The first time is always special. I was at a Twins game the other week, feeling pretty confident that the boys would pull out a victory with LaTroy throwing nothing but peas at the hapless opposition. Behind me I heard two parents trying to explain things to their daughter. Evidently it was her first game as the couple tried to simply but comprehensibly express the rudiments of the game- simple rules like what a strike zone is and what a batter is supposed to do once they hit a "fair" ball. I tried remembering back when it was all new to me and my Mom tried to impart her knowledge of man's greatest invention to me.
Once I understood the rules there was the history of the game to learn. Specifically I remember Mom telling me about one of her favorite Twins, and his role in two of their heartbreaking seasons. In 1967 the Twins went into the last weekend of the season a game in front of the second place Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers. They needed one win in a two game series with the Red Sox to eliminate Boston. On Saturday Jim Kaat was on his way to getting that victory for the Twins when he left the game injured. The bullpen couldn't hold the lead and the Twins lost the game and dropped into a tie with Boston (Detroit split a doubleheader with California meaning that on the season's last day Minnesota and Boston led Detroit by a mere half game).
On Sunday Jim Lonborg outpitched Dean Chance and the Red Sox later found out Detroit had lost meaning they were on their way to the World Series. Mom told me had Kaat not been injured the Twins would have won the pennant.
In 1972 Kaat was off to his best season ever going 10-2 as the team approached the All Star break. A superb hitting pitcher he hit one to the outfield and tried to stretch a single into a double sliding into second and breaking a bone in his pitching hand. Again, Mom said had Kaat remained healthy the Twins (who finished 81-81) might have had done better than a third place finish.
Of all the baseball facts and trivia I've memorized over the years, of all the memories I have from 30 years as a fan I'm not sure why I remember those two specific Kaat moments that Mom shared with me. I know she liked him a lot as a player and as the Twins struggled through a miserable decade of the 70's there was something about the history of the team that Mom shared that is a lesson all baseball fans eventually learn- the rich tapestry of the game is one reason that going into spring training you always have to have hope that the local team will have a special season. I was surprised when the Twins announced last off season (after contraction talk quieted down) that one of the four bobblehead giveaways this season was Jim Kaat. Even though he is perhaps the best lefthander in the team's history he isn't exactly well known by this generation of Twins' fans. Having collected all the other bobbleheads through some hard work, hard cement sitting, and a dollar or two bid on eBay I knew I had to get the Kaat doll.
This one was personal.
The game happened to be the second after the All Star break. The fiasco that occurred two days earlier in Milwaukee (there are two truisms in the game- baseball players don't cry, and baseball games aren't supposed to end in a tie) didn't seem to bother me as much as some of the people around me. The day after the game people in my office (and on talk radio) seemed to treat the decision to not risk injury by playing extra innings as if it was another sign of the impending apocalypse. I enjoyed the game- the great Torii Hunter catch; Eddie Guardado's two strike outs of the two batters he faced; Jimmy Rollins' missing Cristian Guzman imitation; the continuing national stage meltdown of Arizona's closer Byung -Hyun Kim- I couldn't say I was all that disappointed when Mr. Selig called things off and was heartily booed by his hometown fans.
I met my annexation surviving friend down at the Dome around 1:30 p.m. a mere four and a half hours before the gates were to open. Someone in line estimated there were around 200 in front of us at that particular gate. Having fought some larger numbers for previous bobbleheads we were surprised that there weren't more people there and happy that we apparently were going to get a Kaat doll. When the gates did open to relieve some of the unrelenting heat from the sun we indeed got our dolls. And the Twins won the game in extra innings. I got home and showed my nodding Kitty Kaat to my own hungry kitty cat. History was made that night as I uttered a sentence never before said in the many years humans have walked the planet. Mr. Max having lost an alarming amount of weight over the past year has been put on an all he can eat mixture of both dried and canned food. The canned food is mixed with an all natural nutritional supplement and a few drops of Tasha's herbs- a mixture I refer to, due to its not exactly appetizing aroma, as "goop." As I fixed myself some chicken noodle soup I uttered the historic line, "Would you like some goop with my soup Mr. Max?" I'm sure Mom would have smiled.