We can't take you out to the ball game, but we can take just about anything else in Minnesota (from the Sioux words minne, meaning "water," and sota, meaning "turning to snow by rush hour"). We can take the weather. We can take responsibility for Tammy Faye Bakker. In addition to turning the world on with a smile, we can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile.
So why can't we take a joke? Lord knows, we have a sense of humor—how else do you explain Prince? "People here sat in their living rooms and waved hankies while they watched baseball on TV," notes Patrick Reusse, a sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the very paper that inflicted the Homer Hanky on the baseball-viewing public in 1987. "We're funny. I find us very amusing, and I'm a lifetime Minnesotan. And yet, we don't like to be joked about. It's real important to Minnesotans what other people think about them."
We are funny. I find us very amusing too, and I'm also a lifetime Minnesotan, with no chance of parole. Which is a joke. And isn't it time, my compatriots in plaid, that we laughed at ourselves? Turned down our turtleneck collars and laughed, precisely because we are no longer laughable?
Remember that sign (since sold for advertising space) that hung for years in foul territory down the right-field line in the Metrodome? The one strategically placed so as to catch the TV cameras? The sign that said, MINNEAPOLIS: WE LIKE IT HERE. Now it can be told: That was funny. Remember when Minnesotans were so....
"Defensive?" asks Mark (Z) Zelenovich, a Minnesota lifer and a morning jock-jockey on KFAN, Minneapolis-St. Paul's all-sports radio station. "I mean, what other city would have that sign? 'We like it here.' It was like saying, 'Sure, it's cold and snowy and miserable, but we like it here.' "
Remember? Hell, it was only a year ago that there was no all-sports radio, no sporting tsunami in the Twin Cities, no wave upon title wave lapping up "By the shores of Gitche Gumee/By the shining Big-Sea-Water," as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow placed the state, on Lake Superior, in his epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. Minnesota is now flush with scribes describing the state's natural wonders—"The winters are often severe.... The summers are marked by sudden intense heat waves," raves The Encyclopedia Americana—but now almost all of them, remarkably, are filing advance stories for the early sports edition.
In the 12 months stretching from last May to this April, five of the world's most important championships will have been won in Minnesota. In May the Cinderfella Minnesota North Stars lost the Stanley Cup to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Met Center in the southern suburb of Bloomington. In June, Payne Stewart stayed out of the Big-Sea-Water to win a Monday playoff and golf's U.S. Open at Hazeltine in the western suburb of Chaska. On Jan. 26, 13 Sundays after the Minnesota Twins won Game 7 of an epochal World Series there, the Hubert Horatio Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis will host Super Bowl XXVI. Ten weekends later, in the very same Teflon-coated fiberglass house of fun, college basketball's Final Four will culminate with the coronation of a national champion. Sportswriter, radio host, raconteur and local legend Sid Hartman might have been right when he breathlessly proclaimed. "No other place will ever duplicate this thing. Never."
In the 162 days from Oct. 27 to April 6, the Metrodome alone will have hosted three of the biggest sporting events in the world. "As much work as it is, there's a sense of euphoria among stadium workers," says Metrodome executive director Bill Lester. "We're participating in something unprecedented." He's right. Unprecedented. The Metrodome. Hump. Homerdome. Hanky Palace. Roller Disco. Please hold your laughter till we're finished. When not occupied by the world's greatest athletes, the facility is available to the public for in-line roller skating and coed volleyball. A wedding ceremony has been held in the Metrodome. A man threw a surprise 50th-birthday party for his wife there. Minnesota, you aren't laughing. Explains Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who chaired the state task force that brought the Super Bowl to Minneapolis, "We take ourselves very seriously here."
Remember that day in May 1984 when Dave Kingman of the Oakland A's hit an air-rule double in the dome? He popped up high above the pitcher's mound off the Twins' Frank Viola, but the ball flew through a hole in the insulating fabric beneath the roof, and what went up did not come down. Even Kingman didn't think that was funny at the time. "It's nothing to be really proud of," he said.
