Nearly every day for the past 20 years someone has told me, "You have the best job ever." And while sportswriting has never felt like hard labor -- except when I tried to interview Carlton Fisk -- it is not, nor will it ever be, the best job ever. The best job ever is the one I got at 13, called up in September to the big leagues, signed to a one-figure deal by the Minnesota Twins.
To get a job with the Twins in those days you either worked your way up from A-ball or rode your bike 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, as mysterious and elusive as the name implied.
And so on my 13th birthday -- September 22, 1979 -- I got a plastic card, like a credit card, identifying me as an employee of the Minnesota Twins Baseball Club. The card bore the Twins mesmerizing logo: Two smiling schlubs, Minnie and Paul, shaking hands across the Mississippi. It was like the seal of some sovereign nation to which I'd just been given citizenship. I ran my fingers across my name in raised letters, as if doing so might reveal some secret message in Braille.
And it did, unlocking a hidden world. In three seasons at Metropolitan Stadium, the Twins outdoor ballpark in Bloomington, I saw Reggie Jackson mincing in his spikes across the polished concrete floor of the tunnel where I punched in. I saw George Brett and Fred Lynn and Bobby Grich's magnificent mustache. Rollie Fingers' face, in person, looked just as it did on the Pringles can.
With my brothers and half my classmates, I worked in the seething commissaries of the Met. We were characters out of Dickens: Children boiling pots of water to cook the Schweigert hot dogs peddled by vendors. In stadium parlance, we were "stabbing dogs" and "pulling sodas" and "cupping corn," or popcorn. Our overlords were high school kids like my brother Jim. These mercurial manager-gods locked us in the walk-in Frosty-Malt freezers for insubordination, or for their own amusement. But we didn't care. It was like a dream, sitting on a mountain of ice cream in a major league ballpark. I felt like Superman, in his Fortress of Solitude, brooding on a throne of ice crystals.
Whenever it rained -- and we prayed with the fervor of Indian farmers that it would -- a lucky few of us were called from the commissaries to pull the tarp. At 14, 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 even had to grow up.
On nights it didn't rain we closed the kitchen in the seventh inning and watched those no-payroll Twins teams of Butch Wynegar and Hosken Powell and Bombo Rivera lose another August heartbreaker. It didn't matter: My workday that began with the percussive thwock of batting practice ended with a P.A. benediction -- "Drive Safely" -- and a ballpark-organ recessional.
In three seasons my minimum wage, in dollars, went from 2.90 to 3.10 to 3.35. If he moved the decimal point one place to the left, a child of sufficient imagination could just believe it was his batting average, climbing.
We were just kids. But we were also fugitives from the law, living on borrowed time. That's because Met Stadium was condemned to close in 1981. The Twins would be moving indoors the following season. Each of us knew, even then, it was the best job we would ever have, no matter what we would do as grown-ups. And so it was bittersweet that final August outdoors when the team hired another Bloomington kid, just a little older than the rest of us, who'd get to live the dream for just two home stands, albeit at first base.
Kent Hrbek was 21, already graduated from the same high school that I would attend -- Bloomington Kennedy -- after the one I went to in ninth and 10th grades, Bloomington Lincoln, closed down. "Rushin sucked all the knowledge out of Lincoln so they had to shut it down," Hrbek would explain years later to Twins broadcaster Dick Bremer, in my presence. "There was nothing left to teach."
But the truth was, what little knowledge I have of how to be a man -- how to pretend to be a man -- came from working at Met Stadium. There I first cooked meat over fire, and got sick chewing Red Man, and learned how easy it is to deck an angry giant if he is drunk and standing on a newly-mopped commissary floor.
This last lesson was taught to me by my brother Jim. I saw him drop a beery, belligerent fan who wandered into our kitchen one night loudly complaining that his hot dog had been sabotaged in some unspeakable way. Then he telegraphed a roundhouse at my brother who, almost literally, mopped the floor with him. (To be fair to the drunk, sabotaged franks were not an entirely uncommon occurrence at the Met circa 1981.)
Hrbek was a Twin for just 19 games at the outdoor ballpark in our hometown before he moved downtown to the Metrodome, and to unimaginable glories, winning two World Series titles.
I moved to the Metrodome, too, for a single season, to a strip-lit concession stand. It wasn't the same. For starters, I worked not for the Twins but for a professional "food-service company," which issued smocks the color of the San Diego Padres uniforms. If you looked through one of the Metrodome's aptly named vomitoriums, you could sometimes see, from your cash register, Tom Brunansky appear on a patch of rightfield, running on nylon, beneath Teflon, while wearing rayon.
But that was about it. No one was locked into freezers or pretended to enjoy Red Man or was pulled from his dreary post to sprint across the infield. It would never rain in the Metrodome, a heartbreaking knowledge that eventually broke my spirit.
I nearly wept with gratitude, then, when I first walked into Target Field, the Twins' flawless new outdoor ballpark, with bleachers that bleach and shadows that creep and a tarp that rolls out when the skies open.
The first time that happened, in April, Twins fans looked up in disbelief and loudly applauded the heavens.
I did the same this summer, seated under the stars, while watching a very good Twins team led by hometown hero Joe Mauer, whose predecessor in that role, Hrbek, has a bar and grill in the ballpark. And while I am no longer in possession of a plastic card with Minnie and Paul shaking hands on it, I knew Target Field had gotten everything right when I saw those two cartoon characters, on a sign 46 feet tall, gripping and grinning above the centerfield bleachers.
Glare from that giant logo is evidently a menace to hitters and catchers, and I don't wonder why. Once I looked at it, I could not look away, my eyes fixed on two smiling schlubs, lit up and electrified.
There was a third smiling schlub that night, sitting somewhere between home and third. He, too, was lit up, and unmistakably electrified.