Talking with Twins titans

It’s still hard to believe I was paid to do it.

I am a baseball nut, a mostly harmless addiction that is particularly powerful this time of year. As play begins, I look forward to following the teams, learning who the new stars are and preparing for the long, slow unwinding of another season. It’s a novel, with 162 regular season games and a month of postseason play, unlike the NFL’s short story of 16 games followed by a few playoff games.

I have been fortunate enough to meet and interview numerous big leaguers over the years. I have been around and talked with several of the Hall of Famers who played for the Minnesota Twins, including Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Dave Winfield and Bert Blyleven.

I missed out, so far anyway, on Jack Morris, Paul Molitor, Jim Thome and Steve Carlton, who, like Winfield, came to Minnesota late in their careers. The late Kirby Puckett, a favorite of millions of baseball fans, would have been a great interview, I am sure.

Killebrew and Carew were the featured attractions at Twins Caravan stops in Mankato, Minn., when I was an editor with The Mankato Free Press from 2003-05. Blyleven was the master of ceremonies in both 2004 and 2005 and introduced his former teammates, with The Killer the star one year, and sweet-swinging Rod the other.

Both were already Hall of Famers, but they were pleasant, cooperative and open to being interviewed. I grew up in a Twins household — almost all my family members and friends were and are Twins fans — and had listened and watched these two legends hundreds of times, but I am not a Twins fan. I grew up following the Kansas City Royals and have been a San Francisco Giants fan the last three decades, but also follow the Twins.

Still, meeting these baseball greats was wonderful. Both nights were terribly cold and The Free Press sportswriters turned down the assignments. I went out on my lunch breaks to do the interviews and enjoyed the chance to talk baseball. Both reflected on their careers during the interviews and told great stories.

Killebrew was much smaller than I had imagined, but his powerful shoulders were still evident. Carew, then in his late 50s, looked capable of playing and lining three hits that very day.

When fans approached them, Killebrew and Carew were friendly and willing to sign autographs. It was impressive to see how gently they dealt with the youngest fans. Blyleven was very loud backstage, and surprisingly profane. It was a relaxed, very liquid event, and Bert was free with his language, as if he was in a locker room, not the Kato Ballroom, with kids, women and older folks milling about.

I met Winfield years earlier, when my friend Ted spotted him at halftime of a Houston Rockets game. I was writing columns on Houston sports for some Texas papers and did my work before the game. We were hanging out in the press lounge when Ted spotted a tall, lean, handsome man in an immaculate suit — obviously he wasn’t a sportswriter.

It was Winfield, at the time a New York Yankees star. Ted, an irrepressible guy who loved baseball and died far too young, called out to him.

“Hey, big Dave,” he said as I signaled for him to stop.

But Winfield turned and smiled. He came over and sat with us and although it was winter and we were at an NBA game, the conversation turned to baseball. Over a few free beers — press lounges used to be great — he told stories and answered questions. One topic was the fact that Morris, then the ace of the Detroit Tigers, was a free agent but no teams were offering him a deal.

It turned out, all the teams were colluding to keep salaries down by not signing free agents. That ended Carew’s career, as no one offered him a deal for the 1986 season; he later received a $782,000 settlement. But at the time, we could only wonder why no one wanted Morris, one of the best pitchers in the American League.

Winfield, Morris and Molitor grew up within a few miles of each other, as Winfield detailed, discussing the diamonds they all played on as boys. All three were stars before they came home to play for the Twins near the end of their career. Morris spent just one year as a Twin, but he led them to the 1991 World Series title, throwing a memorable 10-inning shutout in Game 7 of the World Series.

Molitor and Winfield both notched their 3,000th hits as Twins. It meant a lot to them to reach the milestone for their hometown team, they said.

It’s cool to know that lifelong connections to the game mean that much to the players as well as the fans.

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