And remember the next night, when someone thought it would be funny to drop a baseball from a catwalk just beneath the roof just before the start of the game? A plot was hatched in which Twins first baseman Mickey Hatcher would catch the ball, the home plate umpire would signal an out, and Kingman would run from the visitors' dugout to engage in a make-believe argument. Except that as the ball fell from 175 feet, Hatcher lost it, and it drilled him in the thigh, and he had to be trundled away for medical attention before the game even began. Remember that?
Funny stuff, as Johnny Carson might say. But did we think so at the time? Watching sports in Minnesota was like having an economy-class seat between Larry and Moe on a transatlantic flight. After a while, the stuff just wasn't funny anymore. It is real important to Minnesotans what other people think about them. But given our seatmates, people just assumed we were Shemp.
Like me, Kent Hrbek was raised in Bloomington, and like me he became enamored of professional wrestling and amateur bowling, White Castle gut bombs and the precious hours of summer. (It falls on a Tuesday this year.) Like me, he attended John F. Kennedy High and almost everything at old Metropolitan Stadium, two miles away. He is a good guy, all but unchanged by stardom with his hometown Twins. He is also a clubhouse cutup of the first order, as anyone who has seen him pedal a stationary bike while snarfing a Snickers bar can attest. He docs not laugh, however, when he speaks of the trouble he has seen.
"The thing I remember most about growing up a Minnesota sports fan is our teams always being the underdog," says Hrbek. "It seems like they never got a fair shake. People always put 'em on the back burner. They never got any recognition from the national media. Even now, when people talk about [last year's] being one of the greatest World Series ever, it seems like they're biting their tongues, like they don't want to say it. And I think it's because Minnesota's involved. Doormats. We've always been doormats."
If Minnesota teams, like Minnesota politicians, have always been doormats, then they have been doormats with WELCOME stitched across them, inviting visitors: Step on us. Wipe your feet all over us. In previous flirtations with global attention, Minnesota has produced four Super Bowl losers and four Super Poll losers, namely presidential candidates Harold Stassen, Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, the last of whom lost 49 states in a single election in 1984. The previous fall, the University of Minnesota football team lost 84-13 to Nebraska, but imagine the score if the Gophers had scheduled the Electoral College.
All of these humiliations must make Minnesota's megalomaniacal year in sports downright giddying, no? After all, Hrbek, one of seven Twins who remain from the 1987 team, has won two world championship rings in five years. Those rings, like the rings worn by winners of past Super Bowls, the Final Four, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup, are manufactured by Jostens, whose headquarters are in Bloomington. Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions, is served up to the nation by General Mills of Minneapolis. "With the big companies here—Honeywell, Pillsbury—laying off people," says Reusse, "sports has almost become our industry."
So you might assume that Minnesota sports fans have not only loosened up but also are laughing their electric socks off in one of the new sports bars that seem to sully every corner of the Twin Towns these days. You might assume that they, nay we, will spend this Super Bowl week emulating former Bryant Junior High point guard Prince Rogers Nelson, deliriously dancing in public in pants with a window cut out for each butt cheek. But with the exception of Prince, who did exactly that during the MTV Awards last September, while the Twins were making a run toward the title, you would be mistaken.
"I don't know what you were taught where you came from, but you shouldn't let your positive feelings run amuck while you're here," counsels Howard Mohr in his best-selling book How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor's Guide. "It's okay to have good feelings, but there's no sense running down the street telling people about it at the top of your voice. There's a good chance it won't last, anyway. Good things happen—yes—but when they do, Minnesotans are a little nervous because they know something bad will eventually happen to balance it out."
It is a state law, if not a natural one. After Mary Richards, overcome with joie de vivre, tossed her hat high into the sky of downtown Minneapolis in the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she should have been summarily crushed by a passing street sweeper.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, known as "F" to the boys in his 'hood on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, reflected this pervasive local pessimism when he wrote in his Notebooks: "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy."
Prototypical Twin Cities sports fan K. Alan Hrbek was tending bar at the Sports Page, next to Donut World on Lyndale Avenue in Bloomington, as recently as 1981, his rookie season with the Twins. He, too, sees the frosted mug as half empty. "You watch," he says. "When all of this stuff is over, you won't hear nothin' more about Minneapolis."
