The Twins Connection Runs Deep

Jan 21, 2014   //   by bwilber   //   Bob on Baseball  //  1 Comment

Sometimes it comes in a moment of clarity. The themes that run through your life become apparent, with the dots so clearly connected it’s a wonder it didn’t all seem so obvious for so many years. I spent a few days back in Minnesota this past week, and when I boarded the plane to return to our home in Spokane it all seemed so impossible to miss.  This is a story of connection, to a place, to so many people, and to the Minnesota Twins.

It was February, 2002.  My wife Barbara, the single most intelligent and driven person I know, had been heavily recruited to join the executive team at Lawson Software in St. Paul, Minn., and we had flown up to the Twin Cities to check out the area and look at some homes. We had spent the prior four years living in Austin, Tex., where she worked for IBM, and we absolutely loved the Austin area, but the Lawson offer was too good to ignore so we flew north to learn more about the company, the area, and anything that had to do with the Twin Cities. For all we knew, we were going to Mars. Or we were moving to the movie “Fargo”. We weren’t sure.

What we were sure about was that we loved what we saw, despite the fact it was February and seriously cold for two people who had ventured to the Land of 10,000 Lakes from the scenic (and warm) Hill Country of Texas. We immediately noticed that the locals seemed to embrace the chill, or at least not complain about it, and we admired that. We were also thrilled to discover that our initial recruiting trip coincided with Winter Carnival in St. Paul, one of the truly great winter festivals in the world. We stayed at the historic St. Paul Hotel, and much of Winter Carnival was happening right outside our window.

We bundled up, ventured into the frozen outdoors, and discovered the ice carvings, snow sculptures, ice skating, and the famous Torchlight Parade, a full outdoor festivity with marching bands, elaborate floats, gymnasts, clowns on bicycles, and the ultimate piece of theater, as King Boreas and his white-clad followers (who represent winter and the cold north wind) were approached and “attacked” by legions of red-caped Vulcans, who will bring heat and summer to the area. It’s campy, fun, and unique and we were amused at how evenly split the massive crowd was, in terms of their support for both sides. Summer sounded good to us, so we quickly adopted the “Hail the Vulc” chant as we raised two fingers to form a “V”. On that frigid night, on our first visit to Minnesota, we came face-to-face with the warmth of “Minnesota Nice” and the charms of the Twin Cities, and came away eager to make this unique place our home.

During a subsequent trip back up to St. Paul a couple of months later (we still hadn’t settled on a house and were closing in on having seen 90 homes by early April, while Barb lived in a corporate apartment and I had our Austin house up for sale) our intrepid and patient real estate agent spent two more long days with us, showing us houses all over the Twin Cities suburbs, and after we finally found the perfect home on the second day, in the suburb of Woodbury, he offered us his box-seat Minnesota Twins season tickets for the game that evening. I think it was his way of saying “I’ve had enough of you two.”

Welcome to Minnesota! Here's the Dome...

Welcome to Minnesota! Here’s the Dome…

I jumped at the offer of the tickets before he could reconsider or Barb could change her mind about the house, and I felt a rush of adrenaline as we prepared for the game. It may have been my first-ever Twins’ home game and my first time in the Metrodome, but I was nearly giddy. I filled Barb full of Twins information, prepping her with background about the plucky team she was about to see, not taking notice of the quizzical look she was giving me. I didn’t have time for quizzical looks, I was going to a Twins game!

We drove to the Dome, found a place to park, and headed inside. We felt the nearly claustrophobic energy of the narrow indoor concourses, and when we found the aisle for our section and walked into the inflated stadium full of bright blue seats and the infamous “Baggie” for a right field wall, I had goosebumps. That’s not an exaggeration. I actually had goosebumps. I cheered earnestly for the Twins that night, although I have no memory of it being a win or a loss. It was Twins baseball, and I was there.

After the game, Barbara finally said to me “I don’t get it. Why are you acting like such a big Twins fan?”  It was a legitimate question, aimed at a guy who had grown up in St. Louis as the son of a former Cardinal, had played minor league ball for the Tigers and A’s, and had worked for four years as a scout for the Blue Jays. No mention of the word “Twins” in any of that.

