A Fan is a Terrible Thing to Waste

A view from the cheap seats of baseball past, present, and future.

Nonfans, and even some sportswriter types, resent the baseball zealot's weakness for corn. Most offenders would plead guilty. No matter how cynical the times, baseball always lends itself to sentimentality. How could one watch Cal Ripken's 2,131st consecutive game, or Randy Johnson's playoff performance last fall, and remain unmoved?

One recent midnight I took my dog for a walk in a neighborhood park. The Little League fields had all emerged beneath the melt, and there in the lamplight and the mist of late winter I was struck again by the perfection of even the humblest baseball diamond. I remember as a kid trying desperately to mow our lawn so we'd have that almost Escher-like weave of light and dark, the checkerboard grass of the big-league parks.

With baseball as a childhood presence--the ways in which we get introduced, seduced, and indoctrinated into the game and its traditions--for a starting point, we invited seven local true believers to sit down and talk baseball.

ORIGINS

Where baseball comes from

Helen Pierce: My interest in baseball goes way back to when I was just a little girl. My father was interested in baseball, and that was back in the days when you had to wait for tomorrow morning's paper to find out how today's games came out. It was before radio was big.

I didn't know much of anything about the American League until I came to Minnesota. We were Cubs fans. Everybody in my little town was. It was in Illinois--called Sandwich. It was on the main line of the Burlington. When they started broadcasting I think my father thought he'd died and gone to heaven. He was just glued to that radio.

After I was married and we moved to Minnesota, I lost interest in baseball because there wasn't any here, and then one day the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins. Instant fan. And I've been a fan of the Twins ever since. I like to have 'em win, but win or lose I'm still theirs.

David Unowsky: I grew up in St. Paul with the Saints in the late '40s, early '50s. The first game I ever went to, Campanella was catching. I'd swear that he hit a 500-foot line drive over the 469-foot center-field fence in Lexington Park.

They were great teams. They were the Dodgers' farm club. Montreal was actually the number-one Dodgers farm club, but in 1948 the Saints won the Junior World Series, I believe, with Walter Alston managing them. Even the next few teams were terrific teams. Don Zimmer played for the Saints and hit a huge number
of home runs before taking several shots in
the head.

There was a great rivalry between the Saints and the [Minneapolis] Millers, with the split doubleheaders on the holidays. You were a fan of one or the other. You couldn't be both. You couldn't be neither, either, if you lived in the Twin Cities.

Bill Ward: I was in Nashville, and the TV age was coming on. Dizzy Dean and Peewee Reese were doing games on TV. The closest team was the Cardinals, and Harry Caray and Jack Buck were doing their games on the radio. By the time I got to a major-league ballpark--it was like that opening scene in Bull Durham where she walks into the ballpark and it's just the greenest thing you've ever seen. My first major-league games were the 1961 World Series [in Cincinnati]. My dad took me.

Brad Zellar: To me, Met Stadium was a fantasy place. Living down in Austin, we never got to go to games there. We just listened on the radio to Herb, and we would play in our neighborhood. I don't remember organized baseball, I don't remember television baseball, I remember listening to the radio and playing catch, staying out until it got dark and playing until our mom called us home. I came up here when the Twins had moved into the Dome, and I've never had an objection to going to games there because I never knew anything else. I was just anxious to see pro baseball.

John Beggs: I never really missed the Met. At that point in my life, in the early '80s, drugs and rock & roll kinda took over. I didn't really give a shit about sports for a couple of years there, so when the Met went away, I wasn't there.

Shawn Stewart: I lost track of baseball for a few years because I refused to go to the Dome. When I moved here I actually would go to the Met because I knew John Castino. My dad had coached him in Little League. John would come over to my dorm at Macalester and pick me up and take me to the Met. And there was never anyone there. It was really desolate, so I just thought Minnesotans must not understand baseball.

Then the Dome came along, and I didn't go until I had tickets to the playoff games and the '87 World Series. That was it. I've had season tickets ever since. I love the Dome. I don't care that it's inside and I don't care that there's bad air and that the lights are horrible. I just want to see the game.

THAT MAGIC MOMENT

Favorite Memories

Brad: It seems that everyone's got a defining baseball moment--the one they remember best of all. What's yours?

David: When [Kent] Hrbek came up to the plate [in the sixth game of the '87 Series], the bases were loaded. I had to leave to go to a wedding party. I said, "Well, they're going to switch pitchers; let's run for the car." My wife and I went dashing from the park. We were halfway there and you'd think the roof was coming off the stadium. There was no doubt the minute we heard the sound that he'd hit the grand slam. The cab drivers stopped and started rolling down their windows, telling us what had happened.

