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Monday, December 7, 2015

A Brush With Twins Fame - Rod Carew

The piece below, contributed by my long-time friend and Twins fanatic Greg Aase, is useful in answering a number of questions, especially "What was it like as a young fan to experience a Rod Carew autograph signing while he was in his prime?" Was he more like a Michael Cuddyer or Pat Neshek (very personable) or a Danny Valencia (actually cussed-out a youth in spring training after multiple autograph requests)? Or was he something in-between those extremes? 
It also offers interesting insights into player access in the late 1970s, and how making a very simple request could place even a young kid in the presence of a Twins legend. Very fitting, coming from a fellow born on the eve of the very first Twins World Series game, on Oct. 5, 1965!

Late afternoon, July 19thJuly 19, 1976.  A warm summer evening.  I am ten years old and on a school bus with my father.  Along with 40 other fathers and sons, we are traveling north on the various state highways and county roads between the small farm town of New Prague and our destination - Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, MN, aka the Met, home of the Minnesota Twins.  The local Rotary club held an annual father/son trip to The Met for its members, and this year we were going to watch our boys take on the Tigers.
To this 10 year old, a trip to the Met, or any other trip to the “Cities” (as most out state Minnesotans call Minneapolis/St. Paul), was a big deal.  Although New Prague was 39 miles from the stadium, there weren’t too many reasons for my family to leave our small town.  The general train of thought was that if you couldn’t find what you were looking for at Don’s Red Owl (the local grocery store), Rynda’s Hardware Hank (the really old time hardware store, complete with massive wooden cabinets of screws and toggles), Anthony’s (the god-awful clothing store, which offered the complete line of stiff, scratchy Dickies jeans), McMahon’s Snyder Drug (with their modest selection of DC Comics), or the local Ben Franklin (which was my main supplier of Topps Baseball Cards) you probably didn’t need it. So to head north, to the big city, was a big deal.
This 10 ten year old also loved the Met.  Having seen no other major league baseball stadium in person, I had no idea that the Met was, essentially, a minor league ballpark on steroids (see post "Met Stadium Pictorial, 1955-1961," Aug., 2011).  I didn’t know the history behind the place.  Officially built by the Minneapolis power brokers for the two minor league ball parks in the late 1950’s, it was really bait to attract major league teams to what the powers that be thought was now a major league town.  It was quickly, and haphazardly, expanded multiple times when the Twins and the Vikings came to town in the early 1960’s.  By the time I made my first trip to the Met in 1975, I had no idea the general consensus was it was a poorly maintained stadium with a whole bunch of lousy seats in the upper deck in left field, no upper deck in right, and a bunch of high school style bleacher seats everywhere else.   I also didn’t know that the Vikings, and to a much lesser degree, the Twins, were seeking a newer, shinier home (photo: 10 year-old Greg Aase, resplendent in brown corduroy).
I didn’t care about any of that. I loved the different brightly colored tiled panels on the outside walls. The parking lot seemed endless.  I loved the huge scoreboard with the Longines’ “Official Watch” at the top. I loved how you could sit almost anywhere, and in 1976, there were plenty of open seats, and watch the Northwest and North Central jets seemingly fly right next to the stadium as they came in to land at the “international” airport.  I enjoyed looking out past the outfield and the scoreboard and see the still open fields of south Bloomington and the Minnesota River valley.  It was a like a whole different world to me, a long ways away from New Prague, and that was fine with me.

Even though I didn’t know it then, the trip had some personal meaning.  My father and I were not particularly close in 1976.  He was a math and science teacher at New Prague High School and a very smart man.  Growing up, he was an Eagle Scout and a lifeguard. Although he taught math, his true calling was auto mechanics.  Taught by his father to wrench, he could diagnose and fix any car placed in front of him.  His nights and weekends were spent out in his garage, either fixing other cars to make extra cash, or tinkering on one of his own cars  (above photo: Ron Aase).
His only son couldn’t be less in his father’s image.  I bombed out of Cub Scouts, much to the disappointment of Scoutmaster Aase, thanks to my incompetence with knots and my disinterest in camping. I greatly preferred reading over math.  Multiple attempts by him to teach me to swim were unsuccessful and usually ended in shouting and tears.  I had no clue how an internal combustion engine worked and generally didn’t care. I loved the Beatles.  Dad’s taste in music was whatever WCCO-AM played, because that was the only station he ever listened to.  
One of our only common points was baseball.  The soundtrack to our summer hours in the car, or my fruitless time helping him fix cars in his garage, was to the smooth tones of Herb Carneal.  When things between us grew silent, we could talk about the sad decline of Tony Oliva, the Twins’ acute lack of pitching, or how cheap Calvin Griffith was getting.   A game of catch in the backyard, or attempts at the school ballfield down the street to fix my batting stance, were times that Dad and I had together that seem to bring some degree of peace to both of us.  So I looked forward to this father/son trip.
Not surprisingly, Dad and I had different plans for this particular trip.  After arriving at the Met, I purchased a 1976 yearbook and obtained a pen from my father. I had determined that this year was the year I was getting Rod Carew’s autograph (photo below: Rod Carew, via Sports Illustrated - August 19, 1976).

