My all-time favorite baseball player

My son and I went to the Twins game a couple weeks ago, and on the way to our seats, I saw a familiar face. “Hey Leif,” I said. “That’s Tony Oliva! He was one of the best Twins ever!”

Tony-O heard his name, saw us, and smiled, giving me that “Please don’t ask me for an autograph” look. I obliged.

When we turned down the tunnel to our section, Leif said, “Dad! There he is!” On the far side of the Dome was a picture of Oliva in his prime, along with Killebrew, Hrbek and Puckett. The picture confirmed that the guy we’d just seen was in fact a legend.

When I was kid, Oliva wasn’t my favorite Twin. Cesar Tovar was, probably just because his name was fun to say, and because he played all nine positions in one game.

I remember one summer day when my dad said, “If Rich Reese hits a grand slam, I’ll take you swimming.” Rich Reese hit a grand slam, and we went to Lake Owasso.

I loved baseball, my brother loved football, and we argued about which was better. When my brother called baseball “barfball,” I responded by calling football “fartball.”

“Barf” was an acceptable term in our house; “fart” was not. I got a spanking for using it.

My sister once got spanked for telling this joke: “What does Jackie Gleason say when he farts?”

“How sweet it is!”

Dad loved Jackie Gleason, but he did not like bad language – at least when we were kids. In his old age he loosened up and let a swear word slip out now and then.

Dad loved baseball, too. When he was a kid, his church was in the shadow of Wrigley Field, which Dad always called “Cubs Park.” He said he felt like Cubs Park was in the shadow of his church.

My dad never played much catch with me, but my mom did. She was a great softball player in her day, and her team used to play before the Rockford Peaches games.

Mom was from Rockford, and like my dad was a Cubs fan. Her mom, who had MS and was “bedridden” (to use the old-fashioned terminology), loved nothing more than listening to the Cubs on the radio.

I was a big baseball fan, but I quit playing after one game. I didn’t like to stand at the plate while other kids threw the ball as hard as they could in my general direction. I knew what a lousy aim I was, and figured the other kids weren’t much better.

One time a ball came at my head, so I ducked and felt the ball glance off my helmet. As I started to take my base, the ump called a strike, saying that when I ducked, the ball had hit the bat before hitting my helmet.

My son Leif has more courage than I ever did. He’s taken one for the team more than once this summer. When the boys get hit with a pitch or a hot grounder, the coaches tell them to rub some dirt on it. It seems to work.

Leif had hardly picked up a glove until this year, but he decided to try out for the traveling team, and he made it. (I think everybody did.)

He started out as a right-fielder, and he struck out almost every time. One perfect summer evening, as I sat in my folding chair on the left field line, Leif came to the plate with the bases loaded and two out. I watched him strike out, take a seat alone at the end of the bench, and cry.

I had never felt so bad as Leif did that day.

I had never felt so bad as I did that day, either.

I figured he would quit. I almost hoped he would. He didn’t. He kept swinging, kept bugging me to play, and now he’s a utility man who lays down a perfect bunt and sometimes connects on a nice line-drive.

I’ve forgotten all about Cesar Tovar. Leif is my hero.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger. blarson@millelacsmessenger.com

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