The final American League team for the Washington Nationals to host is, strangely enough, the Minnesota Twins who were called the Washington Senators until Calvin Griffith moved them away. I don’t know much about Twin Cities baseball or Minnesota in general and in fact, prior to meeting this week’s guest prognosticator, I don’t know that I had ever met a Twins fan. These days, @Ball-Wonk is one of the most prolific old school Nats fan tweeters, but before that:
Former Twins superfan and Bat-Girl pinch-blogger BallWonk has been blogging and tweeting about the Nationals since 2004. Before moving to Washington in 1992, he grew up in Minnesota and attended key games of both the 1987 and 1991 World Series. He looks forward to seeing epic World Series victories in Washington one day soon. Furthermore, the Phillies must be destroyed.
WFY: The Minnesota Twins were a regular playoff team for much of the previous decade and the promise of a new ballpark and Joe Mauer sticking around made the future look fairly good. What happened?
BW: In the early Gardy era, the Twins must have been an infuriating team to root against. Pity the poor Tribe or Bitch Sox fans, because those darn Twinkies seemed to catch every break. In the same way that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, sufficiently consistent luck is indistinguishable from skill. Until it stops. So what happened? The Twins rode a string of luck of truly historic proportions, and then the law of averages caught up to them. You can’t go on forever relying on just the right guy having a career year every year, though as Twins fans know, it’s fun while it lasts.
As for Mauer, it seems like everybody knew from the beginning that playing C was going to sabotage his offensive production in the long run. Everyone, that is, except for one Joseph Patrick Mauer, who by all accounts loves the position and really, really wanted to stay there. The Mauer experience is why, for this one-time Twins superfan, the second-happiest moment in Nats history was the moment in the 2010 draft when the Nationals announced they were drafting “outfielder Bryce Harper.” Quality defensive catchers are dime a dozen, and no insult to messers Ramos and Zuk intended. However valuable the brain of a Mauer or a Harper is behind the plate, his knees as he stands in the batter’s box are worth more. To say nothing of the extra 40-plus off-days even the most resilient catcher needs compared to a left fielder or a DH. Remember all those World Series titles the Dodgers won when they built themselves around Mike Piazza? Neither does BallWonk. Same thing with Mauer.
WFY: How closely do you follow the Twins these days? Were you still closely following the Twins when they were suggested for contraction? Did you take the threats seriously?
BW: Today? Not closely enough. In part, this is due to distance. BallWonk doesn’t get to Minnesota nearly as much as he used to, and the Nats really do fill even a former Twins superfan’s baseball heart. (Alas, ye Washington baseball virgins, for ye know not what awaits ye. The Nats are a decidedly Twinkies-esque team.) And in part because nine seasons of NL ball with the Nats has made any team that plays with the DH just that much harder to care about. But the Twins remain BW’s team in the AL, and he wishes he saw more of their games. Really looking forward to this weekend’s series, when our Washington Senators return home for the first time since the Nats came to town. The Twins will be, inexplicably, the last AL team to come to Washington.
Oh yes, BallWonk closely followed the Twins at the time of contraction. Contraction surfaced just a couple of seasons after he and Ms. BallWonk were among the several hundred fans who showed up to a late-1990s Fan Fest, at which Ron Coomer was the star. True story: BallWonk asked Coomer to sign his copy of Malamud’s novel “The Natural.” Coomer gave a hearty laugh and signed away. You have to remember, this was the era when the Twins were effectively Major League Baseball’s first all-volunteer team, with something like 17 of 25 guys earning the league minimum wage. In years three though six of his four-year degree, BallWonk was eligible for $1 student tickets, and was often one of the several dozen paid fans in the Metrodome on any given night.
All of which should demonstrate that every Twins fan took contraction very seriously. The team was terrible! Nobody came to the games! The Metrodome sucked! Not just for the Twins, who made no scratch from the amenity-less facility, but for fans. Plus, we’d just lost the North Stars to Dallas.
Want to know what really made contraction a credible threat? It was that Bud Selig had stopped threatening Minnesota legislators and voters with relocating the Twins to Charlotte or Washington. Remember, MLB put a team in Tampa just a few years earlier, even though everybody knew Tampa can’t really support a team and the Trop is just the Metrodome re-imagined by and for Skynet’s android minions, solely because awarding an expansion team to Washington would mean the end of relocation-to-Washington blackmail to fund new stadiums for teams like the Twins. When Selig’s threats of relocation to Washington stopped, it was like having your child’s kidnappers stop making ransom demands. That doesn’t mean they’re about to give your child back; it means your baby is already dead. (You saw that Mel Gibson movie too, right?)
