Story and Photos By Gordy Jones
According to my personal calendar, we have now entered the Twins’ 2013 season. It began at 7 a.m. on January 14, when the caravan took off from the KTWIN studio, the Twins’ new radio home, located in downtown Minneapolis (across from Target Field). Team members would soon be visiting, entertaining, and dining with fans who had a bad case of Twins Fever in January. Every year for a couple of weeks, the days are long and the nights are short for our Minnesota boys of summer. They’ve left their cozy homes – many in much milder climates — to a hectic schedule of visiting hospitals, Legion halls, and banquet rooms, while spreading goodwill and talking baseball in our subzero white tundra, and sometimes raising lots of money for charitable organizations.
No Twin players are excluded from the road-show cast; from Mauer and Morneau to the stars of tomorrow. When a player signs with the team, it is spelled out in black-and-white that this regimen is part of being a Twin. The players have told me that as long as their days might be, they love the caravan. The fans’ excitement seems to ignite them, and suddenly they can’t wait for the season to begin. The new members get to meet and greet some of the greatest fans in the country.
The scheduled stops of the winter caravan are in both of the Twin Cities, and in the smallest towns hundreds of miles from Target Field. I usually participate in three banquets in the St. Paul area.
The first event I attended this year is very special to me – and I am proud to sit on the board that plans it. This is the banquet that started it all, 73 years ago, as a men’s club that met monthly in the winter to drink beer and huddle around a hot stove telling baseball stories. Hence its name: The Old Timer’s Hot Stove Banquet. It has been copied all over the country, and its members are flattered, but they now call it the Original Hot Stove Banquet. Although members still meet monthly, they offer an annual gala event that attracts all sorts of fans and celebrity guests. More than 500 men, women and children now attend this event held at the Prom Center. This year, for thirty bucks, fans got a great steak dinner as they listened to stories from Joe Mauer, Bert Blyleven, Cole De Vries, Terry Ryan, Tom Kelly, John Anderson, Tim Tschida, and others. It was all emceed by Dick Bremer.
Although 27-year MLB umpire Tim Tschida told some funny tales, he sadly and officially announced his retirement from baseball. He explained that he’d suffered a couple of concussions behind the plate – and that umpires now earn a very generous pension.
Another cool event that I attended is not an official caravan stop, but it might as well be. It is a fundraiser and an award banquet for Concordia St. Paul baseball, and it’s strongly supported and usually attended by Tom Kelly, Kent Hrbek, and Ron Gardenhire. It is always held at Mancini’s Char House in St. Paul, which really gives it that old school and personal feel. Other than friends on the staff, I have no ties to Concordia — neither as an athlete nor as a student. It’s just great to see the community come together and have a fun time as they support good old amateur baseball. And it’s nice to see the kids who play ball for the love of the game be recognized for their achievements on and off the field.
On the Thursday before Twins Fest, the most gala of the winter banquets takes place: The Twins Diamond Awards. Since its inception eight years ago, this program has raised millions of dollars for the University of Minnesota, not only for research, but to give care to those suffering from brain, nerve, and muscle disorders.
Most of the team usually attends this event at Target Field, as well as some of the patients who have benefited from the U’s research. The players receive their achievement awards and spin a few baseball yarns, but the real heart-tugging stories on this evening come from those who have received comfort and improved health from the proceeds of this very event.
The final weekend in January is Twins Fest. All but once since its first year in 1989, it has been held at the Dome. Two years ago the Dome’s roof collapsed and it moved to the Sports Center in Blaine. But this year’s festival might have been the last one held on the very same field where Kirby Puckett used to frolic, run, jump, hit, win, and even participate in Twins Fest, all while wearing his memorable smile. It all depends on the construction schedule for the Vikings’ new stadium. No one knows for sure what will happen next.
But this year, kids and adults alike shopped for cards and memorabilia, received autographs from current and future stars, and had a baseball-like day in late January. Kids played wiffleball while Mom and Dad enjoyed a beer, and everyone reminisced as they ate Dome Dogs, debated what it’s made of, and whether it’s as good as any offered at Target Field. Although I love the Schweigert dogs served at Target Field, the Dome Dog isn’t bad…it’s unique. Maybe I’m just used to them, as I’m sure I’ve eaten hundreds.
There was one new addition to Twins Fest this year that was a lot of fun: a Twins Q & A session at the KTWIN area. Kids were able to go one-on-one with players, asking both personal and baseball questions. It appeared to be a hit, and the kids really got into it, asking about diet, training, and music. The players answered them seriously, but also joked and kept the youngsters laughing.
There were also live radio shows, National Anthem auditions — and since the guys were in town, the team doctors gave the players their annual physicals. That’s one event closed to the public.
