she was holding their infant daughter. There were also the allegations of infidelity, which later proved to be true when his long-time mistress Laura Nygren filed a protection order against him after he threatened to kill her. Still though, most Twins fans didn’t really want to believe it. After all, people make all kinds of claims during divorce proceedings. And Puckett was still doing a lot of good things in the community, still working hard to preserve his public facade as a good person. It was still just too difficult to believe.
Whatever delusions we might have still had about Kirby Puckett as a person came crashing down when he was arrested on September 5, 2002 after forcing a woman into the men’s room at a restaurant in Eden Prairie and groping her. Lord knows what would’ve happened if the woman’s friend hadn’t heard her screaming and barged in to investigate. This was different from the allegations made by his wife and mistress, as the woman had no romantic relationship with Puckett and didn’t even know who he was at the time of the incident. There were witnesses who corroborated the woman’s story, and since the trial was held in criminal rather than civil court, it was clear that this was not some sort of plot to extort money from a former ballplayer. Even though Puckett was eventually acquitted of the charges, lingering doubts about his character stuck this time. Although he was still considered one of the greatest ballplayers of all-time, fans for the most part became disillusioned with Kirby Puckett as a human being and no longer considered him some sort of hero.
Fan perception of Puckett and his character shifted once again after his death from a stroke on March 6, 2006. People began to once again focus only on the good things he did (and he did do a lot of good things on and off the field), and ignore the darker aspects of his character. I think it’s just human nature to remember the dead in a positive light, and to forget about the bad things they might have done.
If there is any kind of moral to the Kirby Puckett story it is to be very, very careful when idolizing famous people. Athletes, celebrities, and even major corporations all have a very carefully crafted public image and only allow you to see what they want you to see (yes, even when it comes to bad publicity. Don’t you think Paris Hilton wants you to think of her as a party girl?). They might not all be jerks, and most of them probably are good people, but they are all human and make mistakes.
- Carlos Gomez is learning some plate discipline during winter ball
According to this article in today’s Pioneer Press, our Gomez is learning to be more patient at the plate. Apparently he’s drawn 10 walks in 21 games during his stint in the Dominican Winter League, which is a significant improvement considering he drew only 25 in 153 games with the Twins this season. Why, it seems like just yesterday he was chasing pitches a mile outside the strike zone. And swinging out of his shoes on top of it. While his .364 OBP is still less than ideal, it’s much better then the anemic .298 he posted last season. He still strikes out an average of once per game, though, which is the same rate he struck out last season so he hasn’t improved much there.
Go-Go is, and probably always will be, a free-swinger in the same mold as Vladimir Guerrero and our own Kirby Puckett. Puckett used to drive me crazy since he would swing at anything and everything whether it was anywhere near the zone or not, but he had such quick hands that he would make contact more often than not. Guerrero is the same way, but he has a lot of power and his strike zone is often described as “from his nose to his toes”. Gomez, on the other hand, simply hacks away without having much to show for it. He is so focused on swinging away and trying to come up with a big hit, that he can’t accurately judge the location of the pitch (or even what type of pitch it is). He’s been putting in a lot of work in winter ball, focusing on taking pitches and developing his eye at the plate. It will be interesting to see if all this work pays off.
Considering that our Gomez is only a kid (he just turned twenty-three) and it’s only his second full year in the major leagues, I think it’s much too early to give up on him yet. Clearly he still has a lot of growing up to do, and I think plate discipline will come with maturity. Even a slight improvement over last season’s numbers (.258/.296/.360 with 7 HRs) would be enough to leave him batting in the ninth spot. If he could double his number of walks, and cut his strikeouts in half, he might even be moved up to the leadoff spot (especially if Denard Span regresses). At any rate, his excellent fielding skills more than make up for his anemic offensive production (which makes it very difficult for Gardy to sit Go-Go when he’s struggling at the plate). Gomez’s speed also makes him an invaluable part of the lineup, as he is always a threat to steal whenever he does manage to get on base, and can often beat out groundballs (most of his 149 hits last season came from infield hits). If nothing else, his antics rattle opposing pitchers and make them more likely to make mistakes to the guys hitting behind him.
If he could just learn to hit, Gomez himself would make the Santana trade worthwhile.