To say that Minnesotans understate things would be to understate things. The Norwest Center in downtown Minneapolis was designed to be a few feet shorter than the city's tallest building, the IDS Center. The state has 12,034 lakes—so we round the number down to 10,000 for the inscription on Minnesota's license plates. We can be sure that Paul Bunyan was 84 ax handles tall, because the legend lists him at 42 ax handles. If Minnesotans had named the Great Lakes, they would be Good, and Duluth would be on Lake Inferior.
"If you have to overdo it in Minnesota," writes Mohr, "overdo it on the downside, not the upside." Braggadocio is gauche in the Don't Show Me State. Minnesota has so few stretch limousines that when Minneapolis entered the Super Bowl bidding in 1984, chairwoman Nelson briefly considered enlisting the fleets of funeral parlors to provide the few hundred limos suggested by the NFL. "We were going to declare a moratorium on dying," says Nelson. "Limousines are not our style."
Breakfast is about all we ever wear on our sleeves. We even like our coaches sunny-side down. Manager Tom Kelly didn't leave the dugout when the Twins won their first World Series, in '87. The North Stars made an ad campaign of coach Bob Gainey's catatonia. The Timberwolves fired temperamental Bill Musselman and replaced him with His Royal Dullness, Jimmy Rodgers. Of course, the most prominent face on the expressionless Mount Rushmore of Minnesota coaches belongs to Bud Grant, who never twitched as his Vikings won four NFC championships. After 17 years with the team, Grant bowed out in 1983 with farewell ceremonies at the Metrodome, where the final, unforgettable words of the revered coach's speech still reverberate today: Thank you for not smoking.
Were Minnesotans more vocal, more emotive, more boastful, you would have heard the state sing of its prowess outside of sports. You would know, for instance, that the Twin Cities metropolitan area has the lowest high school dropout rate in the nation. Granted, education isn't always a good thing: It brokered the unholy coupling of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, who met as students at North Central Bible College, a few blocks south of the Metrodome. The wretchedly excessive ex-reverend is now doing time at the federal penitentiary in Rochester, Minn., where, one can only hope, the defrauding defrockee is now hammering out our understated license plates.
Did you know that Minneapolis has more live theaters than any U.S. city save New York—which, come to think of it, is probably beyond saving at this point? Minnesota's brow is as high as its legendary taxes. The state authored authors Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis, movie stars Judy Garland and Jessica Lange, the guy who created Peanuts and one of the guys from Mission Impossible. The birthplace of Bob Dylan and Prince is now a world center for progressive rock and funk music. And yet, when you think of Minneapolis—and, let's face it, you don't—what's the last thing that comes to mind? That the ever-practical Twin Cities metro area, home to the highest percentage of white people of any major city and the most tanning salons in the nation, according to Mpls St Paul magazine, is a synonym for...funk?
"People don't realize what a great state it is," says Jim Petersen, who was raised in suburban St. Louis Park and now plays forward for the Golden State Warriors. "All they think of is the frozen tundra. They don't realize that Minneapolis is a capital: People in the arts know Minneapolis, that it's a place you can go and be cultured. But nobody else knows that."
So if we do more culturing here than the people at Yoplait, why is it that when sports are mentioned, Minnesotans suddenly become extras from Ernest Scared Stupid? Rubes waving hankies, in other words. "The area is perceived by some as a backwater sports town," says Culpepper's Minneapolis and Saint Paul, a 1990 guidebook.
I have my own brief Baedeker to the "backwater." It navigates a single boulevard of broken dreams in my home state. The Gopher State. The Understate.
From where I write this, from the bedroom of my boyhood home on West 96th Street in Bloomington, I can see the red neon sign of the Radisson South Hotel. Viking defensive tackle Keith Millard was arrested there in 1986 on charges (later dropped) of making "terroristic threats." He allegedly told a policeman who was responding to a disorderly-conduct call, "My arms are more powerful than your gun," thus giving new meaning to the phrase "armed and dangerous."