Julian Empson Loscalzo: Mine is the steal by Chico Ruiz of home plate in 1964 off Art Mahaffey that started the Phillies' 10-game losing streak. I was there. I was 13, the Phillies were in the pennant race, and right there they went down the tubes. That's my moment, which shows you how my life has gone ever since.

Brad: At least half my defining moments are heartbreakers. I remember when Viola blew the 10-run lead at Cleveland. It was the first time in my days as a fan that they actually had a chance. That was the year of Ron Davis. The year Puckett came up.

Dark Star: The most defining moment for me, the greatest single at-bat I ever saw, was in the '88 Series. The Dodgers had a guy named Mike Davis, he hit about .190. World Series, two outs. He worked the pitcher for the greatest walk I've ever seen. Fouled pitches off. Finally, finally got a walk, then [Kirk] Gibson hit a home run to win the game. Nobody talks about that walk, but no walk, no Gibson.

David: I've got two great moments. One was watching Quincy Troupe, a Negro league catcher who got his chance in professional baseball when he was 38 years old. He came up against the Saints and hit about a 500-foot home run over the right-field fence, which was impossible over at Lexington Park. I was thinking about how sad it was that this guy never got a chance. He had about 12 at-bats in the majors after that, at age 40. The other defining moment was watching [Jerry] Koosman one day--the season was over, and Koosman was pitching against the Red Sox at the Met one day in September. Fred Lynn came up and Koos decked him, just threw it straight at his head, totally out of context. Koosman was going to show that he could handle that guy if he felt like it.

Dark Star: How about the [decoy] play in Game Seven of the 1991 Series? Did that make everything right or what? Here it is, the first play you learn in Little League, and here it is in the last game of the World Series.

TOM KELLY

A Mystery Wrapped Inside an Enigma

Brad: I'd like to talk about Tom Kelly and people's perception of him.

Bill: He's going to have to adjust to be the right manager of this franchise, this team, the way it's constructed. And I think that's been the case for the last couple of years. I've seen him give up on a team. I saw him give up on the Twins in '92, and for the first three and a half months of the season, they were better than in '91 or '87. They were a fabulous team. Then Oakland came in and Eric Fox hit that home run, and they just fell apart. Knoblauch got thrown out doing something boneheaded every other night, but you could also see Kelly just sticking David West in situations where it really hurt the team just because he wanted to show somebody that West couldn't pitch. Kelly got fed up with them because they were making mental errors and doing things that his other teams hadn't done, and I don't think he's been quite the right manager for them--he seems now to be trying a little harder to be more patient with the kids.

Dark Star: But this guy won a World Series with Steve Lombardozzi on second base.

Bill: But those were both veteran teams with players who knew him and knew how to play and wanted the roles to be real clear-cut. He's an exceptional manager in those circumstances.

Brad: How about Kelly as a character?

Shawn: He's pretty vapid, but the thing that's interesting about him is the thing about Minnesota: that incredible silent, stoic, passive-aggressive quality. For the Twins he's absolutely perfect.

Dark Star: He's adapted pretty well for a guy from New Jersey.

Brad: My sense, despite what you say, is that he's not very adaptable as a manager. It takes him a while to make shifts, he sometimes gives up, he clearly doesn't like hotshots. He wants a team made up of guys like Gene Larkin or Dan Masteller, and he's always been able to do that. But the same act wouldn't play in New York or Boston.

Dark Star: But it would have played in the '50s and early '60's, and that's what we all cry out for. So we all turn against Kelly. See, I think Kelly is the best manager in baseball, and I'll tell you why. At the end of the season last year, his team was dead in the water and in the late innings of games that they were out of, he managed an inning at a time and kept his teams involved. He's the only manager in the world who could've won with the team he had in '87. But I think last year he proved himself more as a manager than any other year, because he kept his team attentive even at the end of the season. They were playing hard. They just weren't beating anybody.

THE SAINTS

Exploding Pig Trick

Brad: I know some of you are Saints boosters. What's the story?

Shawn: I go to Saints games, but I don't go for the baseball.

Dark Star: It's got nothing to do with baseball, and everything to do with being outside and watching somebody get their hair cut and drinking beer.

Julian: Wait a minute, it's baseball...

Shawn: It's baseball-ish.

Julian: I know the real ballplayers are across town under the roof, but it's fun, and you can appreciate the baseball on some levels. It's minor-league baseball.

Dark Star: Mike [Veeck] has tried to take everything his father ever did and put it into one game. Some night the pig's gonna blow up.

John: You're right. It just keeps coming at you. The question is, how long can that be recycled? Three years? Five years?

Dark Star: Hey, Hello, Dolly! played for 19 years on Broadway.