I smiled and said “You don’t understand. I’ve been waiting my whole life to live here. I’ve been waiting my whole life to go to a Twins game.” I might have had a tear in my eye as well, but I’m not likely to admit that.

And then I told her the very long story…

It’s a story I’ve been wanting to tell here for a long time. As widely varied as the Bob On Baseball topics have been, from my childhood through my playing and scouting days, to the years spending summers in Denver and Spokane with my dad’s teams, with side trips to other baseball experiences, there’s one thread that runs through all of it. One common theme that connects every dot. It began with my earliest baseball memories and it continues to this day. Not a  month has passed in the intervening 50-plus years where the thread wasn’t somehow present. It is a very deep connection to the Minnesota Twins, and it feels as much a part of my DNA as the genes bestowed upon me by Del and Taffy Wilber.

It began in the summer of 1960. On June 19 of that year, I celebrated my fourth birthday. I’m confident there was cake. The baseball we watched that summer, as a family, I now remember and treasure as my earliest memories of the sport and my first real inclination that my dad was an important part of the baseball landscape. We left our suburban St. Louis home when the school year ended and, with my mother at the wheel, we headed for Charleston, W.V., home of the Charleston Senators, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Senators.

What’s the Twins’ connection? 1960 was the last year the original Senators played in Washington, and at the end of that season they would relocate to Minnesota to become the Twins. On that Charleston team were, among others, Jim Kaat, Zoilo Versalles, Jimmie Hall, and Don Mincher. They were all Twins, they just didn’t know it yet. And I was a Twins fan, but I didn’t know it yet.

Charleston, 1960. I'm the little guy in front.

Charleston, 1960. I’m the little guy in front.

I spent most of the home games sitting either next to my mother or on her lap. She’d point out my father, in the third-base coach’s box, and from my perspective he looked like a poorly lit actor on an enormous stage, but I knew he was my dad. The old-school stadium, Watt Powell Park in Charleston, was in retrospect a fairly typical minor league park for the era, but to me it was massive. The steel girders holding up the roof seemed larger than those on a Mississippi River bridge, and my most vivid memory was of the hanging light fixtures dangling over the box seats. Long pendant cords and classic old gumdrop metal shades, green on the top and white underneath with a single bulb eerily lighting the grandstands. At that age, I suspect I spent a lot of time on Mom’s lap, looking up at the lights.

If the Senators won, they shot off fireworks after the final out. At the age of four, loud explosions had not yet taken their place in my pantheon of favorite things and, therefore, when the Senators won, I cried. I hope my dad didn’t take it personally.

At the end of that epic summer, I went home with two prized possessions, both made of leather. Zoilo (known to the Wilber children as “Zorro”) gave me one of his Rawlings Trap-Eze gloves (the style that featured six fingers instead of five and a standard web). It was my first real baseball glove. Don Mincher gave me one of his Rawlings first-basemen’s mitts, with his nickname “MINCH” written on the thumb in “Magic Marker” (no Sharpies back then!). Compared to Zoilo’s glove, it was comically enormous and I wasn’t really capable of holding my arm up with it on, but I cherished both gifts and kept them for a surprisingly long time, considering my typical youthful penchant for either destroying or not keeping track of valuables. A home run ball from Stan Musial? Let’s go play in the street!  My dad’s old shinguards from his time with the Red Sox?  Let’s go scrape around the driveway on those! But, the gloves from Zoilo and Minch were too precious, and I kept them for many years before they mysteriously and finally disappeared, as most things seemed to.

It had been a magical summer, living in a huge rented home in Charleston, going to ballgames every night when the club was in town, and visiting the clubhouse with my dad to hang out with Zorro, Kitty, and Minch. A kid could do worse during the summer of his fourth birthday. A lot worse. Even at the age of four, I knew how fortunate I was.

That fall, the Senators made their move to Bloomington, Minn. and everything in our suburban St. Louis home changed a little. Twins apparel, my first “TC” ball cap (I assume to this day that I was the only kid in 1960’s St. Louis who grew up wearing a Twins hat) and all types and sizes of Twins logo’d items, all freshly produced featuring the timeless and iconic image of Minny and Paul shaking hands across the Mississippi, framed by the outline of the state of Minnesota.