There was only one guy I cared about in 1976, and that was Rodney Cline Carew.  Four time batting champ, nine time All Star, the purest hitter in baseball at that time, and, best of all, a lefty like me.  He was the only superstar the Twins had.  One of my prized possessions was his 1975 Topps card, and when I attempted to play baseball at the afternoon Recreation games at Memorial Park I tried, to the mock and ridicule of my peers, to copy his stance. Just how I was going to get is autograph, I had no clue.  But I wanted it.
After we passed the ticket gate, I told Dad I was going to wander the stadium and see if I could get Carew’s autograph.  He told me not to leave.  I didn’t understand why.  Unbeknownst to me, one of Dad’s fellow math teachers, Don Dvorak, grew up in Waseca and went to Mankato State University with Jerry Terrell. Terrell was, at that time, a utility infielder for the Twins.  Dvorak was still
friendly with Jerry and had contacted him to see if he could visit with him before the game. At some point, my father had gotten me attached to this visit.   So, instead of wandering off on my own, my father told me to go with Mr. Dvorak.  From the bowels of the lower deck of the Met, we walked straight to the end of the aisle next to the Twins dugout.
Professional baseball in 1976 was a different world than the corporate, limited controlled access, state that we live in today.  In 1976, it wasn’t a big deal to walk down to the dugout, tell the bored security guard that you are here to see Jerry Terrell, give the guard your name, wait for the guard to yell at Jerry in the dugout to say that somebody was there to see him, and have Jerry yell back to “let them in”.  And that was pretty much how it happened.    One minute I’m standing at end of the aisle next the dugout, and the next minute I’m in the Twins dugout, shaking Jerry Terrell’s hand (above photo: Carew makes bubblegum cast of Terrell for posterity).
Jerry introduced us to a few other players sitting around the dugout.  The first was Craig Kusick
(“Mongo”), a kid from Wisconsin who should have been the power hitting first baseman the Twins desperately needed and got a few years later when they found a Bloomington kid named Hrbek, and Vic Albury, a journeyman pitcher. Vic looked like an extra from the Godfather via the sales department of Wally McCarthy’s Lindahl Olds – a thin mustache, short dark hair parted on one side and slicked down, a jaunty look on his face and a heater in his hand.  When Jerry called him over, Vic got up from the bench, walked over to where Terrell, Kusick, Mr. Dvorak and I were standing, gave me a skeptical, bored look, shook my hand, asked me how I was doing, and waited for me to stammer back “fine”.  He must have then determined that he had fulfilled his obligation, because he then nodded, turned, went back to his spot on the bench, took a long drag on his cigarette and pretended like all of us, including Terrell and Kusick, didn’t exist (photo above: Craig Kusick card via "When Topps Had Balls" Blogspot / below: Vic Albury, in a mellow, reflective mood)

Albury: "So...who let the snot kids in?"

Even though all this was great I wanted something more.  Vic and Craig and Jerry were all nice, but they were the B team.   I wanted Carew.  Unfortunately, Rod was nowhere to be found.  After a few minutes of chit chat, I couldn’t stand it anymore - I finally had to ask Jerry were Rod was.
His response - “He’s down in the clubhouse - he took his swings early.”
That was terrible.  Jerry was, in my mind, the step to get to Carew.  I mean, it was awesome to be in the Twins dugout, hanging with the players, but Carew was The Man.  And my quest to get his autograph was going to end in failure.
Then Jerry gave me hope.
“If he comes out at all before the game, he usually signs over there”, pointing to the end of the aisle just down from the dugout.  
After thanking Jerry and Craig, we were escorted out and up into the stands.  Mr. Dvorak headed back to where the rest of the group was sitting. I walked over to the next aisle and waited, with  5 other kids, for Carew.
Although access to players was much better in 1976 than it is now, Carew was the exception.  Rodney back in those days was considered “difficult”.  There is a former Minneapolis Tribune sportswriter that hates Carew to this day. Some of the grizzled sportswriter veterans that are still around will occasionally pass along a story on how prickly Carew could be.  He also never, ever signed autographs.
I stood at the end of the aisle for 15 minutes, and game time was approaching.  I can’t guarantee what the other 5 boys were thinking, but I suspect it was the same thing that was passing through my mind - we were going to strike out.  But then, running out of the dugout, and running over to the end of the aisle, was #29.  

He didn’t make eye contact with any of us, he just took whatever we put in front of him - a baseball, a piece of paper, a 1976 yearbook with his face on the cover, and he signed.  A big flourish of a signature, actually legible.  He signed everything put in front of him, and then he was gone without a word.  The whole thing might have taken 2 minutes.  But on his page in my yearbook - his autograph.

Thanks to the Internet, I now know the Twins won that night, 6 to 5.  Reliever Bill Campbell got the win.  Carew got a hit.  Jerry Terrell even got in the game.  It was a meaningless game to a 1976 season where the Twins were out of it by the All-Star break.  To be truthful, I don’t remember any of that. What does matter are the things I carry today - the great time that an awkward 10 year old kid spent with his father, the kindness  that a then-complete stranger showed me, a perfect summer evening at a long gone outdoor stadium, and two minutes with one of my boyhood heroes.  

So long everybody! - Herb Carneal

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