The Twins had lost Lyman Bostock, Larry Hisle and a raft of other players to free agency after 1977, a season in which they had finished 84-77 and were a run-scoring machine.
For me, the most-memorable moment of the 1978 spring training came when the Twins (then housed in Orlando) made the first of their several visits to Winter Haven to play the Red Sox.
Clif Keane was a long-time baseball writer for the Boston Globe – so long that he knew Twins manager Gene Mauch from when Gene played for the Red Sox in the mid-‘50s. Sports writing is an occupation that lends itself to acerbic conduct, and Clif was the all-time champion in this area.
I was standing next to Mauch outside the visitors dugout in Winter Haven as the Twins were taking batting practice. The manager took a hit off his cigarette, gazed across the field and said, “Oh, (bleep), here comes Clif.’’
Keane was 20 feet from the dugout when he started bellowing, “Mauch, who are these guys? What happened to your team?’’
Clif looked at the Twins some more and said: “Hey, there’s Carew. He’s the only guy I recognize. What happened, Mauch? Did Calvin [Griffith] back up the truck?’’
Keane’s foreboding view of the ’78 Twins came to fruition in April. The Twins went 8-16, losing two of three to the Yankees at Met Stadium to conclude the opening month.
The Twins had two scheduled days off before resuming play in Boston on May 3, a Wednesday night. The Twins flew into Boston on Tuesday. The Red Sox were playing Baltimore that night in Fenway Park.
Mauch was looking for an excuse not to go to dinner with whatever front-office entourage might have been on the trip.
Mauch once said when Calvin and company were on a season-opening trip that included a stop in New Orleans and many dinners: “I’m up to my rear end in food and expertise.’’
He was looking to avoid more of that on this off night in Boston, so he told club officials that he was going to skip dunner and go to Fenway to watch the Red Sox. Mauch wanted someone to share cocktails, so I was able to tag along.
Mauch and Don Zimmer grew up as infielders in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization and were buddies. Zimmer was managing the Red Sox. They had won 97 games in 1977. That put them 2 ½ games behind the Yankees in the AL East, and thus out of the postseason.
The fans blamed Zimmer for this. And the Red Sox, loaded though they were, were only 12-9 to start the 1978 season.
Mauch and I went to the Fenway press box 10 minutes before the scheduled first pitch. Various Red Sox were playing catch in front of the dugout. Mauch’s friend Zimmer was in the dugout somewhere.
Mauch asked to use the in-house phone to call the dugout. He got Zimmer on the phone. They chatted for a couple of minutes, and Gene asked, “How are you getting along with the fans?’’
Zimmer said he would show Mauch exactly how it was going, and moved into view on a higher dugout step. The fans who were in their seats (the crowd was 19,930) noticed and the boos cascaded from all around Fenway.
Zimmer came back to the phone, both managers laughed, and Mauch said, “Do that again, Zim. See if it works.’’
Sure enough, Zimmer stepped upward, back into view, and the boos were even louder.
Gene Mauch died in 2005 from lung cancer at age 79. Don Zimmer died on Wednesday at age 83 with heart problems.
I’ve always treasured being able to eavesdrop on that byplay between two grand, thick-skinned baseball lifers on one spring night in Fenway.