In 2010, when the Twins finally moved out of the sterile non-baseball surroundings of the Metrodome and into Target Field, one of the best ballparks in the world, Barbara and I were season-ticket holders (of course) and as such were invited to an Open House just days before Opening Day. We toured the park, found our seats, and visited the Metropolitan Club on the second level in the right-field corner. Much Twins memorabilia is on display there, but it was one glass case that took my breath away. In it were china coffee cups, plates, and ash trays from the team’s dining room at old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, all with the Twins logo imprinted on them. When I saw those, I was six years old again. Our house was full of all of those items (the ash trays got a good workout!) and to me it felt as if I was staring at dishes from the Titanic, now neatly preserved behind glass.

My dad shifted roles and became a scout for the Twins after the team moved, so we also had reams of team stationery at our disposal and just about every coloring/drawing session conducted by my sister Mary and me at the dining room table took place with colored pencils or Crayola Crayons and Twins paper. I suspect a few sheets were actually used by Del Wilber, the scout, rather than his kids, but my focus wasn’t really on work back then.

As the Twins top scout (he was called a “Super Scout” which is a term I don’t seem to hear anymore) Big Del was in constant contact with Farm Director George Brophy, a point illustrated on a nearly daily basis with phone calls answered by my mother Taffy on the kitchen phone (the one on the wall, with the long coiled cord, you know the one). She’d say hello, and then yell “Del, it’s Brophy” loudly enough for the big guy to hear it anywhere in the house. He also made many trips to the Twin Cities, and he became closely tied to Tony Oliva, who still credits my dad for helping him become a big league outfielder. When the young rookie made his first appearance on the field after signing his original Twins contract, Big Del said “If anyone messes with his swing, they ought to be fired. Now we have to teach him how to catch the ball.”

Typically, those trips to the Twin Cities were made after the season had ended and the scouting was over. One winter, when I was six or seven years old, Dad broke the news to me that I’d be going on my first airplane ride, accompanying him and my mom up to the Twin Cities for a winter banquet. I was beside myself. The anticipation was worse than Christmas, and considering my ability to string consecutive sleepless nights together from December 20 to Christmas day, that was saying a lot. When the day finally came, we boarded a Braniff four-engine prop (a Lockheed Electra, I’m guessing) and flew north. A cab took us to an historic old hotel in downtown St. Paul. And there were ice sculptures in the park across the street.

In 2002, when another cab brought Barbara and me to the St. Paul Hotel, on her initial recruiting trip, I turned to her and calmly said “Wow. I’ve been here. I stayed here. I know this place.” Same hotel. Same Winter Carnival. Four decades later.

Dad’s employment with the club also included an annual managing gig, down in Florida for the post-season Instructional League. If he accepted this position strictly for the enjoyment of his youngest son, I have been forever grateful. Every year I’d get permission from the nuns at Mary Queen of Peace grade school to pack up my books, take a list of assignments with me, and head to Florida for a week or 10 days just as winter was arriving in Missouri. These pilgrimages started when I was eight or so, and lasted until I was 12. A kid who loved the game and loved the Twins could not possibly have more fun.

Bradenton, 1967. I'm the little guy on the right.

Bradenton, 1967. I’m the little guy on the right.

Most of those years, the Instructional League Twins played at McKechnie Field in Bradenton. We lived at the Ramada Inn, just off the south end of the old Sunshine Skyway, and once I got to be 10-years old and suitably able to protect myself on a baseball field, my days were spent running around the outfield during batting practice, learning the hard way how to catch a real fly ball.

I was adept, by that age, at throwing a tennis ball off the front of the house and then running to catch the rebound with my Zoilo Versalles glove, but the first sight of these towering majestic fly balls was both thrilling and harrowing. And, like any kid getting his first taste of baseballs hit by grown men, I needed to learn how to figure out exactly where those tiny little baseballs in the sky were going to come down. One after another, they seemed to be headed right for me but as I’d reach skyward to catch them they would consistently and confoundedly land a few feet behind me, mocking me with the sound they made as they hit the ground. By trial and error, I finally figured it out. Those skills stayed with me through grade school, high school, college, and pro ball.

Being a stop for top young prospects, the Twins Instructional League teams of that era featured quite a few memorable players. One was a quiet second-baseman, in 1967.

