The beginning of the baseball season is a special time for writer Steve Rushin. A lifelong baseball fan, Rushin grew up in Bloomington near the old Metropolitan Stadium and he's been a writer for Sports Illustrated for the last 25 years.
His new book is a fun take on the game's history, which begins with some personal stories.
In 1979, when he was 13, Rushin got a job at Metropolitan Stadium as a hot dog boiler.
As the Minnesota Twins prepare to play their second game of the new season Wednesday afternoon in Chicago, Rushin talked to MPR News' Morning Edition.
The follow is excerpted from the book "The 34-Ton Bat" by Steve Rushin. Copyright © 2013 by Steve Rushing. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.
As a child, I wasn't trying to break out of a major-league ballpark. I was trying to find a way in. Thirty-Two years before my grandfather's catcher's mitt arrived by UPS, another baseball talisman had arrived in the mail, changing my life.
It was an embossed plastic card, like a credit card, that identified me on my thirteenth birthday in 1979 as the newest employee of the Minnesota Twins Baseball Club. The card-- my rookie card, if they issued them to hot-dog boilers-- bore the Twins' mesmerizing logo: two flanneled players, Minnie and Paul, shaking hands across the Mississippi River. It was like the seal of some sovereign nation to which I'd just been given citizenship. With closed eyes, I ran my fingers across my name's raised letters, as if doing so might reveal some secret message.
And it did, unlocking a hidden world. In my first season at Metropolitan Stadium, the Twins' outdoor ballpark in my hometown of Bloomington, Minnesota, I saw Reggie Jackson in his Yankees road grays walking gingerly in his spikes across the polished concrete floor of the interior tunnel where I punched in. "You suck," one of my teenage colleagues shouted on a dare, but Reggie walked on, ostentatiously oblivious, exactly as he looked later that day when fans showered him with the candy bars that bore his name, implacable in a fusillade of nougat.
That tunnel was baseball's backstage, filled with the multitude of objects that made it all go round: vaudevillian steel travel trunks, Louisville Sluggers, wheeled batting cages, CO2 canisters of Coke and Sunkist, laundry hampers littered with stirrups and sanitary socks, industrial bags of yellow popcorn, and sharp-cornered cases of Rawlings baseballs, pristine white in their little rows, as in a carton of Grade A eggs.
As with most circuses, the Twins were a family business, full of lifers -- concessionaires, carnies, the tattooed and the too-tanned, men (for there were hardly any women) whose faces betrayed sun-soaked days and beer-soaked nights. My paychecks bore the facsimile signature of Calvin R. Griffith, the Twins' owner, who had a stuffed marlin mounted on his office wall and a parking spot whose RESE RVED sign had been hand-altered to read REVERED. Here, in one cantankerous man, was the whole history of major-league baseball. Calvin was a single degree of separation from the game's beginnings. At age eleven, he was adopted by his uncle, Clark Griffith, Hall of Fame pitcher turned manager turned Washington Senators owner, who had begun his own career in organized baseball in 1887. Clark Griffith invented the screwball (or so he claimed) and was the first manager of the New York baseball team that would become the Yankees. He was born the year before Charles Dickens died. And his son-- it scarcely seemed possible--was my boss.
Calvin had been batboy for the Senators during the Coolidge administration. As a twelve-year-old, in Game 7 of the 1924 World Series, Calvin had been charged with guarding the supply of game balls at Griffith Stadium, just as Eddie Brannick had done years earlier for John McGraw with the Giants. But when the Senators beat the Giants for the world title that afternoon, celebrating fans overran Calvin and made off with the baseball supply, leaving the boy in tears.
Then, as now, baseballs were the game's most accessible game-used object, and they were prized. Owners employed cops or security guards to fight the fans for possession of a foul ball hit into the stands. Failure to return a foul ball was grounds for ejection and even prosecution well into the 1920s. The objects of the game--as Calvin discovered that day, weeping over an empty canvas bag--were unaccountably intoxicating to a great many people.
There were other intoxicants, too: At the Met, reporting for work on a Sunday morning as a thirteen-year-old, I passed case after case of Grain Belt beer stacked on pallets, the bottles waiting to be decanted into wax cups and then decanted again into Twins fans.
It was a job of proximity. No matter your level, you were granted access to the ballpark. I came close enough to hear the snap and pop of the static electricity on George Brett's powder-blue road pants. Rollie Fingers's face, in person, looked just like the guy's on the Pringles can. Strolling up one of the ballpark's vomitoria--has there ever been a less apt word for something so transformative? --revealed an expanse of grass as green as a pool table.
And all about us in the empty stands of the locked stadium were errant baseballs, hit into the seats during batting practice, waiting to be picked off the walkways like fallen apples from an orchard floor.