Next door to the Radisson is the Hotel Sofitel, whose French name belies its role in American history. In 1979, in the storied lounge of the Sofitel (then known as Hotel de France). Billy Martin punched out a marshmallow salesman. Cocktail umbrellas there still fly at half-staff for the late Yankee skipper.
Both hotels are on the 494 Strip, a 12-mile stretch of Interstate 494, flanked by Red Lobsters and Red Roof Inns. Travel five minutes west on the freeway and you enter the placid suburb of Eden Prairie, where erstwhile North Star forward Dino Ciccarelli was arrested in 1987, charged merely with admiring the view from his front yard.
While not wearing pants.
Drive 10 minutes east from the hotels and you will pass the Met Center, where the North Stars have played since the franchise was born, in 1967. When Minnesotans go to the Met, it is not to take in A‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤da. On the evening of Jan. 4, 1975, my brother Tom was treated to this on his 10th birthday: Boston's Dave Forbes trying to gouge an eyeball out of the head of Minnesota's Henry Boucha.
Sixteen years later, Minnesotans had stopped attending Star games entirely. So new owner Norm Green, buoyed by the inexplicable fact that the average Minnesotan gambles $463 a year—most in the nation—devised something called Star Stakes as an incentive for fans to watch his wretched hockey team lose. If your seat number was drawn from the lottery drum, you won a cash prize. If the seat drawn was unoccupied, as was frequently the case, the jackpot carried over to the next home game. Thus it came to pass that on nights when the Star Stakes were particularly plump, cash-hungry members of visiting teams were purchasing tickets to their own games. More ludicrous still, the Stars would go on to win the Campbell Conference—and a new legion of fans.
Finally, pan west from the Met Center to the adjoining lot. It is something of a sacred burial ground, now profaned. Many in Minnesota spent the happiest moments of their lives in an often frigid, sometimes funky-smelling, multicolored stone-and-steel edifice that stood there. Metropolitan Stadium, the Met, housed the Twins and the Vikings from their inception in 1961 until the joint was razed two decades later. Where there used to be a ballpark, there will soon be the nation's largest shopping mall. The 78-acre Mall of America—which will undoubtedly be the name of our republic one day—is scheduled to open in August. Just off a street called Killebrew Drive, the mall will include a 32,000-square-foot nightclub and museum and merchandise mart devoted to the bickering Jackson Family, of music and rhinoplasty fame.
I used to think that the referees who invoked football's forward progress rule on this site were being redundant. Now I know otherwise: Progress does not always take us forward.
Kevin McHale has quaffed beers on Cheers and played H-O-R-S-E with Bird. He is rivaled only by Dylan and Roger Maris as the most famous man from Hibbing, Minn. He has lived. And still....
"Some of my better memories were in college when we used to go over to the Met on Saturday afternoons in May and June," says the former Gopher. "We'd have a couple of beers and sit in the sun. I enjoyed the whole idea of being outside. There was nothing like the old Met."
Nothing. There, during a game the evening of Aug. 25, 1970, the inimitable Twins public-address announcer Bob Casey was informed by police that a bomb threat had been phoned in. Could Casey clear the stadium without creating a panic? He could, he assured the cops. "Ladies and gentlemen," boomed his distinctive voice, "may I have your attention, please: There will be an explosion at 9 p.m." Run for your liiives! It is said that Twins catcher George Mitterwald fled next door to the Thunderbird Motel, where he sat out the 40-minute delay in full armor, waiting for a cataclysmic blast that never came.
Or did it? A demolition crew blew the yard to smithereens when the Twins and the Vikings moved indoors. There were casualties: Joe Soucheray was then an excellent sports columnist for the Minneapolis Tribune. He now writes a general news column for the St Paul Pioneer Press. "The end of the Met absolutely changed the way I felt about sportswriting," he says. "It told me where we were all heading—to complete aesthetic abandonment. Every day or evening that you give up in the summertime in Minnesota is a bead on a string that once lost can never be recovered."