At the time, few had any faith that Bill Lester’s lawsuit on behalf of the Metrodome to force the Twins to play out their lease would save the team. But it did, along with Gov. Jesse Ventura’s work rounding up legislative support to fund what became Target Field. But the new stadium came later. Lester’s lawsuit in 2002 was a long shot, but it got the job done. And there ought to be a statue of Bill Lester in front of Nationals Park. In saving the Twins, Minnesotans saved the Expos, too. We have baseball again in Washington because a few people in Minnesota stood up to Bud Selig and, in the nicest possible Minnesota way, said “No you don’t.”
WFY: Is Denard Span’s performance similar to his time in Minnesota?
BW: For a fan, yes. He’s no Kirby Puckett, but his defensive play is almost good enough that if you squint, someone raised on Kirby’s ludicrously good CF play can see a comforting resemblance. As a hitter, he’s certainly closer to what the Nats have built their lineup to need in the 1 hole than anyone we’ve had before. Plus, as Doug Mientkiewicz proved in Boston in 2004, ex-Twins are good karma for a team.
WFY: What was the Metrodome like for baseball (and if applicable, football)? The whole “Hefty bag” wall made it more interesting on TV than most domes.
BW: Want to know what the Metrodome was like? Imagine watching a ballgame in your own living room on TV. It was just like that, except less comfortable the view was worse. The only times the Metrodome was less than a spirit-sucking hellhole of anti-baseball bad vibes were 1) When a tornado would roll through town and turn the roof green and 2) During a playoff sellout, when the decibel level would reach something like the sound of the Big Bang itself.
The Metrodome is actually a decent place to watch football. The seats all align nicely to see the 50-yard line. Which means that, for baseball, it was easy for fans to keep an eye on the left fielder during a no-doubles alignment. Watching the pitcher, batter, or bases? Not so much.
The Hefty bag was what you’d notice watching on TV, and honestly it was a fun feature. (Better than the ball rattling around the football seats folded vertically, high-school auditorium style, that the bag covered, anyway.) But in person, it was the roof that really made for memories. In the early years, the roof was the exact color of a baseball, so there was no such thing as an easy pop-up. In later years, the roof was the exact color of a baseball, with orange lights shining on it at the very edges. So there was still no such thing as an easy pop-up, only now the league didn’t care, and it gave the Twins a nice home-field advantage. Also, ground rules had to account for balls getting caught in the roof and not coming down.
WFY: How is Target Field? Does anybody miss the Metrodome at all?
BW: Target Field is exactly this: Nationals Park, with an extra $16 mil or so in owner money thrown into amenities and aesthetic upgrades. Very similar ballparks, but in almost every detail Target Field is a 9 to Nationals Park’s 7.
Nobody misses the Metrodome. Did you know that the University of Minnesota has a football team? It’s true. They pay in the Big Ten, and regularly win one or even two football games a year. And each and every member of the Minnesota Vikings roster would sell his children and take a bullet in his right knee to have a chance to play football for the Golden Gophers instead, since the Gophers no longer play in the Metrodome.
WFY: We’re both regular uni-watch readers, so how do you like the Twins uniforms of the present and the past?
BW: The Twins currently wear the uniforms of both the past and present. They’re a hot mess of alternates, throwbacks, and mismatched hodgepodge, which makes the Nats look all the better. We should be grateful the Twins exist, else people might think the Nats look like clowns.
The Twins had something close to perfect uniforms from 1986 until the late 1990s. Navy cap, pinstriped uniform, red jersey script. You saw that combo, home and away, and you always knew you were looking at the Twins. Now? The Twins wear Nats road uniforms, Braves road caps, and alternate jerseys handed down from a beer-league softball team. Keep the TC caps if they must, but otherwise bring back the unis they wore to championships in 1987 and 1991.
WFY: What is the signature food of Target Field? Is there a local beer (Hamms?) that you can pair it with or is it generally the same macrobrewed, multinational conglomerate stuff you get everywhere? Did the Metrodome have a memorable food or beer?
BW: As Minnesotans say, there’s a couple-three signature foods. Walleye or pork chop on a stick, for one, though both are really State Fair foods, so they’re aimed more at the tourist than the resident fan. For locals, there’s Kramarczuk’s sausage, Murray’s steaks, and fried cheese curds.
Of course most of the beer is some version of Miller/Bud/Coors/Whogivesashit, but seek out the Summit. It’s Minnesota’s answer to Yuengling, only better. Plus, the walleye is battered with Summit Pale, so it’s the perfect match.
WFY: Who is the greatest Twin of your lifetime? Is he the same as your favorite?
