Swinging Brickbats

Oct. 16, 2006
Oct. 16, 2006

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Oct. 16, 2006

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Swinging Brickbats

VINCITE GEMINI sounds like a name on a faded baseball card—a battery mate of Vicente Romo?—but it's a Latin phrase bannered above the entrance to St. Olaf's, a Minneapolis church whose divine marriage of the Scandinavian and the Latin is echoed in the name Johan Santana.

This is an article from the Oct. 16, 2006 issue Original Layout

Only baseball is weird enough to embrace Vincite Gemini (it means "Win Twins"), Twins ace Johan Santana and the '70s journeyman Vicente Romo, who in major league lore is forever twinned to his brother Enrique. Both finished their otherwise unremarkable pitching careers with the same number of losses (33) and saves (52), suggesting a scientific link between DNA and ERA.

The playoffs often highlight baseball's singularly silly subculture, a notion underscored three minutes into the second game of October, when A's outfielder Milton Bradley sharply fouled a Santana pitch into a sellout crowd. Of the 55,542 in attendance, the ball found the hands of former Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek. "I dropped it," Hrbek acknowledged the next day, before warning his family, with him to watch Game 2, to look alive because his 24-game errorless streak in the post-season was now, alas, a distant memory.

"In playoff baseball anything can happen," says Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire, whom even strangers address as Gardy. Gardy is not to be mistaken for Grady, who manages the Dodgers, and last week a group of reporters in the Metrodome watched on TV as two of Grady Little's players, Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew, were called out seconds apart at home plate against the Mets. That two-car pileup set off howls of laughter in the bowels of the domed stadium. Until, that is, a voice like a substitute teacher's said sternly, "That's not funny!" It was Oakland manager Ken Macha, who added, smiling, "Not if you're Grady."

It was Gardy, not Grady, who hired an assistant clubhouse attendant to insult his players. Wayne Hattaway got his nickname, Big Fella, because that's what he calls everyone else, though Big Fella is in fact a frail senior citizen who simultaneously wears thick prescription glasses and wraparound Oakleys, plus the kind of wiry white mustache favored by wagon-train cooks in Westerns. If baseball had its own currency, Big Fella's face would be on the one-dollar bill. "My job," Big Fella says, "is to tell the players how good they ain't. " Before Gardy summoned him to the Show five years ago, Big Fella spent most of his five decades in baseball as a Twins minor league clubhouse attendant—a clubby—making certain that future Twins arrived in the big leagues stripped of all ego. His methods for doing so are legendary. Big Fella consoled a young man who struck out in his first professional at bat by saying, "It's not your fault, son. It's the scout's fault for signing you."

Big Fella was renowned for rubbing down a pitcher's arm in the clubhouse and then telling him, just before game time, with a slap on the biceps, "See you back in here in 20 minutes."

In baseball, as in many big families, affection is expressed through insults, which is one reason Big Fella is so beloved by Twins players (some of whom subsidize his living expenses) and coaches. (In-season he crashes at the house of bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek, whom everyone calls Stelly.)

Baseball is replete with such men and their arcane rituals. In the Metrodome press box last week, a writer wondered aloud of one player, "What's his VORP?" (It's a vogue stat that stands for Value Over Replacement Player.) The player was Twins starter Boof Bonser—his legal name, and just one more odd way I've been forced to address a grown man while covering baseball, a list that now includes Boof, Boog, Bip, Bump, Stump, Stick, Stelly, Skip, Sparky and Spanky, to say nothing of Grady and Gardy, who can both, almost certainly, tell you Boof's VORP and possibly even his HRBEK (Home Runs, Balks and Errors, divided by Strikeouts).

No other sport so nurtures goofiness. As the A's went single file into the tunnel after winning their second straight game in the Metrodome, a sentry stood outside their clubhouse demanding that anyone in uniform hand over his cap, which the guard would place in a steel travel case for secure transport back to Oakland. First baseman Nick Swisher stopped and genuflected before removing his hat, which he swept off his head like a medieval suitor before handing it over on bended knee, his head bowed.

As the guard took each hat away, the mind wandered to Hattaway. Recovering from recent breast cancer surgery, Big Fella fell silent for most of the last month. Thus, as the Twins got swept in Oakland, he was powerless to make them feel even worse, which would have made them feel so much better.

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The playoffs highlight baseball's silly subculture, which includes a Twins clubhouse attendant hired to insult his own team's players.