When bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek missed spring training and the first three weeks of the season because of eye surgery, life in the Twins clubhouse became quieter and less familiar.
Every half-century or so, Rick Stelmaszek skips spring training.
"I hadn't missed one since I left, my senior year in high school, to play pro ball," Stelmaszek said. "It was 44 years since I missed a spring training, and I really did miss it."
The Twins bullpen coach returned, missing a lens in his right eye, to Target Field this weekend. Stelmaszek is the longest- tenured coach in Twins history, and the third-longest tenured coach with the same team in big-league history, and for those behind the scenes with the Twins, he is as worthy of a statue as any of the Twins' Hall of Famers.
So when he missed spring training and the first three weeks of the season because of eye surgery, life in the Twins clubhouse became quieter and less familiar.
"The first six weeks after the surgery, I laid on my stomach and my side the whole time, because I had that bubble in my eye," he said Sunday, after the Twins beat Cleveland 4-3. "Then it was icy outside, so I couldn't do a lot, and then it was windy, and I didn't want to catch a draft in the eye. They wouldn't let me swim, or do anything.
"So I bonded with my wife, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's just that I don't like shopping, I don't care about shopping, I don't care about coupons, I don't care for the Blue Light Special at Target. I just don't care."
A baseball lifer sitting on a couch when his team is playing games? "It was like house arrest," he said. "I read a lot, watched a lot of TV, kept up with the team. I had the routine down -- Lawrence Welk on Saturday, pizza and a movie on Sunday. Date night with the old lady.
"After a while, she was screaming, 'Just get out of the house already!' I finally 'fessed up. I said, 'Kathy, we'll be married 40 years in January. But in actuality, it's only been 20, because I've been gone half the time. That's the reason it works.'"
In the Twins clubhouse, Stelmaszek's better half is equipment manager Rod McCormick. When Stelmaszek returned to the team this weekend, McCormick helped greet him with verbal abuse, the big-league version of a dozen roses. "Oh, Hot Rod started in right away, making fun of my eye, my fingers, the whole nine yards," Stelmaszek said, displaying the directionally- challenged fingers of a former big-league catcher. "Typical. I got him back, of course.
"You really can't describe a big-league clubhouse to people, or what happens in the clubhouse, the spontaneity of getting on each other. Something happens, and they blow it up and go crazy with it. It might not be funny to anybody else, but when you're around these guys more than your own family, everything becomes pretty funny. And if you can't handle laughing in this game, there's something wrong with you."
He was sitting on a couch in the coaches' locker room after the game. The other coaches hurried by, trying to take advantage of a free night at home.
Stelmaszek, 62, celebrated Easter the way he usually does -- with a long day at the ballpark, followed by a steak dinner far from his family. He's been living this life since the Washington Senators drafted him in 1967.
"This spring, I missed the palm trees and the dog track and the bowling and all the stuff that goes on in spring training," he said.
Then he laughed and said, "Oh, yeah, I missed the baseball, too."
He describes the sight in his right eye as "like looking through salt water." He doesn't need 20-20 vision to recount baseball history that current Twins players could access only through history books.
Stelmaszek remembers a Texas Rangers coach named George Susce -- "I mean, this guy was crusty," Stelmaszek said -- conducting eye-strengthening drills in spring training in 1972. "He had us moving our eyes around," Stelmaszek said. "What he didn't realize was the sun rose in the east, and we were staring right into it. Maybe that was the start of my problems."
Stelmaszek laughed, looking forward to his customary Easter steak dinner. "It really is good to be back," he said. "All spring training, my heart was in Florida, but my eye was in Chicago."
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • email@example.com
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