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Git yer Uncle Jumbo

February 28, 1996
When all is lost, head for Florida
The year before Zubaz broke I found myself living back at home with my mother in a town without a sports bar or a bowling alley.  This would have been early autumn of 1986, and my retreat from the Twin Cities had been desperate to say the least.

March 13, 1996
Clear the rinks, it’s time for baseball
It’s no secret that I am not a hockey fan. It’s more or less science fiction to me, or, worse yet, opera: loud, absurd, and completely inexplicable, not to mention poorly costumed.

April 3, 1996
Start of baseball season the ultimate grand opening
Uncomfortable admissions have long been my specialty, and here’s a whopper: I once wore a toga emblazoned with Lenny Faedo’s number to a Twins opener.

April 17, 1996
Marge Schott:
Terrible woman or crazy, bigoted cheapskate?
You know that there is something seriously wrong with the American Dream when a ridiculous backwards hag like Marge Schott gets to own a Major League baseball team.

May 15, 1996
Sad west coast trip beats fishing opener
Loneliness is the scourge of American life, and it is sad and amazing to learn again and again to what pathetic and ridiculous depths it will drive a man.

May 29, 1996
Fat guys play the sport Air Jordan couldn’t
I know it’s pathetic, but whenever I’m watching a game and I see a guy like Frank Viola looking a little chubby I always feel sort of good about it.

June 12, 1996
One long halftime show
I grew up in a yawning little town called Blooming Void, raised on chipped beef-on-toast and Fritos, 14 miles from the nearest pinball machine.

July 3, 1996
Transistor radio catches mixed signals
I
live in this attic apartment in the middle of the city, not a particularly comfortable arrangement for a guy who’s carrying around some extra pounds and sweats when he whistles.

July 17, 1996
The Last Dance
D
oo Wop is the 20th century equivalent of the Gregorian chant, and Friday night found me sitting in my dark apartment in my underwear, weeping intermittently and shuttling records to and from my turntable, letting every sad song I could find pound away at the heavy bag that was my heart.

July 31, 1996
In summer of gold medals, Knoblauch shines
Every year for several years now I’ve taken a week of unpaid vacation and a couple buddies and I have headed for the Wisconsin Dells, the quintessential idiots free zone.

August 14, 1996
Worn out as 26th Olympiad mercifully ends
Would someone please tell me that the closing ceremony of the 26th Olympiad is really over, because I am just flat worn out and I don’t know how much longer I can keep my mojo working.

August 28, 1996
Snake Attack garners another Hazewood Cup
One weekend every summer I return to my old stomping grounds for the annual Drungo Hazewood Whiffleball Classic...

September 11, 1996
Purple blood still a mystery after all these years
Every Sunday during football season I dutifully take my place on a bar stool down at Glum’s, my neighborhood saloon, and sit there tight-lipped with one of the human fixtures of the place, Sweating Bobby Verdi.

September 25, 1996
Molitor’s big day witnessed by Knotts
Many years ago I was falsely accused of stealing Rick Wakeman’s "Six Wives of Henry VIII" album from my local public library. I loved that record, but God knows I wouldn’t have settled for a hacked library copy...

 

October 9, 1996
Remember the Alomar
There’s really no getting around the fact that professional sports are loaded with reprehensible characters, and baseball is no exception.

October 23, 1996
Excellence is boring
Here I am, on the brink of the punishing season. When the boxscores disappear for the winter I find myself bundled up on the floor of my dark apartment...

October 30, 1996
Mercedes stalls in the Bronx
What was it gonna be, dynasty or destiny? The Mercedes ran out of gas in the Bronx and the reform school boys in pinstripes stripped it bare.

December 11, 1996
Off-season misery
Here’s a new wrinkle in the gray, clanging days before Christmas: Uncle Jumbo has been playing miserable pet store Santa Claus...

February 5, 1997
Twins Town
Granted, I contribute little to the local economy outside the gerbil-on-a-wheel/slum lord/convenience store circuit, but I swear to you, I cannot live in a city without a major league baseball team.

