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Minnesota sports, as seen elsewhere

Nathan, Morneau, Liriano: Good reason to catch up on three ex-Twins

Yes, we have this thing in Minnesota -- with baseball more than any other sports, it seems -- about keeping track of the players who got away for one reason or another. We've spent more than a decade tracking the soon-to-be-retired David Ortiz; some people still boo A.J. Pierzynski (although Tuesday's hoots sounded more like a formality than anything malicious during the Twins-Atlanta game) and there were those who maintained an ongoing fascination with utility infielder Nick Punto until his retirement.

Understanding that, and sometime being guilty of that on our blog, we feel the need to offer updates on three of the last week's better baseball stories.

Joe Nathan is back in the majors with the Cubs:  It's only been two appearances since Nathan returned from elbow surgery that sidelined him after only one game in 2015, but the 41-year-old reliever was the winning pitcher in his return against Milwaukee and pitched a perfect inning in Tuesday's 3-0 loss to the White Sox. He's found himself in the bullpen for a team that's seen as a favorite to win the World Series and thrilled to have found a way back after his second season-long absence from baseball.

Nathan missed the 2010 season with the Twins because of Tommy John surgery and lost his closer's job in the bullpen during a struggle-filled 2011, after which he went to Texas as a free agent.

Nathan told Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press why it was important to make another comeback, which included working his way through the Cubs' minor-league system to show he deserved the shot: “A lot of the motivation is going out on your own terms. And I still may not go out the way I want to, but I gave myself a chance now, and I think one big hurdle that I accomplished is getting back in this game and being able to step back on that mound and face big league hitters.”

You can read Fenech's full story here.

The Cubs are in the middle of a four-game series against the White Sox, who will come to Target Field on Friday with ex-Twins cornerstone Justin Morneau in their dugout. Morneau sat out with injuries for the most of the 2013 and 2015 seasons, while winning the National League batting title in 2014 for Colorado. He's batting .233 in 34 at-bats since joining the White Sox, and one of his seven hits was a home run against Detroit on Friday.

Here's a look:

We're betting he'll get a warmer reception than Pierzynski.

And speaking of home runs, there was this one Tuesday night by Pittsburgh starting pitcher Francisco Liriano, with whom Twins fans had a love-hate relationship for almost his entire time with the team. Any home run hit by a pitcher is extraordinary, but Liriano gets bonus points for taking Felix Hernandez very, very deep.

Take a look:

Twins at Fenway: A boy's first game and a parent's big day

I first "met" Tony Soika through my baseball blog. He was stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq during Desert Storm; I was stationed from time to time at Target Field. My blog posts kept him up on what was happening with the Twins. His emails kept me up on what was happening in his life. (I'm sure I learned more than he did.) Currently an physical education instructor at West Point, Tony is a 1987 graduate of Eden Prairie High School.

He loves baseball, too. So when Tony told me a couple of months back that he was taking his three-year-old son to his first baseball game, at Fenway Park against the Twins, I knew that i wanted him to write about it.

How much does he love baseball? His son is named Nolan Ryan Soika.

I told him i wanted pictures. Parents and their kids going to their first baseball game is an eternal subject. I remember my first game. (Rudy May of the Angels got knocked out in the first inning by the White Sox, if you need to know.)

I wanted pictures too.

 

 

Nolan and Wally the Green Monster

So here's Tony's report from Sunday at Fenway Park. Does it remind you of your first game?

It was June 8, 1977; the day after my eighth birthday. My uncle took me to my first Twins game at the old Met Stadium, where we watched them beat the Royals 9-8.

Flash ahead a few...okay, a LOT...of years and when my son was born, I named him Nolan Ryan Soika. I didn't grow up a Nolan Ryan fan, but as an adult, I became one. I played a little baseball (make that very little baseball) at Winona State University before getting my degree in Exercise Science.

Today, I'm an army officer and Instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Nolan Ryan was one of the first baseball players to incorporate ability strength training into his off-season and off-season conditioning, and he balanced all of his ability and work ethic with a level of character that reminds me of when America was still America. He married his high school sweetheart and they're still together today. And who can forget the pasting he gave Robin Ventura of the White Sox?

Nolan Ryan vs. Robin Ventura, 1993

Nolan Ryan everything I want Nolan Ryan Soika to be when he grows up.

After learning that the Twins would be in town, we drove from New York to Boston to take Nolan to his first baseball game at Fenway Park. The Twins were in town, Fenway had long been on my bucket list and where better for a kid to experience his first major league baseball game?

We had second-row seats that I'd gotten from a season-ticket holder. The Twins played well enough to beat the Red Sox but were also bad enough to beat themselves. (When you've been a Twins fan as long as I have, you learn to expect these things.)

I frankly didn't care that the Twins lost 8-7. The experience of a game at Fenway was like I'd died and gone to baseball heaven.

The Red Sox staff tossed Nolan a package of Cracker Jack during the seventh-Inning stretch and let me hand him down to them so he could walk around on the warning track after the game. Never mind that he tried to eat a handful of dirt, I was too preoccupied taking pictures to capture the moment.

Nolan Ryan Soika on the warning track at Fenway Park

Afterward we walked over to the bullpen 50 feet away where Kyle Gibson was throwing. Eddie Guardado gave me a fist bump and away we went to the gift shop to get Nolan a ball and a t-shirt.

Kyle Gibson in the bullpen

Nolan and his mom Elizabeth

I'm not sure who had a better time, the kid with cotton candy and Cracker Jack or the dad with the addiction to baseball and Americana. But it was a day neither will ever forget.