The arrival of the Twins on the Bloomington prairie for the 1961 season allowed the Twin Cities to form a chapter for the Baseball Writers Association of America. The group voted for a team MVP after that season and it wasn’t a difficult choice, with Harmon Killebrew having put up 46 home runs and 122 RBI.
The next year the Twin Cities chapter added awards for the Twins’ top pitcher, for top rookie and for the Upper Midwest Player of the Year. The criterion was that the player had to be from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota or Nebraska.
The first winner in 1962 was Twins lefthander Dick Stigman, the finest pitcher ever produced in Nimrod, Minn. The second winner was Johnny Blanchard, the slugger for the Yankees and former Minneapolis Central star athlete. The third was Bob Johnson, an infielder from St. Paul playing for Baltimore.
The early members of the Twin Cities chapter soon discovered that it would not always be easy to come up with a worthy winner with a strong connection to the Upper Midwest.
In 1967, the plaque went to Lee Stange, a Twins pitcher who was a standout high school athlete in Chicago who happened to attend Drake University in Des Moines. In 1970, they went with John Hiller, a relief pitcher for Detroit who spent some time in Duluth after marrying a woman from there.
There were the golden years of voting from 1978 to 1996, when St. Paul gents Dave Winfield, Jack Morris and Paul Molitor received the Dick Siebert Award 14 times in 19 seasons (including Morris and Molitor as shared recipients in 1980).
Things got tougher after that.
If you think Joe Mauer’s falloff has been tough on the Twins’ lineup, think about we poor voters for the Siebert Award: Joe won it five times from 2006 to 2012, before becoming Doug Mientkiewicz minus the magic glove.
I was proud to discover pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, then of Washington, was from Auburndale, Wis., so that got him the 2013 Siebert Award. Reliever Pat Neshek, a true Minnesotan, had an excellent season in St. Louis’ bullpen in 2014 and got the plaque for the second time (also 2007).
This time around … uff da. With no obvious winner, I threw out the possibility of voting in Dan Johnson, the resilient, rent-a-home run first baseman who was a standout athlete at Blaine High School.
Admittedly, it would’ve been quite a break with tradition, since the Siebert Award was designed for a player coming off a strong year in the big leagues, and Johnson had 19 at-bats for St. Louis is 2015.
The award went to Tony Watson, a standout lefthander in Pittsburgh’s bullpen. The consensus on Tony built quickly, once Jace Frederick, a sportswriter at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, made us aware Watson was from Grimes, Iowa.
I know players have not arrived in spring training. I realize someone with a background that can be traced (no matter how vaguely) to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, the Dakotas or Nebraska could be ready for an outstanding season.
Inspired by John Scott’s heroics as an NHL All-Star, I today am officially launching the campaign to get Dan Johnson, now 36 and hoping to embark on his 16th professional season, voted in as the 2016 winner of the Dick Siebert Upper Midwest Player of the Year Award.
Here’s all you need to know about Johnson: I called him around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. He was taking swings in a batting cage, getting ready for a job that he has not yet landed.
Later, he was in the family home in Ham Lake, with wife Holly and the four kids (ages 2 to 11) clattering about in the background.
Since 2005, Johnson has played 1,027 games in Class AAA and 443 in the big leagues. He has been with nine organizations, played in the big leagues with six and also spent 2009 with the Yokohama Bay Stars in Japan.
Through the wandering, he has nearly five years of big-league service, he has a seat painted white and named in his honor at Tropicana Field for the dramatic Game 162 home run vs. the Yankees in 2011; he has MVP awards from the Pacific Coast League (2004) and International League (2010); and he’s got a suitcase, if a team calls with an invite to spring training that starts in a couple of weeks.
“If something sounds reasonable, where there’s a chance for it to lead to something and not just somebody doing me a favor … sure, I’d like to play again this season,” Johnson said. “Holly’s fine with it. The kids love it.
“I’m still taking swings, just in case.”
Even with a blizzard outside — the type of Upper Midwest value that belongs on a plaque.