Reusse blog: 'Willie vs. the weather' was a great Florida skit

  • Blog Post by: Patrick Reusse
  • May 26, 2013 - 7:05 AM

It was a gorgeous day on Florida's East Coast on Saturday: low 80s, nice breeze and nothing but sun. This was a contrast to the previous two days, when the temperature reached the 90s and the humidity was substantial.

That was a reminder of a long-ago trip to Florida in July 1985, to Orlando where there was no such thing as a mid-summer breeze if it did not involve the traditional late-afternoon thunderstorm.

The Washington Senators and then the Twins held big-league spring training in Orlando from 1936 through 1990. The exception to this was from 1943 to 1945, when World War II travel restrictions kept teams closer to home in preparation for the season.

Tinker Field was the Orlando headquarters for the Senators and then the Twins. It was a small, dump of a ballpark that had been built in 1914. The clubhouses were tiny and there were only two areas available for spring training drills: the main field inside Tinker, and the hard, choppy partial field that was referred to by staff and players as "Iwo Jima.''

The minor leaguers were located more than two hours away in Melbourne, where the multiple fields were so hard that the players referred to the place as "The Rock.''

The Twins had a farm club in Orlando, first in the Florida State League, and then from 1973 through 1989 in the Class AA Southern League. Orlando was the most-southern point in that league. The summer heat was oppressive, and so was the bus travel for the geographically challenged Orlando Twins.

Tom Kelly managed a collection of players there in 1981 that included several who would become contributors to the World Series championship in 1987. Kelly often said, "If you can play [successfully] in the Southern League, you can play anywhere.''

My visit to Orlando in 1985 was to write a piece for the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Mark (Thunder) Funderburk, a minor league journeyman who was tearing it up with a power display for the O-Twins.

Funderburk had been a 16th round draft choice for the Twins in 1976 out of Louisburg College in Louisburg, N.C. He was a large, powerful man, 6-foot-4 and over 230 pounds, and had big power numbers for the Twins in Wisconsin Rapids, Visalia, Orlando and Toledo from 1978 through 1982. He had 123 home runs and 411 RBIs in those five seasons.

He played in eight games with 18 at-bats for the Twins as a 24-year-old in 1981. The Twins mysteriously sent him back from Class AAA Toledo to Class AA Orlando in 1982. He hit 23 home runs and drove in 85, yet was released in October 1982.

In 1983, Funderburk played briefly for Kansas City's Omaha farm club and then for the Mexico City Reds. He came back to the O-Twins in 1985. He hit 34 home runs and drove in 116. He made it back to the Twins that September. He hit his two big-league home runs, drove in 13 and batted .314 in 23 games and 77 at-bats.

That was it in the big leagues for Funderburk, who would later coach in the minor league system. He was a terrific guy and as close as you could find to a baseball hero in Orlando, where the O-Twins were mostly ignored by the public ... much like the Twins' Class A Miracle are ignored today in Fort Myers, even with Miguel Sano on the scene.

Bob Willis ran the Orlando farm club for the Griffiths, and to say he was a character would be a vast understatement. Willis would be displaced from his Tinker Field office when the Twins were in town for spring training and be moved into a cubbyhole.

"Willie'' had the main office at Tinker during the season. There would be a few Chamber of Commerce nights when tickets were free and 1,000 people might show up, but beyond that, it was a lonely ballyard ... even with Funderburk hitting his bombs and getting some attention in the Orlando Sentinel.

Willis was very proud that in 1985 he had computerized weather radar available in his office. There were not multiple colors to show thunderstorm activities, but rather green dots and blotches. And Willie's sworn enemies were those late-afternoon thunderstorms that appeared regularly.

Willie was convinced that if he could get a rare afternoon without the burst of rain that this could be the night when several hundred people would show up at Tinker, rather than several dozen.

When I remember my friend Willie, he is in front of that early radar machine, looking at the Gulf of Mexico, and noting the first green dot.

"See, there it is ... there's that X*xx*#%!,'' Willie would grumble. "And there's another one. And now they are going to come together over land, and those @+XX%##&s are going to head right for Orlando, right for the ballpark.''

And then he would shout at an office worker, "Go over and tell 'em to get the tarp on. The rain will be here at 5:30.''

Willie was right, of course, but his futile war with summer heat, humidity and storms was a great skit, and made a July trip to the modified jungle of central Florida still worth a smile for me three decades later.

Footnote: Willie had one other important enemy -- an ancient team bus that kept breaking down in faraway places. Famously, he had a slugger named Bob Gorinski (who would have a brief stay with the Twins) who would complain incessantly about the condition and unreliability of the bus.

Willis had heard enough one day and said to Gorinski, 'You know what? We had $60,000 in the budget for a new bus. But then Calvin Griffth decided to give that money to a [Polish kid] from Pennsylvania who strikes out all the time, and that stuck us with the same old bus.''

You can look up Gorinski on Baseball Reference and find out to whom Willis was referring.






© 2018 Star Tribune