2006, 2009 Twins had phenomenal finishes
As a Twins beat writer in 2010, the move from the Metrodome to Target Field was better than getting a new office. It was like getting a whole new job. I spent too many nice summer weekends stuck under the Teflon sky to feel overly nostalgic about the Dome. But my two most memorable days on the Twins beat were both Metrodome specials.
Game 163 against the Tigers in 2009 was unforgettable, with all those twists and turns through 12 innings before Alexi Casilla singled home Carlos Gomez with the winning run.
But Game 162 in 2006 stands out for me, too. Joe Mauer sealed his first batting title, the Twins defeated the White Sox 5-1 and then the players watched the Jumbotrons — along with about 35,000 fans — as Kansas City finished off Detroit, giving Minnesota the AL Central title.
The Twins were 12 games behind at one point and never led the division until that final day. They had Mauer, Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, MVP Justin Morneau — not to mention Joe Nathan (1.58 ERA), Torii Hunter (31 home runs) and Michael Cuddyer (109 RBI). They flopped against Oakland in the playoffs, so it’s easy to forget, but teams like that don’t come around very often.
Milton arrived early for his 1999 no-hitter
Twins players trudged to the Dome on September 11, 1999, for an 11 a.m. game against the Angels. The night before, they had lost their fourth consecutive game, a 4-2 defeat to Chuck Finley and the Angels.
They were right back at the Dome the next morning to prepare for the early-morning affair because the Dome was in multipurpose mode: The Gophers had a football game against the University of Louisiana at Monroe that evening. A reporter noted it was 7:50 a.m., turned to bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek and said, “just trying to grind through this one, Stelly.” Stelmaszek grunted and nodded.
Then Eric Milton took the mound and began chewing up the Angels lineup. Mo Vaughn, Jim Edmonds, Darin Erstad, Garret Anderson and other regulars received a veteran’s day off, and Milton made mincemeat of the replacements. No hits, two walks, 13 strikeouts. And he blew away Jeff DaVannon with a fastball to end the game in front of an announced crowd of 11,222. Milton hugged catcher Terry Steinbach as teammates sprinted toward the mound and workers began changing the diamond into a football field.
“I’m pretty numb,” the normally low-key Milton said. “It’s probably the greatest day in my life. There isn’t much else I can say.”
Some other items from the day: Midwest Sports Channel, the Fox Sports North of the time, did not televise the game. St. Paul’s Tim Tschida was the first base umpire that day. The third base umpire was Jim Joyce, who in 2010 blew a call in the ninth inning that cost the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga a perfect game.
As for Milton, the date probably evokes a bittersweet memory. Exactly two years later, he lost a good friend, Jonas Panik, during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.
Schatzeder keeps his identity on the hush-hush
Before the Star Tribune rescued me from a sordid life in retail sales, one of my paying gigs was at a sports collectibles store in St. Paul. One weekday in the fall of 1987, a guy with a bushy mustache stopped by to search for older baseball cards to fill out his collection. I couldn’t quite place his face as I handed him a box of commons to sift through while he sat at the counter, but shortly it came to me. I leaned over toward him when no other customers were nearby and half-whispered, “Are you Dan Schatzeder?”
The Twins reliever, only with the club since late June after a trade with the Phillies, said he was, but he’d appreciated it if I didn’t make a big deal about it. Over the next couple of hours — and in between waiting on other customers oblivious to this minor brush with fame I was having — we talked about collecting and favorite ballplayers and why lefthanders are often flaky (we’re both southpaws occasionally fitting the description). After having interviewed a sampling of privileged pro athletes by that time, I was reassured that Schatzeder acted, well, normal.
He wrapped up his card hunting and wanted to thank me for my help, so he said he’d hook me up with four tickets to the Twins’ last regular-season home game against the Royals. Over 53,000 fans coming down with playoff fever showed up at the Metrodome on Sept. 27 and were treated to one of the most entertaining first innings I’ve ever seen. The Royals put runners on first and third with nobody out, but the Twins turned a 5-4-2 double play — Al Newman made the unique choice of going home from second to gun down Willie Wilson — and kept Kansas City scoreless.
