This is my fourth decade of writing sports columns in the Twin Cities. There was a vivid reminder last week, at Glen Sonmor’s 85th birthday party, that the first decade — the ’80s — was the best.
I’m not talking about wins and losses. I don’t care about wins and losses; heck, I didn’t even mind the NHL ties.
My goal is a visit to a locker room or clubhouse that results in a notebook that has a selection of meaningful quotes and insights, or even better, humorous tales. I have to admit the success rate might be 10 percent in today’s age of quick, crowded access, with an emphasis on banal sound bites from questioners and respondents.
It wasn’t that way in the Golden Age of the ’80s, when the most colorful foursome of head coaches (and manager) of my career were employed with major sports entities here:
Sonmor with the North Stars, Billy (Slick) Gardner with the Twins, Jerry Burns with the Vikings and Clem Haskins with Gophers basketball.
Sonmor had three terms with the North Stars, but the first — from November 1978 through January 1983 — resulted in the most exciting NHL run we’ve seen in these twin burgs.
Glen was dangerous for sportswriters. You would enter the locker room with 90 minutes to deadline, and he would start offering unique insights and great yarns, and inevitably an ample-sized columnist from St. Paul would be huffing and puffing up the Met Center stairs with a half-hour to file 750 words or miss the metro edition.
Slick was phenomenal. He was only 20 games into his managerial term on June 11, 1981, when the players went on strike. Gardner was in his office, having a postgame beer, and laughing at the thought that these players of his with a 17-39 record were going on strike to protect their free-agent rights.
“Three outfits want him,” said Slick, as a utility infielder walked past his office door. “The Army, the Navy and the Marines.”
Burnsie. Best guy ever, funniest ever and, in his wacky way, the most insightful.
And Clem? The NCAA and the dreamers about student-athletes can take a hike. I loved Clem (especially when he was crotchety), and still do.
PLUS THREE FROM PATRICK
Three memorable short-term coaches/manager from the 1980s:
• Lou Holtz. I called him “the Music Man” when Lou came to town and we bought every instrument he had to sell. As phony as his verbal baloney was, Lou was a fabulous college football coach.
• Ray Miller. “The Rabbit’’ was Twins President Howard Fox’s discovery to be an innovative manager. His failure made way for Tom Kelly in September 1986.
• Les Steckel. The Vikings and the Gophers both wanted the dynamic Steckel for the 1984 season. The Vikings won. They thought.