June 5. We'll make that. That will be 20 years since my first column appeared in the Star Tribune.

The subject was Dennis Eckersley. He had started the season as a reclamation project in Oakland's bullpen, and now was early into a run as a closer that would take him to the Hall of Fame.

Four weeks from today. We'll make that standing up here at 425 Portland Av.

The deal is, we like round numbers and anniversaries in sports departments. And there's another off in the distance. Labor Day.

Seventeen weeks, four days from today. If we make that with a Carlos Gomez belly slide around the tag, that will be 40 years as a Twin Cities sportswriter.

Labor Day night, 1968. Layout editor Roger Rosenblum was sitting in the slot on the St. Paul Pioneer Press sports desk. And that's what it was -- a slot cut several feet at one end into an extra-large desk, so Rosenblum could reach across and drop an article in front of whatever copyreader he so chose.

The articles were typewritten on cheap 8-by-11 paper. The sheets were pasted together when the length exceeded one sheet, which was almost always.

Ken Murphy was the night sports editor and also covered the Gophers and golf. He lugged over his effort for the next day's edition and tossed it toward the slot.

Rosenblum grabbed it, scratched with a thick pencil the size of the headline required, and tossed the copy to me.

Murphy chomped on his ever-present lit cigar, peered at the 22-year-old rookie suspiciously and said to Rosenblum, "Watch who you are giving that to.''

To which the veteran slotman said, "You hired him. If he can't read copy and write a headline, what good is he?''

It was with this burst of confident backing that (nearly) four consecutive decades in Twin Cities sports departments would begin.

Several years later, I was working the slot and a young man named Charley Walters was now in his first night in the department. The morning columnist was Don (The Eye) Riley, who was so careful with his copy that on occasion he would have the 8-by-11 sheets pasted in opposite directions of one another.

Most of us would find 30 corrections in an average Riley column, then reward ourselves by going across the street to Luigi's saloon for a couple of refreshments.

Walters sweated over The Eye's prose for an hour, tossed it back and said, "I couldn't find any mistakes.''

My reply was: "In that case, Charley, you're fired.''

Walters survived, and remains the staple of the Pioneer Press sports section.

The afternoon dailies, the Star and the St. Paul Dispatch, died in the '80s. The result was a couple of robust sports sections, with higher travel budgets.

As mentioned, I made the switch to the Star Tribune in June 1988, in the midst of a golden age for sports department budgets. If you had a story idea, you took five minutes to sell it to the boss, then got on a plane and reported it.

Even then, the backbone of this and any sports section was the coverage on the most important local beats. And in 2008, it's clear there is a greater appetite for in-depth news on our Big Five -- Vikings, Twins, Wild, Gophers football, Timberwolves -- than at any time previously.

When it comes to the section's backbone, this is the best crew I've worked with:

Kevin Seifert and Judd Zulgad are tireless on the Vikings. Joe Christensen and La Velle Neal are on top of the Twins. Mike Russo is the best hockey writer in the country. Chip Scoggins is irrepressible in covering Gophers football. Jerry Zgoda gave the readers a daily, non- hysterical look at a sad Wolves situation.

The public can take or leave another Reusse column after roughly 8,000 of them, But if the Minnesota sports addicts don't have Seifert, Zulgad, Christensen, Neal, Russo, Scoggins and Zgoda (to name a few) to get them the news, there will be a significant void.

And don't kid yourself:

A doesn't-cost-a-nickel, stand-alone Internet site is not going to have the quality of resources the Star Tribune has mustered for a rich sports section that lands on a doorstep.

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com