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Minnesota native Kent Hrbek was struggling, and so were the Minnesota Twins. They faced elimination in the 1987 World Series. Jim recounted Hrbek's final hours of that season the Monday after the Twins won the '87 championship.

Champagne toast to a grand slam

MINNEAPOLIS -- Tuesday, when he throws the last duffel bag into the back of his camper, Kent Hrbek will slam shut the door with a very satisfying thud. If his voice is a whisper, it will be from celebration, not the humility he wore Saturday evening.

He was invisible to anyone standing four feet away; just a disembodied voice. Those in the front of the tight, semi-circle of notepads and minicams could see him, resting his 244 pounds on a chair too near the clubhouse carpet to comfortably accommodate a man who stands 6-foot-4. This wasn't the extroverted 27-year-old who often spit sunflower seeds, profanities and clever remarks around the Metrodome batting cage.

Going 7-for-40 in the post-season could humble anyone, even Kent Hrbek: the Minnesota Twins' homegrown boy. But it wasn't just the weak showing in the 1987 post-season that kept his voice low. He was too drained to be exuberant.

St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog had saved left-hander Ken Dayley just for Hrbek with two out and the bases loaded in the sixth game of the 1987 World Series. In the past week, the left-handed hitting Hrbek had grounded to second twice and flied to centerfield against Dayley. But this time it was the first pitch that Hrbek jumped on.

He knew Dayley started him with fastballs in previous at-bats. This time, Hrbek was ready. Coiled in that low crouch with the barrel of the bat behind his ear, Hrbek swung. The sound told a record 52,293 hometown fans the ball was gone. Grand slam. No need to wait for this one to rattle among the seats 439 feet away.

At every base Hrbek, arms spread wide, shook his fists in jubilation. "I wanted to run around the bases twice, but I don't know if they let you do that."

Then reflection caught him.

Thoughts of dad

"Playing in the back yard with a plastic ball, a tennis ball, I used to imagine doing that all the time in Game Seven of the World Series. I guess I was just a game too early. I was hoping it would happen sooner than later, because this thing was going to be done pretty quick."

A warm feeling crept up the back of his neck as he rounded the bases. The 27-year-old looked into the stands and saw his mother and his wife. He said it was just a good feeling to know they were up there. And there was something else.

Call it metaphysical, call it coincidence, but Kent Hrbek said he had never stood in the on-deck circle and thought about his father before an at-bat. Not until Saturday. As he watched Dayley loosen on the mound, Hrbek thought about the man who died in 1982 of amytrophic lateral sclerosis -- Lou Gehrig's Disease.

"I was standing there and I thought about him," Hrbek said in a mellow voice, his brown eyes soft and wide. "It's not something I can say I ever thought about before. It would have been great if he had been there. Sure, people ask me about him all the time. But he's probably got the best seat in the house, although he might be having a hard time seeing through that roof."

Hrbek tried to vanquish stray thoughts, do what good baseball men do and concentrate on Dayley as he threw his warm-up tosses, but Kent Hrbek isn't just baseball. In fact, more often than not Kent Hrbek seems more like a 17-year-old who rolled out of bed at mom's house and went to play a little American Legion ball before taking dad's car out for a cruise. Big leagues or Legion ball, it seems as he treats it all the same and gives the fans some thrills with his home runs to right field and his agility in the field.

In this World Series, he sees Minnesota fans have given him something back.

Unique fan reaction

"They haven't shown this much expression for any sports team in Minnesota in my lifetime," he said. "You've got to love the fans here. All the guys on the team feel great about them. I definitely thought about them all when I was going around the bases."

The fans largely stuck with him as he managed just four hits in 20 World Series at-bats before his grand slam. They could have been harsh on him when Cardinal shortstop Ozzie Smith put the tag on him as he was picked off second base in the second inning with no one out Saturday. They really didn't need to boo, because Hrbek was being hard on himself. "I didn't run like I should have, and then I was trying to keep my eye on Ozzie because he's real sneaky. I came back into the dugout and said, "That was real stupid, Kent. You didn't play like you should have.'"

Hrbek said he didn't seek advice through his post-season slump. He never does. He'll listen if someone offers suggestions, and he took telephone calls from people during the drought, but no one gave him charms or medallions to chase away the slump.

"Somebody brought me a Moosehead," he said, picking up his beer.

Everyone laughed.

Hrbek, a fun-loving kid, had plans to laugh a lot regardless of the outcome of the Series. His camper was packed. Some time Tuesday, he will drive to South Dakota to hunt pheasants. After that, he'll join his former high school teammate and friend, Wade Boelter, who told Hrbek when the Series was over they would sit behind the pitching mound at Bloomington Kennedy High School and drink a bottle of champagne.

It will be Hrbek, Boelter and the champagne. And Ed Hrbek looking down, with nothing to block his view.

Essays index


"Playing in the back yard with a plastic ball, a tennis ball, I used to imagine doing that all the time in Game Seven of the World Series. I guess I was just a game too early. I was hoping it would happen sooner than later, because this thing was going to be done pretty quick."
– Kent Hrbek


1987 Twins; Sweet Music


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