What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
The best people in the world come from North Dakota.
I came to know this as a child of the U.S. Air Force. In the 1960’s, that particular military organization had a major presence in that state. I was born on one of those Air Force Bases, and to this day, my time in North Dakota plays a major role in my identity. Being the son of a “military brat” (and from a divorced family) meant I never went to the same school two years in a row until my days in the Peace Garden State.
If you are a regular reader of Dubsism, you know that I make note of the passing of people who played a major role in my appreciation of sports. If you are a regular reader of Dubsism, you know that I often use satire to make points about current events in the world of sports. This is much more the former than the latter. More importantly, in an another exception to what you normally read here, Dewey Baranyk wasn’t a sports figure; he was a pharmacist, family man, and all-around good guy.
Yesterday, another old friend told me of Dewey’s passing. My first reaction was “Wow, I haven’t talked to him in years.” But as the day wore on, I came to realize why that news gave me such a sense of loss. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about writing mournful obituaries. If that’s what you want, the local newspaper is more than willing to oblige. I’d rather tell the story about how a common love of baseball fostered a friendship between two guys who really couldn’t have been more different.
The setting for this story takes place in 1987 in an out-of-the-way hallway in a hospital in a relatively out-of-the-way town in the aforementioned North Dakota. In addition to the baseball thing, Dewey and I both worked in this hospital. Like I said, he was a pharmacist, and in that back hallway between the Emergency Room and nowhere in particular, there was one of those half-doors with a small counter-top on the bottom-half, which is where packages from the pharmacy were placed for delivery to the rest of the building. As an 18-year-old college student, I was picking up some “beer-and-books” money being the guy who schlepped those packages all over the hospital.
Now that we’ve hit the commonalities between Dewey and I, we can get to the differences. As mentioned, in 1987 I’m a college student with a wise-ass sense of humor and and a bit of a lack of respect for authority. I’m at the bottom of the hospital food chain, and ever-present in my pocket is a notebook where I’m playing “bookie” covering all forms of football bets. On the other hand, Dewey is the proverbial “Well-Respected Man About Town” from the old Kinks’ song; he’s an educated and licensed middle-aged man and he’s a fixture in that place. Everybody knew Dewey, and more importantly, everybody loved Dewey. You would have better luck finding a Diet Coke on the dark side of the moon than you would finding somebody who ever had a bad thing to say about Dewey Baranyk. The people who are reading this who actually know me understand completely I’m the exact opposite of that. To this day, I’m still a “straw that stirs the drink” sort of guy, and that makes me a polarizing figure. You either love me or you hate me, and close to three decades hasn’t really changed that.
So, the stage is set. It makes sense that at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning in that out-of-the-way hall, there isn’t much happening. This gave Dewey plenty of time to notice my non-dress-code compliant Minnesota Twins t-shirt underneath my white “doctor-type” jacket. He peered over the top of his glasses and uttered the words that started a years-long friendship.
“Are you a baseball fan?”
Now, that’s a loaded question to ask me for several reasons. First, I’m an admitted “nerd-level” sports fan; hence why I have a sports blog. Second, my first love when it came to sports was and still is baseball; and when coupled with my love of numbers and history (as mentioned in my piece about how Ernie Banks taught me to appreciate that which came before me) explains how I can talk about baseball with another fan 40 years my senior. But most importantly, it was the year.
1987 is a water-shed moment for fans of the Minnesota Twins, and what is happening with the Twins is one of the reasons why I’ve said 1987 may be my all-time favorite year in the history of my sports-fandom. The Minnesota Twins have spent the better part of the last two decades languishing between mediocre and terrible, and the days of stalwarts like Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva are long gone. August of 1987 is of particular importance because this is when several major events occur which convince even the most-jaded Twins fans’ like Dewey Baranyk that something special is about to happen.
See, the problem for 1987 actually came in 1984. The Twins were riding a wave of young talent capped by guys like Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, and Tom Brunansky to contention, and they were in the pennant race until a collapse in September broke the hearts of Twins fans everywhere. This also meant Twins fans like Dewey Baranyk weren’t buying the 1987 team.
Then August happened, as noted in my previous piece about 1987…
August 3 – In a moment that brings this team to national attention, Twins pitcher Joe Niekro is suspended for 10 days for possessing a nail file on the pitcher’s mound against the defending division champion California Angels. Niekro claimed he had been filing his nails in the dugout and put the file in his back pocket when the inning started. He later makes an appearance on the David Letterman show in which he makes light of the incident by showing Letterman exactly how to “doctor” a ball.