In the past few weeks, as I made my rounds, I was able to talk and catch up with some of the guys. Most of them hang out someplace warm during winter, so I asked pitcher Glen Perkins if he’s spent much of the off-season at home in Minnesota. He said: “All of it! Except for a couple of vacations, we spend all of our time here. I’ll head to Florida in about a week or week and half, though. It’ll be about a week before we report — I’ll be there a little early to get settled in.” I asked him how he’d rate himself at his side job. Lately he’s been randomly hosting some radio sport talk shows. He immediately said, “I think I do a good job. I’m still learning, but it is something I like doing and something I’ll have interest in doing when I get done…but that’s a ways off into the future. I have a lot of time to practice.” He has been doing a fine job and has a keen wit, so I suggested he try comedy, but without hesitation he said, “I don’t know. I don’t have the ability to deliver the punch lines. I can be an idiot on the air, but I don’t know if I could do that in person.” I asked him if he’ll miss Rick Stelmaszek, the bullpen coach, who, after 32 consecutive seasons, was the longest-tenured coach in Twins history. Rick was released in the off-season during the big shake-up. “Perk” looked sad and said, “Yes, that’s too bad, but that’s the way it is. I like our new coach, Bobby Cuellar, so that will be good. But ‘Stelli’ and I got to be pretty good friends last year, so that’s a bummer to lose him. He’s one of the best!” Then I asked him what his expectations were for the 2013 Twins. “You know, we’re going to go out and improve from last year. Terry (Ryan) has done some things to make us a better team, and I’m excited about getting to Florida, getting 25 guys together, then coming North and giving it a shot.”
I asked Justin Morneau about his winter. He was in Joe Mauer’s wedding, so I asked him what that meant to him. “I’m pretty fortunate; I get to do some pretty cool things. There were only a certain number of people who were invited to Joe’s wedding, and I was able to stand up front, and be an honored member of the party, and it was a good experience. But I’ve been in Arizona lately, where it’s a little warmer. I can throw and hit outside and get ready for the season in a little different way. It’s been good down there, and we enjoy our time. It’s a little more laid back…and we have fun!” He kept going, “Everything is going well. I’m feeling strong, and I’ve been able to do everything I need to do. I’ve been hitting for a while, and I’m getting excited for the season to start.” I asked Justin about playing for Team Canada at the World Baseball Classic, because last year he told me he’s now a true Minnesotan. He said, “I was born in Canada, grew up in Canada, and this is my adopted home, and it’s where I’ve been for a long time. When I walk into my house here, I feel at home. But I am from Canada, and I’m proud to represent my country.” After this season, Justin will be a free agent. I asked him what his thoughts were about staying a Twin and ending his career in Minnesota. “Yeah, that’d be nice! It’s not out of my control, but it’s also out of my control, somewhat. It depends on what direction they want to go, and what direction the team is heading. It’s pretty cool when you look up at Hall of Famers in the game, and I’m not talking about myself in that way; I’m just thinking about guys like Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken who have played their entire career on one team. And obviously we have Joe (Mauer), who will hopefully spend his entire career here. Yes, it would be pretty cool to do that, but it might not be up to me. We’ll have to wait and see.”
I saw Minnesota native Terry Steinbach at an event, and he was eager to tell me: “I’m very appreciative of the opportunity the Twins have given me to get back in the game full-time.” Terry was a major league catcher who played 11 years with Oakland and three with Minnesota. He has participated in spring training the past few years, working with the catchers. He will now be the bench coach for the Twins, replacing Scott Ullger. Terry will continue to share his catching expertise with the Twins’ catchers, something Joe Mauer has said he’s looking forward to. Terry smiled and said, “This will be a lot of fun! The Twins have made some moves, and we’re excited to get these guys into the lineup. We’ll start working with them and see what we’ve got. The game has given a lot to me, and what I’ve learned from it I want to share with the guys on the team.”
Terry is an avid hunter. When I asked about this last season, he said, “Hunting season was fantastic, maybe the best ever! The deer were moving, and the ducks and the geese were up.” I asked Terry, who was raised in New Ulm, if he still lived there, saying that’d be one heck of a commute. He laughed and said, “No, now we live a half-hour drive from Target Field. But my wife and I are going to drive to spring training in Florida. It’s something we’ve never done before – it’s always been rush-rush. We’re going to take our time and a few extra days and enjoy the trip. We’re looking forward to that.” Then he smiled, shook my hand and said: “See you in Florida!”
I talked to Trevor Plouffe, and he’s excited for the season because for once he knows his position: Third base. He said he’s happy because if he could choose any position, it would be third; he loves playing there. He’s also happy because he was married on January 7.
I saw Joe Mauer quite a bit over the winter, and he feels he’s having the best off-season, ever. He’s not recuperating from an injury or surgery, he hasn’t been ill, he feels great and is way ahead of schedule in his preparation for the season. He, too, was married in the off-season. I have known Joe since he was a kid, and he looks happier and healthier than I have ever seen him.
We have a core of good players, and after two stinker seasons, everyone has the right positive mind set. Health issues are minimal; in fact, it seems everyone is good to go. Glen Perkins put it best when he said: “I’m excited about getting to Florida, getting 25 guys together, then coming North and giving it a shot.” Let’s play ball!
Next up: spring training!