Charlie Leibrandt took the mound for the Royals in the bottom of the first, destined to remain there for only two-thirds of an inning. Kirby Puckett homered with one runner on; Gary Gaetti immediately followed with a solo shot. Three batters later, Kent Hrbek hit another two-run homer and it was 5-0 in an eventual 8-1 rout before the foam settled on our first beers.
You know what happened the rest of that year. The Twins went on to beat St. Louis in the World Series in seven games, and my ticket provider became the answer to a trivia question: Who was the only Twins pitcher to win a World Series game in 1987 not named Frank Viola or Bert Blyleven? Dan Schatzeder won Game 6, but I’ll remember him more for a quiet afternoon in a Grand Avenue store, sharing our love of baseball and those fabulous old cards still retaining the faint aroma of that nasty pink chewing gum.
To step on the turf … and to get on TV wearing a paper bag
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been in attendance for some historic moments at the Metrodome. I went to Game 2 of the 1991 World Series and Game 163 in 2009. I saw Brett Favre’s record TD pass and the Badgers’ blocked-punt victory (Wisconsin alum here, sorry Gophers fans). NCAA tournament basketball, Division III baseball, high school soccer … I’ve looked at the Teflon sky more times than I care to count.
But when it comes to my top memories, I have to go back to my senior year at John Marshall High School in Rochester, in 1993-94. Two stand out. The first came in high school football. JM played Osseo in the big-school semifinals, and it seemed as though the entire high school was in attendance. I was a so-so trombone player in the marching band, and remember thinking what a BIG DEAL it was to be able to march on the sacred Metrodome turf.
As for the game itself, it was one it appeared we were destined to lose, trailing 8-0 most of the way. But we scored two TDs in the final four minutes, the first on a Jeff Mieras fumble return to make it 8-6, the second when Brent Solheim lofted a pass to the end zone that Chad Westberg outjumped two Osseo defenders for to pull down for a go-ahead, 38-yard touchdown with 48 seconds to go. I had slipped away from the band to sit with friends in the stands at the time, and we went delirious. Everybody. JM 13, Osseo 7. Sure, we went on to a 29-7 loss to Apple Valley in the Prep Bowl, but that semifinal victory was a moment of joy in my life that was really only rivaled by the Twins’ two World Series victories.
The other memory I have from that time came the summer after graduation, the summer of 1994, where my friends and I didn’t seem to have a care in the world. In August, college loomed — as did the baseball strike. I was working my grocery store job Aug. 10 when six friends showed up and pried me out of work to drive up to the Dome for what proved to be the final game of the Twins’ season. On the drive up we had two genius ideas: 1. We would all wear paper bags on our heads (six of us with unhappy faces drawn on, one with a happy face because he didn’t like baseball); 2. We would hold up a sign in an effort to get on TV. On one side, we wrote “HRBEK’S LAST HURRAH?” because of the rumors of Kent Hrbek’s pending retirement, and on the other, we had “STRIKE THIS.” It was a success — Midwest Sports Channel showed seven goofballs wearing paper bags and holding the Hrbek side of the sign up in the left-field seats during its broadcast.
The game, a 17-7 Twins victory over the Red Sox, proved to be wild. Kirby Puckett hit two homers and drove in seven runs to give him 112 for the season, his only RBI crown; had the Twins played a full season, he might have driven in nearly 170 runs. Hrbek came up with the bases loaded four times in his first five plate appearances; his first time he was hit by a pitch, his second and third time he was retired for the final out of the inning. In the seventh with the Twins’ lead down to 9-7 and the modest crowd restless, Hrbek again came up with the bases loaded, this time with no one out. He finally came through with a hit, a two-run single, sending the crowd into a frenzy and starting an eight-run inning that put the game away. And the season, and Hrbek’s career. Thanks to glaucoma, Puckett would play only one more season, so this game signifies to me a farewell to the cornerstones of the Twins’ two championship teams.
Seeing Ripken’s historic moment on the cheap
My college roommate, Jeff, and I took advantage of the Twins’ subpar record late in Tom Kelly’s tenure while living on the U of M campus. It was not uncommon to decide on a whim to part with a dollar for a ride on the 16 bus into downtown and find a ticket for only a few bucks more. We had plans to do this on Sept. 11, 1999, but a driving rainstorm kept us inside our dorm at Pioneer Hall. That turned out to be Eric Milton’s no hitter and we’ve kicked ourselves ever since.