The Twins were having a 30-year reunion weekend for the 1987 champs in late July. There would be a statue unveiled of manager Tom Kelly on Friday, and I had the coverage assignment for the Star Tribune.
Early in the afternoon, I parked in a ramp near the ballpark, and was using the Skyway to get to the Star Tribune office. As I walked above First Ave., I glanced at the front of the Loews Hotel and there was Rick Stelmaszek talking with a group of civilians.
Stelly had lost more weight since throwing out the ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day, as pancreatic cancer continued to do its damage. Yet, he was down there talking and gesturing, and his audience was laughing, making it clear that he was entertaining these fans with a few of his endless baseball stories.
This was a bittersweet scene to be sure: There was ongoing evidence that we were going to lose Stelly in the next few months, and there was a smile because this skinny version of Stelly still was doing what he loved – talking baseball and sharing yuks with anyone who stopped him to say hello.
The cancer that hardly ever gets beat took Stelmaszek’s life on Monday at age 69, and for the people who wore uniforms, and for the staff members, and for the sports media, and for thousands of Twins fans that he chatted up … the Stelly stories will live on.
As a sportswriter, you always try to put a person in the best light when they leave this vale of tears. There is no such effort required with Stelly.
When I state this, I mean it: In the 40-plus years I’ve been covering the Twins, the most universally liked person in the clubhouse, in the organization, was Rick Stelmaszek.
He had 32 years in a Twins uniform to find an enemy, and I don’t think he managed to do that.
One of Stelly’s best pals with the Twins was Kirby Puckett. They both grew up on the South Side of Chicago – not far from one another in miles, but a universe apart in neighborhoods.
Stelmaszek came from the white, blue-collar section. Puckett came from the projects. There was no divide among this pair. They were both clubhouse agitators – taking it and distributing it. They were made to be buddies.
There’s a version of Puck’s home run in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series where Chili Davis has to convince Kirby not to bunt against Atlanta’s Charlie Leibrandt leading off the 11th inning.
There’s also the version told by Stelmaszek and seconded by Puckett that I prefer:
“Puck had gotten us to extra innings and then Atlanta brought in Leibrandt to pitch,’’ Stelmaszek said. “I was down in our bullpen and Puck is screaming at me, ‘Stelly, Stelly, this game is over. It’s over, Stelly!’ ‘’
Puck’s thoughts and words could race to the point that maybe both were true, that he told Chili that he might bunt, and seconds later, he hollered to Stelly that a game-winning home run was in the offing.
Either way, Puckett waited for a Leibrandt changeup, got it, and “We’ll see you tomorrow night’’ became the most-famous quote from a TV booth in Twins’ history.
When Puck suffered his stroke in March 2006, it was not yet official that it was fatal, but there was great foreboding. Reporters were getting reactons from former teammates, coaches and players at the Twins complex in Fort Myers.
Stelly was asked to talk about his friend and offered this: “Those 15 minutes from the end of infield until we went back down the [Metrodome] stairs to play the game. That was the Puck Comedy Show. He was in every corner of the clubhouse, getting the guys loose.
“Twenty minutes to 7: We waited for Puck to make the announcement, ‘I’m driving the bus tonight, boys. You’re along for the ride.’ And he did that for Game 6, right? Unbelievable.’’
The Stelmaszek pregame ritual came earlier: He was in charge of making sure the athletes were accounted for and ready to take part in the official pregame stretch. He turned this into the Stelly Comedy Show.
“Five minutes, boys … five minutes to show time,’’ he would announce in and around the dugout, with considerable drama.
“Two minutes … it’s getting close now; two minutes,’’ he would say more forcefully.
And at one minute, Stelly would be fully overcome with excitement as the stretch approached.
Eventually, it would be stretch time: Something a team would do 162 times during a season, but Stelly built the moment as if it was as important as the opening bell for The Thrilla in Manila.
Maybe you had to be there, but to me, the Stelly countdown was an example of why baseball humor is dang near impossible to beat.
And it was always there with Rick Stelmaszek – simple and wonderful. I saw the appreciation for this in those fans a few months ago, as Stelly, gaunt and knowing his fate, turned a meeting on a Minneapolis sidewalk into a happy circle of laughter.