Jim Rantz still was the right-hand man for the great George Brophy when he left baseball’s winter meetings in Houston in December 1973 and headed east, to find a location for the Twins to place a rookie team in the Appalachian League.
The first stop was in Pulaski, Va., where a local baseball man gave Rantz a check for $3,000. The “Pay to the Order” portion was blank, and when Rantz asked to whom it should be made out, the man said:
“Whoever you want it to be.”
Rantz returned the check and headed to Elizabethton, Tenn., a scenic place in the Appalachian foothills. There were no checks, but there were several “we’ll take care of it” assurances from Carmen Duggar, a baseball disciple in charge of Elizabethton’s parks.
The lights being inside the fences, with rubber tires at the bottom to protect outfielders? “They moved ’em behind the fences,” Rantz said.
The road that went through a gate and across the field? “Carmen closed the road.” Dugouts that can’t be so close to the plate? “Moved.” Where am I going to stay tonight? “My place,” said Joe O’Brien, another baseball man.
Rantz recalled Friday: “Joe was 75 or so and a widower. We sat down at the kitchen table, he took out a bottle of Jack Daniels — I’m a beer guy — and said, ‘We’re going to have couple of drinks and talk baseball.’ Turned into four hours with most of the bottle gone.”
As the Twins farm director, Rantz had annual stays in Elizabethton for four decades. Those visits were good for an added 5 pounds, even without O’Brien’s fine Tennessee whiskey.
“There were a mother and a daughter at every game, and they brought cake, brownies, cookies,” Rantz said. “Two, three brownies and a half-dozen cookies were my average. What were their names … dang it?”
Gertrude and Paula Bishop.
Gertrude was honored by the E-Town Twins in July 2018, while marking her 100th birthday. On Friday, a call was placed to Paula, to ask about what appears to be a certainty the Appalachian and another rookie league — the Pioneer — will be abolished in negotiations between the major leagues and the minor league association.
But first: How’s Mom doing? “Pretty good for 102,” Paula said. “She’s out on the front porch putting flowers in pots right now.”
Now, the sad news: “We have been going to our Twins games since 1974. It will be devastating for many of us individually, but also for this town. There’s so much pride in saying, ‘Joe Mauer played here. Kirby Puckett played here. … Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, so many.”
E-Town players live with local families. Catcher Ray Smith stayed with the Bishops when he played there in 1977. Rantz hired Smith as E-Town’s manager after his career was over in 1987, and he’s been there since in various roles: manager, coach, city parks and recreation director, associate athletic director at Milligan University.
Smith was a California guy who loved the quiet of 13,000 residents and never left. His coaching partner since 2002 has been Jeff Reed, a 17-year big-leaguer. He played in Elizabethton as a Twins first-round draft choice in 1980, met his wife, Karen, that summer and it became home.
“The first time you come into this town on a bus you say, ‘This is it?’ ” Reed said. “But the people, the fans, make it great. When they take in a ballplayer, he becomes part of the family. When that player makes it to the big leagues, the families will travel to watch him play, and they’ll tell people, ‘That’s our son down there.’ ”
Harold Mains, president of the Elizabethton baseball committee for two decades, said: “It’s going to be devastating for this town. There will be Covered Bridge Days for three days, and the carnival comes in on a Wednesday and stays through Sunday, but without the Twins summers won’t be the same.”
There will be memories of the 46 seasons of players, sons of E-Town from the great to the hopeful, and the championships won. Although that last one in 2018 is a touch suspicious …
“We were playing to win the championship that night,” Paula Bishop said. “I went to the back door and told Ray, ‘If we win tonight, I’ll be delivering my rum cake to the clubhouse.’ And we won.”
Jim Rantz (among others) can confirm Paula offering rum cake was an unfair advantage approaching the Astros’ sign-stealing.
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and including his name in the subject line.