Phil Collier was a grand human being and a long-serving baseball writer for the San Diego Union. He carried the nickname “The Phantom” for his habit of disappearing from a clubhouse gathering of reporters and then breaking a story in the next day’s newspaper.
The Phantom was honored in 1991 with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball reporting at the Hall of Fame. That was also the year Rod Carew was inducted as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
It was a blessing to be in attendance to see Carew take his place in Cooperstown, but also to hear Collier’s words of gratitude.
As a punch line to his speech, Phil quoted author James Barrie’s observation that “memory is what God gave us that we might have roses in December.”
Collier then gestured toward the 37 Hall of Famers sitting on the platform behind him and said, “These are my roses.”
Shivers. I had shivers. And I had them again, walking around Target Field on a frozen March afternoon.
A baseball season of low expectations for the home team was two weeks away, but it will be baseball, the game of my youth, and this walk was taken to check on our roses carved in bronze.
Kent Hrbek, the large lad from Bloomington, was guarding Gate 14 — arms thrust triumphantly after taking the throw for the final out of the 1987 World Series.
The Twins got to that seventh game thanks in large part to Hrbek’s grand slam off St. Louis lefty Ken Dayley in the sixth inning of Game 6. The Twins had clawed ahead 6-5, and then Hrbek leaned into one to set off the most thunderous roar heard in Thunderdome ’87.
There is a more distant memory for me. The Twins are in Winter Haven, Fla., for an exhibition game with Boston on a sunny March day in 1982. Hrbek is still 21 and he was more a splendid splinter than “Big Herbie” on that 6-4 frame.
We had seen the kid for seven weeks in 1981, rushed from Class A Visalia to Yankee Stadium, to debut with a home run on Aug. 24. He cooled after that. We weren’t sure he was ready to be at first base when the new Dome opened in April.
Until that spring training. Until he put a couple of drives deep into the orange grove behind the right field fence in Winter Haven. “Dang” and “double-dang,” we said that afternoon, “this kid can hit.”
You leave Big Herbie and find Tony Oliva holding forth at Gate 6. This is generic Tony O. in the statue — although there was nothing generic about the Oliva swing captured by sculptor Bill Mack.
You can’t imagine our restlessness five decades ago for the young Cuban, Oliva, to be allowed into the Twins lineup. We had seen glimpses of his line drives in two consecutive Septembers.
Finally, Oliva was in right field to open the 1964 season. There was an early-season game televised from Detroit. And this was the memory:
Detroit’s Phil Regan throws a fastball at Oliva’s head. Tony collapses out of the way. He gets up, brushes the dirt from his uniform, sets himself in the box and hits a screaming line drive to the open spaces of center field in Tiger Stadium.
Sure enough. Sunday, April 19, first game of a doubleheader. Oliva singles in the first, and when he comes around again, Regan sends Tony sprawling, and then he triples.
Best. Twins. Hitter. Ever.
You take a big sweep around a parking ramp to get to the twin statues of our immortals: First, there is Mack’s replica of Harmon Killebrew’s home run swing in the 1965 All-Star Game at Met Stadium, and then Kirby Puckett rounding the bases, punching his right arm forward, after winning Game 6 of the 1991 World Series with a home run.
Great memories, but there are others for me:
Sitting on the front steps, listening to Ray Scott describe Harmon’s showdown with the Yankees’ Pete Mikkelsen on July 11, 1965, two days before that All-Star Game clout.
Harmon hits a two-run home run with two outs in the ninth. Twins win 5-4. Shivers … thanks to the Killer, and to a killer of a play-by-play broadcaster.
There’s a thousand Puck memories, and here’s a small one:
The Twins are opening the exhibition schedule in Fort Myers. There’s a rain delay. The field is wet. Puck comes up and hits a routine four-hopper to shortstop. It’s fielded cleanly, the throw is made, and Puck beats it out.
Beats it out on his first sprint to first of the spring.
And over there by himself, on a corner well-removed from Gate 29, is Sir Rodney Carew, crouched in one of his many stances.
I was a Twins beat writer in 1977 and could give you a Carew memory from most every day between April 9 and Oct. 2.
Best. Twins. Season. Ever.
Go ahead. Drop in on ’em. It might make you feel better about the approaching season.
Herbie, Tony O., Harmon, Puck and Sir Rodney. These are our roses.