MINNEAPOLIS -- Woebegone no more.
The Minnesota Twins called an impromptu team meeting this evening a few feet from first base to discuss exactly how it felt to be champions of the world. Kent Hrbek, born and raised in these doleful athletic regions where much goes right, but never totally, initiated the gathering by catching the last out of their 4-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7 of the World Series. That will get you a quorum real quick.
Manager Tom Kelly, a Minnesotan by temperament, if not birth, did not attend, preferring to watch others celebrate. That's how Minnesotans usually do it -- except tonight. "It's very enjoyable to watch the players jump up and down on each other," he said, allowing his hat to remain as cocked as any lamp shade.
The first two Twins to celebrate were Hrbek and catcher Tim Laudner, the only local natives on the roster. That tells you how much this evening ment to a self-deprecating state that sells sweatshirts with a picture of a snow shovel and the inscription, "Minnesota Aerobics." How nice and well-behaved are people here in the northern steppes? Of a crowd of 55,376, only one fan tried to run on the field and he was gently tackled by police and apologized as he walked soberly back to the stands.
Long after this game, perhaps 30,000 or more fans still stayed in the Thunderdome stands, waving their Homer Hankies, or perhaps wiping away a tear with them. Almost every Twins player came to the mound, to the microphone, to share the magic. "Ever since I was a little boy, I've dreamed of driving down Hennepin Avenue in a victory parade," bellowed a hoarse Hrbek, his voice rising and cracking as he yelled, "And I get to do it."
That's Tuesday. Or, as Tom Brunansky told the crowd, "Party 'til the parade."
These last nine days have tested and tried Minnesotans almost beyond the limits of north country endurance. Last weekend, for instance, tickets to Games 1 and 2 of the Series were being scalped for $800 a pair. "The Pope Needs A Ticket," said one sign. Cars in downtown honked all day. Police enforced laws against passengers leaning out the windows of moving vehicles.
By this Saturday, however, after three losses in St. Louis, a frost had settled. Scalpers were dumping tickets for half of face value or even giving some away. To kids. (That's the Twin Cities.) Shops in downtown malls had posted signs saying, "Sorry, Twins merchandise is NOT returnable."
By the fifth inning of Game 6, with St. Louis ahead by three runs, the Thunderdome was a nice quiet place to read a good novel. Ever hear of Bud Grant? Only an hour (and a Hrbek grand slam) later, cops with toy dead cardinals taped on the bills of their blue hats were joining a conga line of fans by the beer stand.
By this evening the pendulum of civic schizophrenia had swung again. "Compassion, please," said one sign. "Kids Have Tics. Dad needs one."
This region has long had America's friendliest and most unashamedly fickle fans. They enjoy, but do not trust, victory. They endure, but do not truly suffer from, defeat. On the other hand, they're human. They'd really like to get to chant something stupid such as, "We're No. 1," at least once per lifetime.
That's why Kirby Puckett grabbed the mike when it was all over and told the crowd, "A lot of people doubted us. Well, we're No. 1 in the whole world." He expected a Dome-splitting roar. He got almost nothing. Minnesotans -- with their witty, civil signs like "Kelly has a well-tuned Viola" -- cheer their players, not themselves.
This was a night of glorious agony. The Twins and their fans had every right to feel the ghosts of their bleak history reaching up to tie their shoelaces. Willie McGee and Jose Oquendo made fabulous catches to rob Twins of doubles. Vince Coleman threw out two runners at the plate. Puckett got himself eradicated at third. Why the Cardinals even slapped Frank Viola around like a base fiddle with four singles for two runs in an inning.
Who wouldn't be spooked? But omens can change directions. As Whitey Herzog goes, so go the Cardinals. In Game 6, he showed patience with John Tudor when he had a 5-2 lead and a fresh bullpen. As Herzog said later, "Bam, bam, bam -- it went so fast." So, tonight, Whitey shifted tactics. Get somebody up at the first hint of trouble. That didn't work either. Danny Cox replaced Joe Magrane, who'd been pitching better than any Cardinal in the Dome. He didn't earn an out, just a defeat.
By the time Todd Worrell arrived, the situation was already in flames. When he walked Roy Smalley to load the bases, the decibel meters here broke. Finally, when Worrell reached a full count on Greg Gagne, the worst Twins hitter of the Series, the state of Minnesota made a definitive decision.
It donated its hearts to the Twins. Forget the "sirs" and "thank yous" and being hospitable to tourists. Minnesotans informed the Cardinals that they wished them all to drop dead forthwith.
Maybe Gagne's grounder over third base was the kind that Terry Pendleton got his Gold Glove for fielding. But that's something for Missourians to chew as offseason solace. Just as they can mutter about Jack Clark and how the Twins became the only team ever to grab a Series without winning on the road.
Minnesota doesn't want to hear it. Too many good teams, too many politicians, have come up short. If a team with 85 wins, a team that gets outscored for the year, a team with only two starting pitchers, happens to catch some breaks and play like hell and win it all -- well, it's about time. You betcha. That's different. When Gagne's foot reached first base a yard before Tom Lawless' throw, that was enough, the final wonderful straw. All heaven broke loose. For once, the good guys, the nice state, the team that said, "please" for so long was going to finish first. And Minnesota, bad manners or not, could scream "We're No. 1" all night.
And right through the long cold winter, too.