August 6 – Later in the same West Coast road trip comes the moment where the Twins never look back. The Twins are opening a four-game set with another contender, the Oakland A’s. In the bottom of the 4th inning, the Twins have a 3-1 lead and a one-out, bases-loaded chance to blow the game open thanks to an error by A’s shortstop Alfredo Griffin. The Twins do just that when Kirby Puckett ropes a bases-clearing double off 20-game winner Dave Stewart to put Minnesota ahead for good. The Twins win the game 9-4 to capture sole possession of first place, a lead they would retain until Friday, August 28th…or as I will always call it “The Weekend in Milwaukee.”
August 20 – Even though they’ve just been swept by the Tigers, it dawns on me that the Twins can’t win on the road, but can’t lose at home. This becomes CRUCIAL as this is in the days when the home-field advantage for playoff series were scheduled in advance; in 1987 the American League West Champion would have home field in the championship series, and the American League would enjoy that same advantage in the World Series. This is when I become a firm believer that all the Twins needed to do in win the AL West, and a World Series title would be coming to Minnesota for the first time.
This is also CRUCIAL as this is the first time I tell Dewey about my theory above on how the Twins are going to win the World Series. Once again, he peered over the top of his glasses, made a dismissive waving motion at me, and said through his disarming smile, “Ahhh, you drink too much beer, Kid!”
August 29 – The Saturday of “The Weekend in Milwaukee. ” The Twins had lost to the Brewers the night before to find themselves again tied for the AL West lead. The Twins have Bert Blyleven pitching, and the feel in the air is this game is a “must-win” for the Twins playoff hopes.
In the top of the first, Gary Gaetti belts a two-run shot to put the Twins ahead early. Puckett adds a solo shot in the top of the third. By the top of the fifth, the Brewers crept back to 3-2, until Puckett added his second home run of the day. Puckett’s bomb opened the flood gates to a Twin 7-2 lead as it was followed by an RBI single by Tom Brunansky and a 2-RBI single by Steve Lombardozzi. Later, Kent Hrbek blasted a three-run dinger to seal the deal. The Twins capture sole possession of first place and never relinquish it.
August 30 – The Sunday of “The Weekend in Milwaukee,” otherwise known as the day I accepted Kirby Puckett as my Lord and personal Savior. Puckett leads the Twins to a 10-6 victory by going 6-for-6, including two more homers, two doubles, and 6 RBIs. This made for a two-day total in a critical series of 10 hits in 11 at-bats, 4 home runs, 8 runs batted in, 7 runs scored, and 24 total bases. Oh, and somewhere amongst that offense-gasm, Puckett also robbed future Hall-of-Famer Robin Yount of a home run.
Dewey’s response to the “Weekend in Milwaukee:”
“Alright, Kid…I’ll take a six-pack of whatever beer you’re drinking.”
There were so many more moments along the way to the Twins World Series Title…the game against the Royals when the Twins rode three first-inning home runs to clinch the division title, or Game 4 of the ALCS where the Tigers’ Darrell Evans became the goat to end all goats, or hometown hero Kent Hrbek’s game-sealing grand slam in Game 6 of the World Series.
Dewey and I relished every single one of them through that half-door.
There were also many firsts in that march to a title for the Twins. The Twins were the first World Series winning team with only 85 regular-season wins, which is part of why Dewey thought I drank too much beer. Game 1 of the 1987 World Series was the first World Series game played indoors. It was also the first World Series in which the home team won every game. Most importantly, it was the Twins first Championship since the franchise moved to Minnesota.
There was also a personal first, brought to me by Dewey Baranyk. As we are getting close to the play-offs, it is becoming clear the Twins will head into October with only two proven starting pitchers. We knew Game 1 of the ALCS will be pitched by All-Star Frank Viola, and future Hall-of-Famer would get the ball for Game 2. As Dewey is perusing the sports page over a hospital cafeteria cup of coffee, he crinkles the paper down to look me in the eye.
“Who in the heck is this Les Straker guy?”
That’s an arcane reference for even the most ardent Minnesota Twins fan, and that was the first time anybody had ever mentioned that name to me. That’s because Straker had his Warholian “15 Minutes of Fame” that October. He pitched one win against Detroit in the ALCS, and pitched another against the Cardinals in the World Series. He was a 2-5 pitcher for Minnesota in 1988, and he almost literally dropped off the face of the planet after that. For a while later on, there was even a “Find Les Straker” website. But before that, the name “Les Straker” became a running joke between us. It was almost our version of “Where’s Waldo?”
So, what does all that have to do with the best people in the world coming from North Dakota? Because it involves one of the best baseball stories I’ll ever have, and one of the best people I ever knew.
Dewey, we’ll be sure to let you know if we ever actually find Les Straker.