I was so sad to hear that Harmon Killebrew is entering hospice care after losing his fight to esophageal cancer. A good friend of mine died of it; it’s nasty.
My first memory of Harmon Killebrew is my first iconic boyhood memory: It was my first ballgame with my father at the old Met Stadium. The Twins were hosting the Baltimore Orioles. We went with a neighbor and our seats were along the third base line, so our neighbor kept telling me to keep an eye on the great Orioles third baseman of the time, Brooks Robinson.
I remember fat men standing around on the concourse drinking beer and the smell of their thick cigar smoke. I remember Tony Oliva breaking a bat by pounding it on home plate after disagreeing with the umpire’s called third strike.
In the bottom of the ninth the Twins were behind by a run. Harmon, in his last years as a Twin and relegated to DH duty, stepped up to bat to the thundering feet of the crowd, stomping in expectation.
Crack. The ball arched high across the sky down the third base line and settled into the upper-deck stands…just foul. Harmon ended up striking out and the Twins lost but I was astonished that a human being could hit the ball so hard and so far.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Harmon Killebrew but from afar he always came off as a kind and gentle man. Thank you, Harmon.
But my favorite player was, of course, Rod Carew. In 1977 I watched him flirt with a .400 batting average.
To this day, he was the best hitter I’ve ever seen. I go crazy watching the current Twins–or most current Major Leaguers, for that matter–bunt because Carew was such a master at it. He was also a master at stealing home.
Not Winning Enough
While I got to watch many talented baseball players, I never got to see the Twins in post-season play. In ’69 and ’70, they made it to the American League Championship Series, but I was five. The only World Series appearance the team had made was in 1965, when the team was four years old.
The Vikings, however, were perennial winners during my childhood. The young Vikings team had advanced to Super Bowl IV, but that was before I started following sports.
I started watching them when I was nine years old, 1973, the year they drafted outstanding running back Chuck Foreman.
The year before, the Vikes traded several players and two draft picks to reacquire quarterback Fran Tarkenton. Those two additions helped the Vikings win their first nine games of 1973, finish the season 12-2, and advance to Super Bowl VIII, where they lost to the Miami Dolphins.
The Vikings returned to the Super Bowl twice more after the 1974 and 1976 seasons, but lost both of those as well. They would have played in the Super Bowl after the 1975 season, were it not for the cheating Dallas Cowboys.
So during my childhood, my professional sports memories are filled with losing and not quite winning enough.
From 1980 to 1986, the Twins never finished better than third place; in 1986, they finished sixth in a seven team division. It was tough, therefore, to be a Twins fan during my college year; particularly because my annoying Chicago classmates were merciless in their teasing me over the Twinkies.
Then came 1987.
At that time, while at college, I also managed a restaurant and did some freelance copywriting. During the World Series, I visited with a copywriter for one of the top advertising agencies in Cedar Rapids, trying to make a name for myself and pry my way into the advertising business.
“How ’bout them boys from St. Louie?!?” he said to one of his coworkers, as I followed him to his office. I bit my lip.
It was interesting being in Cedar Rapids at that time because half of the town was rooting for the Cardinals and half was rooting for the Twins.
I tried, but couldn’t take off work from the restaurant for many of the games of the series, so I was reduced to asking customers the score, then dashing home to watch the highlights on CNN and devouring a copy of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in the morning.
I did managed to find someone to work my shift for Game Seven.
My girlfriend, who was also from Minnesota, and I watched the game at our apartment. We watched a nail-biting game featuring a remarkable eight inning pitching performance by Frankie “Sweet Music” Viola and a ninth save by closer Jeff Reardon for the win and the championship.
The elation over my Twins world championship was due as much to the relief that we’d finally won as it was to the joy of winning itself.
You have to understand the context.
No modern Minnesota sports team had ever won a championship. We were always getting a sniff of the ultimate victory, but never the taste.
In baseball, the Twins lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1965. Four times the Vikings played in a Super Bowl game and four times they lost. In 1961, the Minnesota Gophers football team lost to Washington in the Rose Bowl.
Long before the Timberwolves, the Minneapolis Lakers won three NBA championships before the team moved to Los Angeles, but I wasn’t born yet, so it doesn’t count.
Losing the big one was not merely confined to sports, though.
My state was a two-time loser in presidential politics as well. In 1968, former Minnesota Senator and then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey lost the presidential race to Richard Nixon. Again in 1984, former Minnesota Senator and former Vice President Walter Mondale lost to Ronald Reagan.
Add to that the economic uncertainty of the time (Black Monday occurred on the first off-day of the series), and you have not just the winning of a championship but the relief and redemption of an entire state.
I didn’t get to enjoy the subsequent parade but I did watch it from afar. This is someone’s home movie of the parade. There there is no sound.