Crouching just beyond third base, Jacob Gullick, focused and giddy, whipped around and saw the nod.
Bert Blyleven had given him the go-ahead.
The 5-year-old Gullick flew down the line, his white baseball pants slouching over his socks until he half-slid, half-tumbled into home plate. His brother, 7-year-old Michael, had gone just before and greeted him with a high five. Both boys were decked out in full baseball get-up down to the cleats — Jacob in a Kent Hrbek jersey, Michael boasting Joe Mauer’s name on his back.
“Great slide!” their mother, Monica, cheered from behind the carpeted diamond that marked the centerpiece of the 24th annual All-Star FanFest, held this year at Minneapolis Convention Center. The five-day indoor baseball theme park kicked off Friday, and baseball fans of every variety — some wearing jerseys and caps, others in button-downs and dresses and high heels — were already getting their fill.
“They were up at 6 a.m. this morning,” Monica said with a chuckle, remarking that the weekend activities were akin to Christmas for the boys.
Beneath draped banners from every major league team, fans wandered through museum galleries containing Cooperstown artifacts, batting cages and clinics — such as the one the Gullicks were attending — held by former Twins stars. They wore hats made from colorful twisted balloons, licked fingers between nachos and mini-donuts and had baseballs painted on their cheeks.
Appearances by Twins greats Tony Oliva, Rod Carew and Blyleven were among the Day 1 highlights, taking pictures with nervous kids and beaming parents, and signing autographs.
“The kids are excited to play,” said father and “diehard Twins fan” Don Gullick. “I’m excited about who they get to play with.”
Three teenagers, decked in sneakers and caps, peered through the glass displays in the auction showcase area. Just beyond their reach lay one of Mauer’s game-used bats, along with other time-worn baseball treasures, including Lou Gehrig’s autographed mitt.
“How much money you got?” one asked.
Another piped up: “I’ve got 10 bucks.”
Jack Ness, 62 and only two weeks into retirement, strolled solo the 400,000-square foot maze of activities, having purchased the full All-Star package — FanFest; Monday’s Home Run Derby; Sunday’s Futures Game and celebrity softball game; and the main event — that was made available to season-ticket holders.
“I’m getting younger every day!” the former lawyer proclaimed.
Ness was 10 when the Twins relocated to Minnesota in 1961 and quickly caught the bug, listening to games on the radio and spending countless nights at Metropolitan Stadium and then the Metrodome. He toured the country with ballparks as his landmarks — 24 in all — before quitting the travel in 2010, unable to stay away from the beautiful Target Field.
“I’m going to get mistaken for an usher if I don’t watch it,” he joked before looking around. “I’m tempted to go to the batting cages because I think I could still get around on a fastball. So we’ll see. If you hear the ambulance rolling in, it could be for me.”
David Foster brought his sons Isaac, 11, and Dillon, 10, along with their friend Calvin Koeger, 11, to FanFest over his lunch break. After the three kids gave the fastpitch a whirl, Foster — rolling up the sleeves of his crisp, blue button-down shirt — couldn’t help himself. Three attempts later, 58 miles per hour was all he could muster.
“I’d like to think I have a lot more in me,” he said, brushing off the apparent defeat.
The crew — along with Calvin’s mother, Dutch Toenjes — was off to the diamond for another clinic. Oliva was up next.
“It’s pretty cool — we got to be, what, 20 feet away from Tony Oliva and Rod Carew,” Toenjes said. “Wow, we’re kind of at the big time here. The Twin Cities aren’t often on the map, and here we are.”