It was yet another impossibly and deliriously perfect Florida afternoon at McKechnie Field, and I was the 11-year old kid out in right field, waiting patiently for a ball to come my way. When one finally did, I heaved it back toward the infield. This was, crucially, my first mistake. Another teachable moment, I suspect. Outfield “shaggers” are supposed to roll the ball back in, not attempt to throw it on a fly.

My looping toss hit the second-baseman right on the head. He never even turned around, but I could hear my father bellowing “Good God, don’t hit HIM!” all the way from the dugout. To this day, I wonder if Rod Carew remembers that moment. I have never forgotten it.

The Skipper

The Skipper

Future big-leaguer Pat Kelly was an outfielder on that club, and at the time Bill Cosby was making it big as a comedian. In the Wilber house, we had every album “Cos” made (remember albums?) and I’d spend hours memorizing the bits. Pat Kelly was friendly, outgoing, and hilariously funny and he didn’t look totally unlike a young Bill Cosby if you squinted your eyes in a certain way. I’d already heard that Skip considered him the team’s version of Cos, so I guess that was the reason my dad marched me right up to his locker in the Twins clubhouse, on my first day in Florida. He introduced me to Pat, and then said these horror-inducing words: “My boy does a great Bill Cosby impression, don’t you son. Do ‘Little Tiny Hairs’ for Pat Kelly.” Sheesh.

Graciously, Pat listened to my entire three-minute recitation of Cosby’s great bit about shaving, and he laughed at the appropriate times. “I look in the mirror and what do I see? Little tiny hairs, growin’ out of my face…” Use your best Jello Pudding commercial voice to get a flavor for that. After that embarrassment, Pat adopted me as his sidekick for the next glorious week, always positioning himself near me in the outfield during BP, acting as my friend and protector.

Graig Nettles and Rick Renick were on that team, and they all treated me so well. The next year, guys like Dave Goltz, Charlie Manuel (yep, that Charlie Manuel), and Charley “Shooter” Walters were there, and again my brief autumn trip to Bradenton was full of incredible memories. Charley Walters is now a sports columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, and the day Barbara and I arrived in the Twin Cities after the relocation from Austin, I picked up my new local paper and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw his byline. The sound of his teammates shouting “C’mon you Shooter, c’mon now” from the dugout was still fresh in my memory, although it had happened roughly 34 years before. I sent Shooter an email that day, and he still writes back immediately whenever I drop him a line, signing off on each email with a simple “Shoots”.

We also quickly became season-ticket holders during that first summer in Minnesota, back in 2002. One night, we headed up the aisle toward the concourse and there at the top of the steps, watching the game like any longtime fan, stood Tony Oliva. I walked up and said “Tony, I’m Bob Wilber. Del’s son.” His eyes lit up and we had a short but marvelous conversation. That Twins’ connection does run deep.

In 1970, one of Big Del’s old Red Sox buddies did him a huge favor, and this initial period in my Twins timeline came to an end. In those days, the players from my dad’s era had to earn 10 years of big league service time in order to get a decent pension, and Skip’s career with the Cardinals, Red Sox, and Phillies had left him about four months short of that mark. His best friend on those Red Sox team had become the manager of the Washington Senators (the 1961 expansion team that replaced the original Senators in D.C., after they moved to Minnesota) and he hired Skip away from the Twins to be his bullpen coach. Coaches earn service time as well, and Ted Williams wasn’t going to let his old teammate miss out on a pension. It was a terrific and classy move by a great man, and we then became a Senators family, followed by being a Texas Rangers family after the club moved once again. The Twins were still in my heart, but new allegiances were keeping them company.

That summer, we lived in suburban D.C. and I again had the chance to cavort on the big field, chasing fly balls hit by Frank Howard, Mike Epstein, Eddie Brinkman, Tom Grieve, Aurelio Rodriguez, Del Unser, and Rick Reichardt.  The following four summers were spent in Denver and then Spokane, as a bat boy and general nuisance for the Triple-A teams with which Skip was winning championships. I’ll always appreciate how Jeff Burroughs, Pete Mackanin, Jim Mason, Lenny Randle, Bill Madlock, Rick Waits, Richie Scheinblum, and so many others befriended me, took care of me, taught me the ropes (including how to expertly deliver a “hot foot”) and kept me entertained. If summer fun equates to wealth, I was the richest kid in the world.