The same can be said of winter days. Only the string is longer. Until last year, the Vikings were embodied by a Norseman named Hub Meads, who walked the sidelines with a sword in hand and stalactites of ice suspended from his beard. "I remember as a sixth-grader going to the Met to sell programs in the parking lot when it was 15 below and everybody was tailgating and getting comfortable," recalls Petersen. "They were offering me Bloody Marys when I was 13."
Minnesotans remember where they were on the arctic afternoon of Dec. 28, 1975. The Vikings' best team ever was leading the Dallas Cowboys 14-10 with :32 to play in their NFC playoff game when Roger Staubach belched up a prayer to Drew Pearson, who clearly pushed off defender Nate Wright and then gathered in the football for the game-winning touchdown. But the most remarkable moment came afterward: An enraged lunatic threw a whiskey bottle from the upper deck that hit a negligent zebra on the noggin, an improbable strike still marveled at years later. "It was," recalls McHale, "an attempt at justifiable homicide."
Visitors to the Twin Cities are surprised to learn that this is, at heart, football country. Hrbek admits as much. What did he do to while away his Sunday before Game 7 of the Series? "I watched football," he says. "Like any normal American.'"
"In the midst of all the World Series passion, you could still turn on the sports talk shows and hear more people bitching about [Viking quarterback] Wade Wilson and [coach] Jerry Burns than were celebrating the Twins' having defeated Toronto in the playoffs," says Reusse, who hosts a call-in show on KSTP radio. "It is a football town."
The sad irony of next week is that a Super Bowl will at last be won by a team in Minnesota, while the team from Minnesota is at its nadir, reviled locally for its 14-18 record of the last two years and for the heinous deal that brought Herschel Walker north from Dallas for five players and a bushel of draft picks. KFAN's Zelenovich reports that a high percentage of the station's callers suggest methods of self-extinction for various Vikes. " 'How about lethal injection?' " says Zelenovich. " 'How about hiring Dr. Kevorkian as the team physician?' That kind of thing."
These are unreserved, decidedly un-Minnesota things to say. "You don't always pat someone on the head to tell them you love them," says former Viking offensive tackle Dave Huffman, now a team broadcaster. "Sometimes you kick them in the hull. People here want to see the Vikings do well. I want to grab some players sometimes, shake them and say, 'Do you realize how good it could be here if we won?' We know how bad it can be when we don't."
"You would look into the stands at the Met and just see snowmobile suits," continues Huffman. "You knew there had to be a person inside that suit somewhere, someone who must have really cared."
Real men don't wave hankies, and the Metrodome has produced a less calloused fan, waving a white pocket-square of surrender to the elements. But every dog must have its 162 days, and the Metrodome has attracted a troika of championships that would be hard to envision elsewhere in Minnesota.
Twenty-eight inches of snow fell on the Twin Cities only 96 hours after Game 7 of last fall's indelible World Series, four games of which were played indoors. On average, the coldest day of the year in Minnesota is Jan. 26, which happens, in 1992, to be Super Bowl Sunday. And the Final Four, of course, is on its way to becoming the exclusive domain of domed stadiums.
If forsaking the Met for the Metrodome was a Faustian deal, it will have sent some $310 million coursing through the region's economy from last October to this April. The rancid Timber-wolves set an NBA single-season attendance record in the Metrodome in the 1989-90 season. The Twins have won 11 of their 12 postseason games there. "I hate the place," says Reusse. "But you gotta admit, what it's produced is astounding."
What the Metrodome has produced is less astounding than the new image its events are creating, the first hints of self-deprecating laughter that they are eliciting. Show me a tragedy and I will write you a hero. Hrbek was wrong when he suggested that Minneapolis will be forgotten in a few months, dropped from the nation's memory like so much road salt behind a snowplow.
The glamour events will go on here. A commercial that was aired not long ago in the Twin Cities assuages any doubt: "World Series! Super Bowl! Final Four! Motor Spectacular.... Spoils history is made at the Metrodome! Monster Trucks: Big-foot! Gravedigger! The Carolina Crusher! We'll sell ya the whole seat, but you'll only need the edge!!!"
What was the last line of the Mary Tyler Moore theme? Ah, yes. We're gonna make it after all.