With a handful of schoolmates, I was assigned to the seething kitchens of the Met, charged with preparing the food sold by the roving vendors. We were a happy few. To get a job with the Twins in those days you either worked your way up from the fields of A-ball or rode your bike to East Bloomington, to the house of a guy named Smoke. I did neither, because my two older brothers already worked for the Twins. They had a word with Smoke, who was as mysterious and elusive as the name implied. Smoke signaled my approval, just as smoke did with the election of popes.
We were characters out of Dickens: children boiling pots of water to cook the Schweigert hot dogs peddled by vendors. In stadium vernacular, we were "stabbing dogs" and "pulling sodas" and "cupping corn," or popcorn. Our overlords were high school kids, my brother Jim among them. These mercurial manager-gods locked us in the walk-in freezers for insubordination, or for their own amusement. It was Lord of the Flies--Lord of the Pop Flies-- but we didn't care. It was like living in a dream in that walk-in freezer, sitting on a mountain of ice cream and hot dogs and snow cones in a major-league ballpark. I felt like Superman, in his Fortress of Solitude, brooding on a throne of ice crystals.
I couldn't bite into a snow cone because my left front tooth was hypersensitive to cold. It had been broken in half by a thrown baseball when I was ten. As a result, I subsisted on Frosty Malts, $0.75 ice cream treats from the Northland Dairy. They came with wooden spoons that looked like tongue depressors. The lid of a Frosty Malt, when thrown properly, sailed like a Frisbee. On hot Saturday afternoons, the warning track at the Met was lid-littered.
We learned, too, how to snap bottle caps--discarded by the Grain Belt beer vendors--onto the field with a flick of thumb and forefinger. At the same time, an adolescent Tom Shieber was learning to do precisely the same thing with Budweiser bottle caps at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. He would grow up to become senior curator of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, caretaker of the game's most priceless and evocative objects, guardian of its crown jewels, including the first known protective cup, which crowned the jewels of catcher Claude Berry in 1915.
I had no way of knowing, in 1979, what would become of me, but I hoped it would involve baseballs, and bottle caps, and Frosty Malts, and powder-blue double-knit knickers that threw off sparks when they came out of an industrial dryer.
And tarps. Whenever it rained at Met Stadium--and we prayed with the fervor of drought-stricken farmers that it would--a lucky few of us were called out of the commissaries to pull the tarp. At fourteen, I was running onto a major-league diamond, trying not to get sucked under--by the speed of the grounds crew or the gravitational pull of professional baseball. I was exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up and--better still--I hadn't had to grow up to arrive there.
On nights it didn't rain, we closed the kitchen in the seventh inning and watched the no-payroll Twins teams of Butch Wynegar and Hosken Powell and Bombo Rivera lose another August heartbreaker. It didn't matter: A workday that began with the percussive thwock of batting practice ended with a PA benediction--"Drive safely"--and a ballpark-organ recessional.
The logos of various teams loomed over the Met Stadium parking lot, suspended from light poles, reminding the beer-addled fan that he had left his Nova beneath the haloed A of the Angels, or the interlocking NY of the Yankees. Baltimore Orioles slugger Boog Powell later told me that after games he would set off on foot for the team hotel at the edge of the Met's parking lot and sometimes fail to make it, stopping instead to tailgate with strangers, and then bunking in their Winnebago for the night, one cartoon Oriole drifting off to sleep beneath another cartoon Oriole, suspended from a light pole.
None of these things could happen a mere ten years later, letalone today. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they weren't all that unusual.
My hereditary affinity for catchers and their gear was sealed on the night of August 25, 1970, during a scoreless tie against the Red Sox. At 10:13 p.m., Twins public-address announcer Bob Casey informed fans that a bomb threat had been phoned in to the Met. "Ladies and gentlemen, there will be an explosion at 10:30," Casey announced definitively--if a tad alarmingly--by way of evacuating the stadium. I was later told that Twins catcher George Mitterwald fled next door to the Thunderbird Motel, where I still conjure a vivid mental image of him in full protective armor --and with the aid of a very long straw--sipping a mai tai through his catcher's mask.
Of course, the only baseball fan who was bombed that night was the drunk who phoned in the threat. Police traced the call to a pay phone inside the stadium, and the game resumed forty-four minutes later, but not before a different kind of fuse had been lit. As I reached school age, baseball was a bomb about to detonate. All its objects--ball, bat, mitt, mask, tarp, hot dog, cartoon bird, beer bottle, ballpark organ--were proving, individually and in concert with one another, powerfully hypnotic.
Excerpted from the book THE 34-TON BAT by Steve Rushin. Copyright © 2013 by Steve Rushing. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.