David: I don't know how anyone could go every day. The year Carew hit .388 I could go out to the Met every day. I mean, that's like a work of art. Like going to see the Mona Lisa every day, or watching Casablanca. I could do that. I can't go to the Saints every day. But when I do go, it's a helluva lot of fun.

Bill: I don't have any idea what their record is in the games I've been to.

Julian: But these guys, the players in that league, are characters, real people you can relate to and maybe get close to. You know, you might have a beer with one of these guys in the parking lot after the game. One guy's a schoolteacher, another guy's maybe a carpenter. You can think, Maybe if my eyes hadn't gone bad I could have played in this league. It's a little bit more like I think old-time baseball used to be.

CHANGES

The End of the World as We Knew It

Julian: My mother's interest in the game came from my father, which I never realized until I was 35. My father died when I was only 4 months old. The thing that I found out at 35 was that one of the things they'd had was baseball, and my mom passed baseball on to me. What I had never realized was that she was passing on my father to me. It wasn't until I dug through his pictures and found a little Italian guy playing on the Westinghouse team that that dawned on me. The other side of it is the personal relationships that develop around the game, fathers and sons, those kinds of connections.

Shawn: I really do think it's all about our dads.

Bill: But that's not gonna get lost. People are saying basketball's coming up and hockey's coming up and baseball's going down. That's not true, because baseball is still the best and the most inexpensive place for parents to take kids.

Julian: How many guys got kids, though? I raised my kid on baseball. He's 16 years old, and I sometimes think that we may be the last true generation that has a real love for this game, because I think the corporatization of the game is changing everything. I took my kids over to [a card shop] and they were picking up baseball cards and I had to force them to read the back of the goddamn cards. They knew the value of every card in their hand, but they didn't know that so-and-so had played for the Red Sox.

Dark Star: Well, the baseball card thing is just out of hand. We used to look at the picture and at the back: Ed Bailey was from Strawberry Plains, Tennessee. That was fun. Now they don't open the sets because it decreases the value of the cards. And it doesn't serve anybody.

Brad: Do fathers still play catch with their kids?

Julian: My kid doesn't want to do it, but every now and then I say, "Cmon, we'll go out and throw the ball around." But the loyalty isn't there anymore. I really do think that the changes in the game and the corporatization, even the free agency stuff, has changed the bond that we had with the game. It's not there with the kids anymore. I worry about whether we are really the last generation of baseball fans. It's harder to relate to somebody who makes even a million bucks a year. It's hard for me to relate to the ownership, to the Metrodome. Those kind of distances are being built up.

Shawn: I hear what you're saying. I also think so much is happening so fast right now that the speed of basketball seems to be more interesting to girls and boys than the pace of baseball. But I also think if you teach a kid to read, ultimately they'll come back to baseball at around 25 or 30.

David: There are no books, no poetry about basketball. You can count the number of good basketball books on one hand, and there are shelves full of baseball books.

Bill: There just aren't the characters in the game today like there used to be. I was reminded of that with all the stories that came out when Earl Weaver got elected to the Hall of Fame. There's where Pat Kelly tells Earl that he wishes he would walk with the Lord, and Earl says, "Yeah, well, I wish you'd walk with the bases loaded."

Dark Star: You're right, they don't have the Rocky Bridges types, guys like that, anymore. Frank Howard.

Julian: Is the coverage different now, though? Do we not know as much about them as characters?

Dark Star: It was better when there were characters. Even the announcers. Now you've got Duane Staats, who's a fabulous announcer, but he don't know shit about baseball. When it was Dizzy Dean or Buddy Blattner or Peewee Reese, these guys played the game. They knew everything about the game.

Julian: The beat reporters, too, don't you think?

Dark Star: Yeah, there aren't five decent beat reporters left in baseball. I liked it better when we didn't have to know about Canseco and Madonna. I don't need to know that.

Brad: How much of baseball's trouble lies with the shift of franchises from old baseball families like the Griffiths to people who are car dealers and bankers?

Dark Star: It's gone from people who respected and loved the game to people who have more respect for their money than for the game. And that's the problem. Twenty-eight guys wake up one morning and decide that Shea Stadium looks like a Nehru jacket and they have to get rid of it and they need 28 new ballparks. They should have left everything the way it was years ago.

Brad: Can any of you envision the Twins moving?

Dark Star: Not with these guys owning the team. They'd sell it before they'd move it. If the Twins move, it won't be the Pohlads who move them. But without a new ballpark, this team's moving, period.

Brad: So what do the rest of you think about the prospects for a new stadium here? Would you support a referendum, and on what terms?

Julian: Before I'm willing to sell my soul, I want some public ownership of the team, I want an outdoor stadium, and I want a guarantee that a certain percentage of the seats will remain affordable.