March 5, 1997
Jewell of Spring
The return of baseball to the Spring Training camps in Florida and Arizona is always such a hopeful and optimistic harbinger that it pains me to have to report that I am now living in a cramped and filthy house with three other poor slobs and I am working at my third Mall of America kiosk in three months...

March 26, 1997
Spring training at the Mall
A
fter many years of working one lousy service sector job after another I have developed a simple rule that will henceforth be known as Jumbo’s Law: Never Let The Customer Feel Your Pain.

April 2, 1997
Play Ball!
Your first baseball glove is right up there with your first dog or your first beer. I would say it was right up there with your first kiss, if I could say so with any kind of authority.

April 16, 1997
Uncle Jumbo's Mailbag
Due to the sheer volume of mail the good Doctor Jumbo receives each week it is necessary from time to time to give some of my critics an opportunity to spew their bile and take their potshots...

April 30, 1997
Jumbo's early years
The brain trust at SportsPage have kaboshed the proposed serialization of my mammoth two volume autobiography ("Too ambitious for our sophisticated yet easily distracted readership," I’m told)...

May 14, 1997
Road trip
Greetings from the road. Here’s the latest Jumbo scam: A passing acquaintance from my days in the hotel shuttle business gives me a call out of the blue a couple weeks ago and says he’s moving to Las Vegas...

May 28, 1997
Blooming Void reunion turns forgettable
When the band at my old friend Junie "Boneyard" Sandoval’s wedding reception broke into Little River Band’s "Reminiscing" I knew that I was going to get very, regrettably drunk for the first time in many years, and I couldn’t have been more right.

June 11, 1997
Where are all the baseball fans?
Here are some sad facts: In the big picture scheme of things there really aren’t a lot of real baseball fans in the Twin Cities, a hard truth that has been plenty apparent to the serious fan for as long as there has been a professional team in the state.

June 25, 1997
A Hallmark moment
Many years ago, after floundering around the University of Minnesota for 12 years piling up incompletes and parking tickets and watching as one wave of acquaintances after another actually graduated and moved along into the real world, I was in a campus laundromat one afternoon when I had the sudden and horrible revelation that everyone else in the place was at least 10 years younger than me.

July 23, 1997
Wheels spin at Loose Meat Festival
In my home town of Blooming Void the weekend after the Fourth of July has traditionally been set aside for the staging of the community’s annual Loose Meat Festival.

August 13, 1997
Beautiful losers
I don’t know about you, but all this 1987 World Championship reunion baloney has got me bluer than Hank Williams, Sr. at his jockey-shorts-and-empty-whiskey-bottle bluest.

October 18, 1997
TK, Oh!
What can I say? The other day I found myself driving around town looking to buy a trombone.

Why are the Twins so bad?
TK, Oh!

by Uncle Jumbo
Posted October 18, 1997
What can I say? The other day I found myself driving around town looking to buy a trombone. At some point the logic of my search disappeared on me and I drove back home and sat down in front of the television with a can of pork and beans and a big 1987 World Series plastic souvenir cup full of Hawaiian Punch. Sandwiched between the casino shills was an advertisement for an upcoming program called "When Animals Attack 4," the prospect of which gave me some small pleasure of anticipation. PREV

The Minnesota Twins will leave and I can see clearly enough a scenario in which I will become a blubbering and blubbery sidewalk problem for local authorities

I have no explanation for why I thought I might need a trombone. It’s just one of those odd things; from time to time I am seized with some idiot notion that something as seemingly inconsequential as a trombone might change my life. The truth, of course, is that I have absolutely no patience for anything that would actually pass for a hobby, but every year as the baseball season disappears into the fat folds of my memory I am left with this terrible void, and the increasingly dire prospects for local baseball have me floundering more desperately than ever this year.

The Minnesota Twins will leave and I can see clearly enough a scenario in which I will become a blubbering and blubbery sidewalk problem for local authorities. I will be cited again and again for urinating in public. You will find me on lovely summer evenings bellowing in the sculpture garden and hurling insults at patrons scurrying for the sanctuary of the Guthrie Theater.

