Weeds: Dazzling careers often come to less than satisfying ends

Each of us has some disposable income if we are fortunate. You can look through your checkbook and see where that went: vacations, hobby and entertainment costs go here. We also have disposable time. Here fits TV, reading, listening to music, and such.

Time and money are limited; who we are is partly defined by how we spend these. I try to be more selective about my dollars and minutes as I get older.

Sports have taken lots of both in my life. I played some baseball/softball. Throw in a little pickup basketball, a bit of golf, some volleyball at parties. No regrets there. More hours were spent being a fan. Some have been at ballparks and arenas around here, watching friends play, watching my kids play and kids of friends play. No regrets there.

What about hours watching pro sports? Here might be a smidgeon of regret. I could have made a bunch more money or done a bunch more volunteering with time I spent watching and debating pro sports. The fact that I can name the offense and defense for the 1970 Vikings isn’t going to impress St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

I’ve drifted away from sports a bit. I never used to miss a Vikings game; that’s no longer a priority. But my affection for baseball remains, illogical as it may be. Most of 162 Twins games are on the tractor, car, or house radio.

Why does this diversion remain vivid? I think it has something to do with being 12 years old. When I am going to a game at Target Field, I feel the same giddy, anticipatory sensations I did when older brothers Dale and Marvin took me to Metropolitan Stadium. Probably most of us spend some of our disposable time and money on things that sparked us as a kid. That might be fishing you did with Dad or baking cookies you did with Mom.

Several hundred players have put on a Twins uniform. From Fernando Abad to Bill Zepp, I remember most of them. In the fifty-seven years since moving from Washington, four players stand out and stand for different eras in Twins history: Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett, and Joe Mauer.

I was on the tractor last week ripping corn stalks when I heard that Joe was retiring. We more or less knew that was coming. But to see if finally and certainly caused the 12-year-old in me to frown. “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” I said to myself, stealing a line from 1919 baseball history.

None of the four players on the Mount Rushmore of Twins would have scripted the end of their career the way it played out. Ends-of-careers are like that. No one stays young and healthy.

For Harmon, there was a final year as a 39-year old designated hitter in Kansas City, after several years of declining health and statistics with the Twins. That September 1975, I went to a game against the Royals at the Met. I was a freshman in college, and we snuck into seats behind the Kansas City dugout. When a graying and frumpy Harmon came out on deck in that pastel-blue uniform, my heart sank. It was as if I knew my youth was over.

Rod Carew left after things turned sour with owner Calvin Griffith. Most fans had turned against Calvin. After an infamous speech to the Waseca Lion’s Club by Griffith (you can look it up), we all knew Rodney needed to leave. We were saddened but understood. It wasn’t as traumatic to see Carew in an Angel’s uniform; we couldn’t help but root for Sir Rodney.

For Kirby, the ending came joltingly. On March 28th, 1996, news came that Puckett’s vision was clouded by a spot in his right eye. He was having a wonderful spring. Twins fans were assuming another wonderful season. There followed several months of eye procedures and conflicting reports, a roller coaster of emotions.

The ride ended with a thud on July 12 when doctors reached the conclusion that damage to the retina was irreversible. An impromptu press conference was held that was touching for its positivity and perspective. Teammates were fighting back tears.

“I want to tell the little kids who prayed for me that just because I can’t see doesn’t mean that God doesn’t answer prayers,” Puckett said. “I still can see with my left eye. I’m still alive.” Now I was in tears.

Puckett’s life after baseball didn’t go well. There were allegations of sexual misbehavior that tore away at the myth of Kirby. His marriage to Tonya ended. Then came early death by stroke at age 45.

None of us stays 12 years old. Part of growing up is learning that all of us are imperfect. It was a reminder that we admire these players for what they do on the field, and sometimes that is as far as it should go.

Joe is a mere 35, with lots of life to go. Godspeed to him as he leaves the playing field. He’ll be around and about for many years, but our relationship with him as a fan ends.

In that pantheon of Twins stars, Joe is unique. Minnesotans have known about him since his teen years. He was All-State at Cretin-Derham Hall in football, basketball, and baseball. Joe was gifted athletically such that he could have pursued any of those sports at a higher level.

He chose baseball, and the Twins chose him with the first pick of the 2001 draft. There would be several years he was be the best player in the game when the team was regularly in the playoffs. That is when I told friends that this story of the hometown-kid-makes-good had to end with Joe lifting the World Series trophy. I could see it clearly in my mind.

Then came the Contract and the Concussion and Bilateral Leg Weakness. Lots of grumbling ensued. It coincided with the opening of Target Field, a delightful ballpark that has hosted mostly dreadful teams. Hoisting a World Series trophy became a distant possibility. It’s a good thing I’ve never gone into the prediction business.

I took my kids out of school to see Joe’s Twins debut in 2004. I was scheduled to go to his last game on September 30 but had to combine corn. That was the game that turned into a beautiful tribute to Joe. In between I suppose I saw Joe play maybe 100 times. It was fun. All fun things come to an end. There was no trophy to hoist, but lots of memories of a St. Paul kid who loved the game.

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