BW: It’s beyond argument that Kirby Puckett was the greatest Twin of BallWonk’s day. But as beloved as the Puck was, BallWonk has always been drawn more to the day-to-day grinders, the Dan Gladdens and Gary Gaettis and Ron Coomers and Doug Mientkiewiczes and Matt LeCroys of the world. All-time favorite Twin he’s seen play? Kent Hrbek.
WFY: Prior to baseball’s return to D.C., did you as a Twins fan give much thought to the Washington Senators? Do Minnesotans even think of the Senators? I curse Calvin Griffith (and Bob Short!) sometimes because I grew up here without a home team.
BW: Oh yeah, most Twins fans BallWonk knew growing up knew about the Senators, and Walter Johnson, and Goose’s record season for triples, and the 1924 Series. The Griffiths actually created a strong sense of continuity; the Twins were closer to the Dodgers moving to LA than to the Browns moving to Baltimore in that sense. But much of that continuity was negative: Cal Griffith mismicromanaged the team in Minnesota as much as his adopted father ever did in Washington, and by the end he was regularly threatening to screw us over and move the team on us, too.
WFY: Was it easy to transition to the Nationals as a fan? Did you feel like you were being a bad fan is switching your allegiance?
BW: Never had a problem, since they play in different leagues. Even with interleague play, BallWonk at first was able to adopt the approach of rooting for whoever needed the win more. These days, though, BallWonk wishes the Twins a good game, and God bless, but he’s rooting for the Nats all the way, every time. The other 159 games of the year, it’s Win! Twins! and Let’s Go Nats! But when he has to choose, the Nats have made the choice easy. Not by winning in 2012, but by being the hometown team. And by playing real baseball, where the pitcher bats.
For what it’s worth, BallWonk will be wearing his pinstriped 1960 Senators jersey to the games this weekend. Fan-biguity!
WFY: How are the Twins broadcasters now and in the past?
BW: BallWonk grew up watching Twins games from the WCCO radio booth behind home plate, so probably lacks perspective. What he wouldn’t give to hear longtime Twins play-by-play man and grandfatherly sweet guy Herb Carneal call a game again, with or without his later sidekick/straight man/color guy John Gordon. That said, today, the Nats have the better radio team – one of the best in the bigs, really. On TV, Bremer & Blyleven have a different vibe than Carp and FP. As a native Midwesterner, BallWonk prefers Carp’s style, but for most fans, the Twins will come out ahead on the TV broadcast.
WFY: Please rank the 4 pro teams in the Twin Cities for us – has it changed over the years?
BW: North Stars, Vikings, Twins, Wild, Lakers, Gophers hockey, T-Wolves.
Not BallWonk’s personal ranking, but that’d be about how they rank in the hearts of Minnesotans generally.
WFY: Which is the better city, Minneapolis or St. Paul?
BW: Minneapolis: One big shopping mall with nowhere to park. St. Paul: One big parking lot with nowhere to shop. The older you get, the more you appreciate St. Paul, and BallWonk is close enough to 40 that he probably should be a St. Paul guy. But Minneapolis still gets the edge. It’s the side of town where he grew up, where his family still lives, and where the Twins play. And there’s precious little of Minnesota between St. Paul and the Wisconsin border, whereas from Minneapolis you’ve got Minnesota for a hundred miles or more in every direction.
WFY: Mary or Rhoda?
BW: Sue Ann.
WFY: Though it would be impractical, would wearing red Chuck Taylors for a Prairie Home Companion tribute night be best/worst idea ever? Maybe just for batting practice? Is Garrison Keillor a divisive figure in the land of 10,000 lakes?
BW: Red cleats. Keillor wouldn’t want anyone to go to impractical lengths on his behalf. Like all true Minnesotans, he’s proud of his humility. It’d be a great gesture, and honestly the Twins would look great with red cleats full time. So would the Nats!
WFY: After Harmon Killebrew died, the Twins honored him throughout the season, but so did the Nats with a “Killebrew 3” jersey in the dugout. Did the Nats overdo it since he never played for the franchise or was it an appropriate gesture?
BW: BallWonk has been lucky to meet many of his childhood and adolescent heroes. The list of the ones who weren’t kind of a let-down is Václav Havel, astronaut Pinky Nelson, and Harmon Killebrew. Killer was already a good player in Washington before the Twins relocated, so the history justified the gesture. But he was a baseball legend of such character that any team would have been justified hanging his jersey to mourn his passing. A gentle giant of the game.
WFY: Who takes the series and why?
BW: BallWonk has asked Minnesota radio legend Morgan Mundane for his prognostications, but hasn’t heard back. In the meantime, BallWonk has tickets for section 108 on Sunday and plans to bring a broom.