My father was always fond of baseball. But it became an even bigger part of his life as he dealt with the disease that eventually took his life, just as the Minnesota Twins were starting their 1987 season.
Now, 30 years later, I recognize how that season — that glorious season — soothed the harsh and bitter emotions I felt after losing him. My father’s passing stung me deeply, but what happened in October of that year helped me hang onto him for a long time.
He taught music at Bemidji State University in the mid-1960s and ’70s. Our family moved to Bemidji in the fall of 1965, just as the Los Angeles Dodgers were beating the Twins in seven games of the World Series. I was 5, but I was already intrigued by the Twins’ logo — the two men, representing Minneapolis and St. Paul, shaking hands across the river. I began following the Twins the following spring.
We lived on Bixby Avenue, two blocks from the college and four blocks from the Little League ballpark where I quickly learned that, because of my lack of baseball skills, I was better suited to watching the Twins on WCCO than actually playing the sport.
It was my first love affair and, like all romances, there was hurt. I learned to hate the Baltimore Orioles after they swept our team in the American League playoffs in 1969 and 1970. My mood was reflected by the games. If the Twins won, I was a happy kid. If they lost, it was a different story.
I also learned the humbleness of the Minnesotan. Sure, the Twins were a great team with Oliva and Killebrew and Allison and Carew. We just didn’t brag about it.
I knew all the players. I knew catcher George Mitterwald’s nickname was “Meat” and he played minor league ball in Denver. I saw Rod Carew steal home more than once. I loved Jim Kaat because of his “Kitty Kaat” nickname. I shared the reversed initials of Harmon Killebrew and our birthdays were on the same June 29 date. While other kids had Mickey Mantle replica baseball gloves, I dropped pop flies in our backyard with my Twins starter Dave Boswell autographed glove.
My family liked watching the games together on television, and baseball was a major part of our summers. In August, when the cooler breezes lifted our lace curtains and hinted at the harsh winter ahead, the games helped us hold onto the warm season a little longer.
My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease on July 24, 1970, in Fargo. I remember the date because President Richard Nixon was visiting town to address a governors conference. My family stayed at a hotel by a large medical complex — the same hotel where Nixon was staying. We had to move to a different room because, apparently, we were too close to the president’s. I’m sure the move disrupted our plans to watch the Twins that evening. Minnesota beat the hated Orioles, 8-0. Killebrew, of course, hit a home run.
My father battled his disease bravely. But Parkinson’s limited his physical abilities and I didn’t get to play catch or shoot baskets with him like other children did with their fathers. Instead, he taught me to think and to analyze.
And to enjoy watching sports. He grew up in New Jersey and was a Yankees fan. As his health deteriorated, he recognized his mortality and took to telling stories of his past. He told me of watching the Yankees, of seeing Mantle and DiMaggio and Berra play.
He retired from Bemidji State in 1974 due to his health and our family moved to Arkansas, where we continued to follow the Twins.
My father died in March of 1987. A few days later, the Twins opened their spring training camp.
The season began well, with the Twins winning seven of their first nine games to take hold of first place. But they faltered in May, dropping to fifth place late in the month.
By June 5 — what would have been my father’s birthday — the Twins climbed back to third place. They lost that day. But then they won 10 of the next 11 games and regained first place. My father would have been happy.
I was mired in earning a master’s degree in mass communication at Arkansas State University that summer, but I still found time to keep up with the Twins.
In August, still reeling from my father’s death, I took a vacation and drove from my home in northeast Arkansas to Thunder Bay, Ontario. I stopped for a few days in Minneapolis and took in a Twins game at the Metrodome. Frank Viola pitched against Seattle. I sat above first base and watched as Steve Lombardozzi, Gary Gaetti and Gene Larkin each hit doubles in the first inning to take a 3-0 lead. The Twins won, 5-1, and remained in first place in the West Division for the rest of the season.
The Twins held onto that lead and won the West Division pennant. Their victory made me feel a little better.
Then Minnesota beat the Tigers in the American League Championship Series, winning the first two games at home before taking two of three in Detroit to head to the Series.
As I worked on my master’s degree, I was employed part time by a cable TV company that aired St. Louis Cardinals games. When the Cardinals also made it to the Series, I received a comp ticket to Game 5. Of course, I went. My father would have been proud.
I wore my Twins T-shirt and sat high above third base in Busch Stadium. The Twins lost that game and trailed the Cardinals in the series, three games to two. But I knew all would be well when they returned to the Metrodome.
And it was.
I cried when the final out of the 1987 Series was over, when Willie McGee grounded out to Gaetti, who threw it to Hrbek. These weren’t tears of joy for Minnesota’s win. Instead, they were for my father. He felt close to me that entire season and, I believe, had a hand in easing the pain of losing him.
Kenneth Heard is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.