MINNEAPOLIS -- What can you say about a state where the most beloved citizens, Mary Richards and Paul Bunyan -- not to mention Babe, the blue ox -- weren't even real, where the most famous town, Lake Wobegon, doesn't actually exist, where some of the most famous sons and daughters, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Judy Garland and Bob Dylan, followed the lead of the mighty Mississippi River and got out of town to seek fame elsewhere?
What can you say about a state where the battle cry seems to be: We're No. 2! The Twins, better known through the 1970s and '80s as the Twinkies, have been to one previous World Series, and lost it. The North Stars have been to one Stanley Cup final and lost it. You don't have to be reminded of what the Vikings have done in the Super Bowl, which is nothing, four straight times. Yes, the Minneapolis Lakers were NBA champions in the '50s. But where did it get them? Los Angeles. (Ditch that parka, Sven, and pass me the suntan lotion.)
Should we pass sports and move up to a bigger game -- presidential politics -- who does Minnesota send up to bat? Hubert Humphrey. Walter Mondale. Eugene McCarthy. Harold Stassen! Can't anyone here win the big one?
Maybe yes. Maybe now.
"We're so starved for it," acknowledged Kent Hrbek, a native born Minneapolitan, uh Minneapolisite, uh, a guy from the Twin Cities. "This time isn't like the other times with Minnesota teams. This time the fans really believe this team can win. It's time for a change."
The Twins are up, 2-0, in the World Series, and if the Cardinals don't find a way to rewrite the massacre scene in the fourth inning they're looking at a Custer. ABC's Al Michaels suggested a homespun tonic: "Whitey's going to need a fifth after the fourth." It's been 50 years since the 1937 Yankees outscored the Giants, 16-2, and elbowed more daylight in two games than these Twins. Not that Minnesotans should get crazy yet and start shredding the lukefisk recipes. The last two years, and four times in the last 10, a team has been staked a 2-0 lead and ended up losing the World Series.
Shuuush, don't say this too loud, but that's what happened in 1965 to the Twins. They went up, 2-0, at home, beat Koufax and Drysdale, but lost as Drysdale beat them in Game 4 and Koufax shut them out in Games 5 and 7. Tony Oliva was on that Twins team, and he shook his head in amazement at how good Koufax and Drysdale were. "Everybody knew it was impossible for them to lose two games in a row." But that was a different era, Oliva said, which is a nice way of saying that John Tudor is a nifty pitcher, but he won't win this thing by himself.
Hrbek used to go to Twins games at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington to see Oliva play. "I must have gotten his autograph 1,000 times," Hrbek said. (By the way, best sign in the playoffs: "Hrbek, Buy A Vowel.") He always sat in the cheap seats, near the bullpens in the outfield. "I went to every Monday night game, because if you were under 16 they let you in for $1," he said, although as big and Baby Huey-ish as Hrbek is, it's hard to imagine him ever passing for under 16. The Twins weren't a real good team, but they were his. "I've been a Twins fan all my life."
Hrbek stayed local, married a Bloomington girl, settled in Excelsior, and watched Minnesota teams lose year after year. "The Vikings would get to the Super Bowl and start off bad. It seems like it was always over right away." Hrbek exhaled in a melancholy way. "We kept thinking they'd finally win one, but I guess we never really believed they could."
But this isn't Boston, Hrbek said, there's no fatal attraction to losing here. "Not this year. The fans aren't saying we'll choke this year. They're sick of losing, and they believe in us, and they know how much we believe in them. I've got relatives in Duluth, they're driving down for games. It's nuts all over the state. They all want to be a part of it."
And the difference? The reason why this time people should believe, why this isn't just another twist on Lucy pulling the football out from under Charlie Brown's kick? Hrbek smiled peacefully and his round face glowed as bright and wide as a pumpkin. "The clock runs out in football. The clock's not going to beat us this time. These fans all know that someone's got to get us out three times to win."
What if Minnesota loses?
"We're not going to lose," Hrbek said, as simple as that.
It's not exactly a small town, but Hrbek can live here, and breathe here, and who knows, it's probably where they'll bury him. "I know where I am, I've been here all my life," he said contentedly. "I wouldn't want to play baseball anywhere else. I love New York and California, but I like the people in the midwest, in Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minnesota; they're hard-working, and they don't try to show anyone up."
Hrbek leaned back against a table and took a short sip from a can of beer. It was past midnight. He was the last one left in the clubhouse. "People like us because we're the underdogs," he said. "We're trying to throw a big punch and knock somebody out." Outside he could hear the raucous sounds of car horns blaring and dancing in the streets. "I'm happy to be a part of it -- Minneapolis and Minnesota finally winning."