Back home, I followed both of my brothers to St. Louis University High, where I played four years of baseball, and then I accepted a full scholarship to Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville, where I was lucky enough to be a part of two teams that played in the NCAA Div. II World Series. After my junior year at SIUE, my Twins connection was reborn and rebooted.

It was 1977 and Big Del had been hired by the Twins to manage their Triple-A club in Tacoma, coming full circle from that summer in Charleston when he led the Triple-A club for the organization during its last season in Washington. Dad had heard of a very good summer college team out there, called the Cheney Studs (you can’t make this stuff up) so after my junior season I headed to the Great Northwest to play for the Studs three or four nights a week on a team full of Washington Huskies and Washington State Cougars, while on off-days I’d roam the outfield and shag fly balls for the Tacoma Twins, sharing BP with the likes of Sal Butera, Randy Bass, and Rob Wilfong. I made sure to roll the balls back in.

Sadly, the Tacoma Twins didn’t play up to the big club’s expectations, and at mid-season a change was made (as they so often are in baseball). The team’s first-baseman took over as player/manager and Big Del Wilber’s managing career came to an end. That first-baseman went on to do okay as a skipper. His name was Tom Kelly. Like so many of the names mentioned in this blog, he is now in the Twins’ Hall of Fame.

Big Del headed back to St. Louis and that was all the excuse I needed to find a new summer team. I landed with the Danville Roosters in the Central Illinois Collegiate League, proving that you can indeed go from being a Stud to a Rooster, all in one summer.

After college, I signed with Detroit and headed to the Applachian League, while my best friend, roommate, and co-captian Lance McCord ventured to a try-out camp and earned a contract with a different club. The Minnesota Twins. We played against each other, with me on the Paintsville team while Lance played for Elizabethton, but frankly neither one of us provided quite the impact produced by Jesse Orosco and Lenny Faedo, who both made the trip from the E-Twins to the big leagues, or Kevin Hickey who somehow miraculously made it from Paintsville to the Chicago White Sox.

Fast-forward to 1987, after my baseball career was over and I was working for my brother Del’s sports marketing agency in Washington D.C. (it’s amazing how many intersecting threads run through this story and how many of them germinate from Washington, the actual birthplace of the Twins).  I told the amazing story of Pete Delkus in an earlier Bob On Baseball, so if you missed that one and you desire to read the full exhaustive story, you can scroll back a page or two in the archives to find it.

One phone call from Big Del was all it took

One phone call from Big Del was all it took

Bottom line, Pete was a former semipro teammate of mine who finished his stellar All-America college career at, coincidentally, SIUE in 1987 (nine years behind me) but no MLB club drafted him. One phone call from Pete led me to call my dad, who picked up the phone and dialed Jim Rantz and Terry Ryan at the Minnesota Twins. One day later, Pete was signed to a contract after that one simple phone call from a very trusted source, and he was assigned to Elizabethton. My dad’s career included stops with nearly every organization in the game, and by ’87 he was retired, but his connection to the Twins was still strong enough, and his word was all Rantz and Ryan needed to hear.

Pete was nothing short of spectacular in the Twins organization, as a submarine reliever, and he made the 40-man roster in 1990, but elbow woes soon followed and his only big league appearances were in spring training. I made sure to be there. Throughout his minor league career I acted as Pete’s defacto representative, his sounding board, his chief cheerleader, and his off-season roomie. I got to know many of his teammates, guys like Mark Guthrie, Paul Sorrento, and others who went on to play in the Metrodome, and a bit of me stayed directly connected to the Twins by following those guys. Throughout much of Pete’s minor league career, his manager was Ron Gardenhire.

And then we moved to Woodbury, Minn. in 2002. We went to our first game, my wife asked that pertinent question, and I felt I’d closed the loop. From being the only kid in St. Louis who was wearing a TC cap, to playing imaginary baseball games in the backyard of our suburban home while pretending I was Twins’ catcher Earl Battey (go figure!) to formally announcing in the family dining room that Harmon Killebrew was officially my first “favorite player”.  I was happily and finally back home, where I’d waited my whole life to live.

