Fort Myers, Fla. – So a Yankee, a Johnnie and a Gopher walk into a bar …
That’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s the beginning of an odd friendship that establishes just how down-to-earth a couple of high-profile athletes can be, and that a certain former St. John’s quarterback is a cross between Anthony Bourdain and Dale Carnegie.
A few years ago, former Gopher Glen Perkins looked like he was on the outs with the Twins, Phil Hughes looked like a long-term Yankee, and Tom Linnemann, the former St. John’s quarterback from Melrose, Minn., knew neither of them. Now they’re a wacky buddy movie lacking only Mike Tyson and hotel-room tigers — and give them time.
Linnemann has shagged balls at Twins spring training, been Perkins’ plus-one at Twins functions and stayed at Perkins’ house in Fort Myers. The three of them went fishing together in February.
Linnemann is a businessman and world traveler with a Twitter account that belongs on the Travel Channel. A couple of years ago, Perkins, the Twins’ All-Star closer, saw Linnemann tweeting about racquetball, and challenged him to a match.
“We played a five-game thriller,’’ Linnemann said. “Sometimes it ended with one person doing a victory lap and the other with a smashed racquet.’’
The Twins made Perkins the 22nd pick in the 2004 draft. The Yankees chose Hughes with the next pick. They became friendly through baseball’s rookie orientation. When Hughes pitched poorly for the Yankees in 2013, Perkins, who had long lobbied the Twins’ front office to sign him, pushed even harder.
Once they became teammates in 2014, Perkins signed a contract extension in spring training and pitched in the All-Star Game, while Hughes became perhaps the most improved pitcher in baseball and signed a contract extension after the season ended.
Last spring. Linnemann was staying with Perkins in Fort Myers. The Twins were holding a team function. Hughes suggested getting an acquaintance named “Captain Pete’’ to take them to the event via boat.
“Anyone who knows a guy named Captain Pete is all right by me,’’ Linnemann said. “We get in the boat and it was like a Bond movie.’’
At the event, Twins President Dave St. Peter kept trying to figure out who Linnemann was and why he was there. Linnemann won him over, then noticed Hughes setting off nonverbal alarms.
“I got seated with a group of people, and let’s just say the conversation was not going in a direction I was comfortable with,’’ Hughes said. “Tom came over, took control and kept me from poking my eyes out with a fork.’’
All three like baseball, conversation and beer, sometimes even in that order.
“They’re normal guys who can throw a baseball really hard,’’ Linnemann said. “We do the same thing that everyone else does. We talk about sports, go fishing, hang out at dive bars. When I ran into some challenges at my job about a month ago, Phil was one of the first people to text me.
“We ate steaks and found out that Phil is a chef when he made an impromptu mushroom roux. Who makes a last-second roux?’’
Perkins is happy because in Hughes he has a friend in the clubhouse who may help the Twins win, and in Linnemann a friend who can tell him how to find excellent pho in an unmarked tent in Vietnam. Hughes is happy because he has turned his career around while finding a couple of buddies to hang out with in his adoptive home.
Linnemann is happy because, when he’s not eating or swimming with jellyfish or surfing in Australia, or going to the airport to fly to a location undisclosed by his traveling buddies, he can shadow his friends at their cool jobs.
“It’s probably the opposite of hanging out with Lil Wayne,’’ Linnemann said. “I know they don’t wear grills, and I don’t even think they have helicopters. But they’re still cool.’’