You’ll see me poking around in public trash receptacles with a whiffleball bat, scrounging for aluminum cans, my prized Tom Brunansky jersey now threadbare and horribly stained with grease and bile and mustard. You know me. My pants will be riding halfway down my ass. My nights will be nothing but a muddled succession of pre-dawn phone calls to talk radio programs, ranting about all manner of conspiracies. The obscene caricatures of Carl Pohlad and John Marty you will encounter on bathroom walls all over the Twin Cities will be from my hand. Pohlad flabby and naked except for a pair of drooping black socks, sprawled across a flophouse mattress, rheum puddling in the hideous folds beneath his eyes. Marty? He will be pictured as an appallingly gaunt and rouged little wooden head—for what does he resemble above all else but a terrifying ventriloquist’s dummy?-- perched obscenely on a lecherous giant’s lap, his hinged jaw falling open in delight.

It’s been a long, hard summer for a local baseball fan, and the winter whose campfires are even now visible in the distance promises to be a cruel one.

The saddest truth is that there are no good guys in this whole local stadium mess, and there has perhaps never been a time when the Twins have inspired so little optimism. The 1997 season was such a dreary, knee-walking spectacle that it is easy to lose sight of the small triumphs and compelling dramas that are a part of even the worst baseball seasons. If someone had told you going into April—with the additions of Terry Steinbach, Bob Tewksbury, Greg Swindell, and Greg Colbrunn—that Brad Radke would win 20 games, Chuck Knoblauch would steal 62 bases and score 117 runs, and Ron Coomer would emerge as a solid everyday third baseman and run producer, you would have expected, at worst, a .500 record.

Yet the Twins finished at 67-94, 12 games below last year, and managed once again to post a team Earned Run Average over five runs a game (second worst in the American League), and again failed to have a single player with either 20 home runs or 100 RBIs. They were the only team in the American League without at least two players with 20 or more home runs, and the only team without a single player with a slugging percentage of over .500. All of which, of course, makes the accomplishments of Radke and Knoblauch all the more extraordinary. (Two of the three 20-game winners in the AL, in fact—Radke and Clemens—played for lousy, last-place teams.)

There is plenty of blame to go around for the Twins’ miserable season, and for their discouraging showing five years running. General Manager Terry Ryan has a spotty track record at best—keep in mind that perhaps the most significant occurrence on his watch was the signing of Knoblauch, a deal that was actually brokered by Dark Star. There are also perhaps at this time some questions about the ability of the scouting and player development departments to find and nurture genuine major league talent. Having said that, however, it should be pointed out that virtually all of the players the Twins have taken in the first rounds of the draft have been consensus picks, and these are, in fact, the people who signed Knoblauch, Scott Erickson, Radke, and Marty Cordova, who it may be forgotten was the Rookie of the Year three seasons ago. And Ryan did go out and sign Steinbach, a move that was widely applauded on all sides, and the beleaguered GM can hardly be blamed for the fact that Steinbach responded with a decidedly sub-par season.

It has been amazing to watch the ways in which Tom Kelly has always managed to deflect blame for the poor performance of his ballclubs—offering up excuses ranging from insufficient talent to small market limitations—all the while managing to trade on his two World Championships, for which he has always assumed an inordinate amount of the credit. There is no denying that the game has changed dramatically since 1991, but the reality is that many of the so-called small market teams still continue to play competent and surprising baseball. Year in and year out a number of the big stories in baseball revolve around small market success stories. Witness this year the dramatic improvements and scrappy play of teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Houston Astros, Detroit Tigers, and Milwaukee Brewers.

The name of the game is still player development, and it is only through the development of homegrown prospects that the nucleus of good teams is built. Take a good look at the Yankees, the prototypical model of the ‘large market’ team: At least four of the key players on the Yankees—players instrumental in turning around the team’s long-floundering fortunes—are homegrown products (Andy Pettitte, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera). