Ralph Houk died this week. During spring training in 1987, Houk was a regular voice in many of my stories from spring training. The Twins had hired him as "vice president for baseball" when they hired Tom Kelly to manage and Andy MacPhail to be general manager.
The thought at the time was that Kelly and MacPhail should have a baseball lifer to guide them as they took over their first leadership positions. TK came to affectionately -- as affectionately as TK could, anyway -- refer to Houk as "my babysitter." Houk, for his part, took the job only when he was assured that he could work from his home in Florida instead of moving to Minnesota. (I wonder if Sarah Palin could have gotten that deal if she'd been elected vice president?)
One story I wrote began like this: "Most important for Ralph Houk is being one of the boys. That means being able to wear a uniform and spit and cuss and stand by the batting cage and tell stories and spend this spring the way he's spent so many others."
But while the Twins were on the field for their spring training drills, Houk was often in the dugout. He wanted to keep a distance from Kelly and his coaches, and it gave me time to pick his brain about baseball. We were an interesting combination. Houk was nicknamed "The Major" for his military bearing -- and my mop-headed bearing back in those days wasn't much military.
Stereotypes don't hold here. I remember him asking questions about the media, about Minnesota and about stuff that had nothing to do with baseball. He was gruff but kind. That Houk maybe intimidated others gave me more time with him.
He was candid too. When the Twins traded for Dan Gladden a few days before the season started, Houk called him, "a guy who can steal a base, a better than average outfielder with an average arm. He'll make things happen on the field and he's a battler."
Then he paused and added, "This club needed to add any kind of speed it could get."
That was a very good spring to be a writer. Gladden, Jeff Reardon and Al Newman joined the team. Kelly and MacPhail were in their first full season of being in charge. A utility infielder named Gardenhire was trying to win a spot on the roster, but hurt his chances by making five errors in 10 games.
Both Gardy and Ron Washington were beat out by Newman, despite Washington's contention that "Hrbek has negatives, Gaetti has negatives, but nobody talks about that. I know my positives outweigh my negatives. I still have a lot of baseball left in me. . . . If they want to win, I'm the man."
By the joyous end of 1987, of course, nobody was remembering much from the start of the season.
Ralph Houk had something to do with that.