Barbara and I relished a wonderful decade of exciting playoff baseball in the Dome. TV announcers Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven soon felt like part of the family, as we welcomed them into our living room every night. Not long after our arrival, I sent an email to Twins President Dave St. Peter, introducing myself as a part of the Twins’ extended family, and Dave wrote back immediately, warmly welcoming us to Twins Territory. Bert and Dave were gracious enough to become early members of our Advisory Board here at TPGF, and both have been wonderful and tireless in helping us establish and build the charity. It’s the Twins Way, on full display.

Barb and I made the drive to the Metrodome at least 20 times a summer. We cheered at the wins and groaned at the losses, but we found ourselves directly connected to the franchise and unable (and unwilling) to loosen the grip. We attended “Game 163″ against the Tigers, and I consider it to be the single greatest baseball game I have ever witnessed, and I’ve seen a lot. We had our favorite parking spot, we knew our way into every crevice of the Dome, and as difficult as it was to pass through the airlocks on a beautiful summer evening, it was just as easy to praise its greatness on rainy or snowy nights. But then they built Target Field, and the people did come.

There were new parking lots to find, new ushers to get to know, and so many new food and concession choices it was mind boggling. But best of all, it was outside. At our first game there, it began to mist and then rain lightly during the middle innings. We heard an odd sound, a sort of low rumble, filter through the ballpark, and then it became clear to us that it was the combined murmur of 40,000 fans, which then grew into a cheer. It was raining. We were outside. It was worth cheering for.

From my Zoilo Versalles Trap-Eze glove, to seeing Pete Delkus with the big club in Orlando. From hitting Rod Carew in the head, to buying season tickets in the Metrodome and then making the move to Target Field. From getting to know Rick Stelmaszek (Stelly) and Jim Shellenback (Shelly) on the field, to rooting for Michael Cuddyer (Cuddy) at the Dome and at Target Field.  From Killebrew & Allison to Mauer & Morneau, it’s been 50-plus years of Minny and Paul.

This sight even scared me a little

This sight even scared me a little

A couple of years ago, I was randomly selected as a season-ticket holder to raise the Twins Territory Flag before a home game at Target Field. Barbara was quick enough to snap a photo of the giant scoreboard when a 50-foot tall image of my ugly mug appeared, no doubt mentally scarring many women and children for life. But there I was, wearing my TC cap at my home ballpark.

I had waited my whole life to move to the Twin Cities and we thought it would last forever, but then that pesky world of careers and work came calling again after Lawson Software was acquired by another company and Barbara received a great offer to join Itron Inc., out here in suburban Spokane, to become their Vice President – Investor Relations. We moved in a physical sense, but a big piece of both of us stayed in Minnesota.

We are enjoying this part of the country, and are making the most of our time in such a beautiful place. I’m in my 18th season in the drag racing business, as the Team Manager for a top Funny Car organization, and that keeps me busy. Barbara’s executive position at Itron keeps her more than busy, whether she’s home or traveling the world. We’re both pretty darned good at what we do, we’re proud of our work, and we enjoy living in a wonderful home on a golf course, here in charming Liberty Lake, Washington. Our hearts, however, remain in another place.

We’re a long way from Target Field and all of our wonderful friends, but we get back as often as we can and we know, deep in our hearts, that we’ll eventually find our way home again. Our Twin Cities roots now run too deep for there to be any other option. Twins ballgames at Target Field, Minnesota Wild hockey games at Xcel Arena, and Timberwolves basketball at Target Center are the sports events that run in our blood. Although we only went to a couple of Vikings games, we still follow them on TV and root for the purple, who will return to playing outdoors for the next couple of years as their new stadium is built. And hey, Winter Carnival still takes place right in front of the St. Paul Hotel. I’ve stayed there before. The ice sculptures are fantastic. Hail the Vulc!

After all, you don’t wait your entire life to live in the Twin Cities and then leave forever. It’s home. It’s our home. We’re in too deep! We’re Twins fans, and we’re part of the Twins family. We’re Minnesotans.

Win Twins!

Still connected after all these years...

Still connected after all these years…

  • Tom Miller FWL

    Great story Bob. What a journey. How blessed you and Barb are to have that forever connection to the Twins and “home”. Sorry I missed you as a Rooster.

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