Bill: And will remain available on game day. For walk-ups.

Dark Star: That's never gonna happen, though. If they can sell out for the season, they're gonna do it and they should have the right to do it. You gotta be able to protect yourself financially.... The days of the bleacher-seat mentality are long gone.

Shawn: But you said you miss those days.

Dark Star: I do, desperately, but I just don't see that as being part of the scenario.

THE IMPERIAL FAN

Why Baseball is Still Best

Bill: There's something about the beauty of baseball, not that other sports don't have it, too. The statistical angle on baseball does make it different, I think. There is an exact statistical angle about baseball, where anyone can say, "That guy's a good hitter, that guy's horseshit, that guy's a good pitcher, that guy's a lousy pitcher."

Julian: In football, I know the runners gain more yards than Jim Brown used to. But someone can say, "Yeah, now they play six more games than they used to." So it's hard to compare. With baseball you can, even if you come to baseball late.

Shawn: I tried to move to Europe at one point in my life, and I had to move back because I couldn't live without baseball and I didn't care to read the box scores five days after it had happened. That, and they have no sense of rock music in Europe. So I had to come back for baseball and music.

Bill: There's two things that make it better than other sports. One is the nuances. Basketball has continuous action, it's very athletic, there's a great combination of grace and power. Football's got sound and fury and pretty continuous action, too. But baseball--I remember a few years ago seeing a guy try to pick off Shawon Dunston at Wrigley Field. He threw over two or three times, and the next time he threw, he made a bad throw. And Dunston all of a sudden goes from first to third. It just takes your breath away after all this little cat and mouse stuff. And the other thing that makes it better than other sports is that you have no clue when you walk in the ball yard who's gonna win. I don't care if the Indians come in here and Jack McDowell's pitching against LaTroy Hawkins--you still don't know who's gonna win.

John: With basketball, you know the Bulls will probably win. You know Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen are gonna score their points. With football you know Barry Sanders is gonna get his hundred yards. In baseball any guy in the lineup might hit a three-run homer. Phil Roof might beat you.

Bill: Jose Parra might pitch a no-hitter. It's much less predictable. And it could be a two-hour game or a four-and-a-half-hour game.

Julian: One thing I always found interesting about baseball was that it crossed cultures and economic classes. I still remember being 14 and going to Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, and it was one of the most eclectic places that you'd ever want to be. There were horrendous arguments about the littlest things, but you had this interaction with these folks. I remember one time in St. Louis, too; my friend and I sat in the bleachers out in right field, and there's all these old black guys there. In the course of two days, we got to know a number of them and they told us some incredible stories about the old-timers they'd seen play.

CODA

Where Do We Go From Here

Bill: It's hard sometimes to stomach people raising a hue and cry over this [stadium issue] after the money the state put into Northwest Airlines. For once I have to agree with Sid [Hartman]--the state puts a lot of money into the Orpheum and other theaters, into the arts. And I think that's a good expenditure toward the quality of life.

Julian: I think the opportunity here is to do things differently. I really think the country has had enough of the professional sports crap as a whole. I think the Twins want to stay, but I'm not sure. It was amazing at their banquet this year, about 225 people there, pretty decent amount of baseball fans and about 80 percent said, Yeah, we'd like a new stadium, but 50 percent didn't want any tax money to go into it. I walked up to Jerry Bell, and I said, "Jerry, you're in trouble. These are the guys who want a stadium, and they're saying they don't want any tax money to go into it." I think the key is, what's the trade-off, what do we get back? I'll put money into it if you give me something back. Because the game--not the game, the business of the game--is changing, and it's really drawn things further and further away from the average Joe.

Bill: I was just reading the other day that they're in serious trouble trying to pull off the stadium deal. They can't borrow the money they need to pull it off.

Julian: The scary thing is that there are people, hardcore baseball fans, who are at the point of saying, I've had enough.

John: The thing is, I was at that point a year ago but a measure of how great the game is was last year's playoffs. Once the Yankees and Mariners got into it, then boom--it was great again as far as I was concerned.

Julian: But it's the new folks coming up. The teams don't care about us, because they know they've got us. The only question for me is whether I go to 10 games or 20. They take that core of fans for granted, almost like an abusive relationship. I really worry about the kids, and whether we might really be the last generation that's gonna be this wedded to the game...

Shawn: I don't think so. There may be a lull, sort of like what all of us went through. But if you look at the history of the country and parallel it to the history of baseball, you get to the point right now where the whole country is grappling with that issue of big business vs. the smaller, the more personal, the more intimate. I think this isn't the end of baseball history, this is a part of baseball history. But then I'm an optimist, and certainly an optimist about baseball. I think it will all come around.

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