Don Riley wrote a sports column dubbed “The Eye Opener” at the Pioneer Press that made him a St. Paul legend. On those occasions when Don hadn’t made it to a clubhouse or locker room for an interview, he had a tendency to come up with random notes and observation with this opening:
“Zim, zam, zoom, zow.”
Sometimes, the third word would become “zoomie,” but either way, we now know — 33 years after his retirement and five years after his death — the Eyeball was a sports reporter way ahead of his time.
That’s because we are all in the “Zoom” business now, relying on major sports teams to provide us information through interviews from remote locations with video conferencing, rather than standing a few feet away in a clubhouse or locker room and attempting to fully pursue the proverbial “angle.”
Such is life in the age of pandemic, and we must be satisfied with any access offered — which on Friday was watching the first workout of baseball’s attempted restart from an amply spaced Target Field press box.
Heck, as a sportswriter of a certain age, I was just thrilled to be taking in the first day of MLB’s reopener — even from an anti-social distance — considering the Twins’ decision to move aside coaches Bob McClure and Bill Evers, comparative pups in their 60s.
Twenty-five years ago, there was also a second go-round of spring training, so high on the strange meter reporters were convinced they would never see its equal. Of course, 1995 was also the year that we thought “Outbreak” was merely Hollywood’s top blockbuster and not a docudrama.
The players had gone on strike after the games of Aug. 11, 1994; the World Series was lost, and ownership tried to get away with “replacement” baseball in 1995 spring training. Initially, the strike had been over management’s planned attempt to impose a salary cap; by the end of March, it was an attempt to get rid of salary arbitration.
The National Labor Relations Board had sided with the union with a charge of unfair labor negotiations. Sonia Sotomayor, a young judge in the U.S. District of New York, upheld the charge, imposed the previous work rules and told the two parties to go back to negotiating.
That put an end to the fiasco that would’ve been replacement ball and sent the real players to Florida and Arizona for a delayed spring training. The Twins’ first exhibition game was played vs. Boston in Fort Myers on April 13, and the season opener was in Fenway Park 13 days later.
Manager Tom Kelly sent strong-armed rookie LaTroy Hawkins to the mound to start the first exhibition. Hawkins walked the first three batters in a potent Red Sox lineup, wound up going 1⅔ innings, allowing six runs (four earned), with five walks.
“Our guy was extremely nervous,” Kelly said. “When a control pitcher isn’t throwing strikes, you know there was something going on.”
Hawkins disagreed, saying: “I couldn’t find the plate. It wasn’t nerves. They weren’t a factor.”
Now, a quarter-century later, Hawkins is the lone Twins’ “special assistant” asked to be in attendance to work with players for this three-week run-up to the regular season — even stranger than ’95 since it’s midsummer before a piddlin’ short 60-game schedule.
What this does is sizably reduce the odds for this Twins lineup to exert the dominance in the AL Central over two months that would have seemed inevitable over six months.
This question was heard frequently after Josh Donaldson agreed to a deal in mid-January: “Healthy and on paper, best Twins lineup of all-time?”
The answer becomes “yes” when remembering this:
The mighty lineups for most of the 1960s through 1970 did not contain a designated hitter. This lineup has Nelson Cruz, a remarkable 40-year-old, coming off 41 home runs in 120 games, hitting third as the DH.
August has been referred to as the “dog days” for bad big-league ballclubs forever. A year ago, the Twins were tied for first in the Central after games of Aug. 11, and 5½ games in front on Labor Day after they got done pounding the White Sox and Tigers for a couple of weeks.
It was over. The muscle had overwhelmed the mutts.
No dog days this August. You can be bad and yet, with three starting pitchers with a pulse, still alive on Labor Day.
It’s a season that’s going to Zoom past, in more ways than one and with no guarantees: not in the result from 60 games, nor from a pandemic that might not allow that many.
“This is baseball’s NIT — anyone can get invited to the tournament,” a friend has been saying, and I think that’s correct.