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.