When the games don’t matter: The joys of bad baseball

Twins Game - 2

Target Field // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

The smell fills my nose from blocks away before my eyes can even see it. Despite the exhaust from downtown’s late afternoon traffic and the aromas of a dozen different cuisines from nearby restaurants, the smell of the ballpark—the salted peanut shells, hot dogs and grilled onions, and the stale scent of beer soaked into the concrete—triumphs above all the rest.

My feet follow my nose to Target Field. It’s a September day, and a cool breeze blows across downtown Minneapolis, a perfect night for baseball. However, the traffic of both cars and pedestrians alike moves in every direction except towards the ballpark. Summer is not yet over, but the Minnesota Twins’ season is. A recent loss mathematically eliminated the club from the postseason, the first team in the American League to seal such a fate.

They won’t count from a competitive standpoint, but there are still games to play and memories to make. A sparse but smiling crowd flows with me on my walk to the stadium. Children stop in the plaza to gaze at the bronzed statues of legends like Harmon Killebrew and Kirby Puckett as parents and grandparents recount the glory days the men in bronze once provided. As I pass by Kirby, I hear a gentleman recounting Puckett’s walk-off heroics in game six of the 1991 World Series to a boy no older than six, who is staring in awe at one of the most famous Twins frozen in his most famous moment.

“And then the announcer said, ‘And we’ll see ya tomorrow night!’”

The old man’s play-by-play of that towering shot almost exactly 25 years ago brings a smile to my face and gives me the slightest of chills. Every detail of yesterday’s game escapes me, but I can still hear the crack of the bat from one swing a quarter of a century ago.

Twins Game - 5

Target Field // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Puckett’s blast is still echoing in my ears when I reach the ticket window. I like coming to the games without a predetermined assigned seat. It adds a comfortable level of uncertainty to the experience.

“Cheapest available?” I hear myself asking. Much of my conscious is still living in October ’91.

“I’ve got standing room only for five bucks,” the ticket man says.

I nod and gain admittance to the park in exchange for the lone bill in my wallet. A year ago today the Twins were in the pennant race and this same ticket required a credit card to complete the transaction. The worst of baseball at least offers fans the best of deals.

The Twins run into trouble in the second inning, during my second lap around the grounds. Today’s opponent, like yesterday’s and just about all the days’ before, gets to our pitcher early and has made souvenirs out of game balls blasted beyond the outfield walls. When your team’s in the race, it’s customary to throw an opponent’s home run ball back onto the field in protest. For the few thousand people in the park today, it makes more sense to hand it to the nearest youngster. It’s true that some years there just is no joy in Mudville, but the happiness that washes over a child’s face when handed their first game-used baseball remains.

Twins Game - 6

Target Field // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

By the bottom of the seventh, the game has turned into a microcosm of the season. It’s okay, I tell myself. The score doesn’t matter as much as the brat in my hand, which unlike the ticket did require a credit card, or the view of the field laid out before me. I’ve made my way up to the pub in the upper deck behind home plate. It’s my favorite vantage point because it reminds me of why I’m here.

I can see it all from up here, every blade of grass that comes together to form the perfect shade of green. It’s the ideal spot to see the Twins’ young outfielder displaying his arm strength as he throws out a runner at home. It’s the perfect spot to see the downtown skyline, gleaming in the sunset.

I can see the fans in the sections below. There are diehards sporting rally caps, regulars in the same seats they’re always in, mothers and fathers teaching their kids how to keep score, just like my parents taught me.

“Beer before last call, buddy?” The bartender’s voice brings me out of my daze.

“Please,” I respond.

My beer lasts longer than the game. The Twins are retired quickly and, in appropriate fashion, their last batter strikes out. A fitting end to my last day at the ballpark until next April.

“Maybe next year,” the bartender says.

“Maybe,” I say.

I finish the last sip of beer and bid farewell to the ballpark. Even after I get home, the smell is still in my nose, the sound of Puckett’s blast still in my ears, the words “maybe next year” on my lips.

 
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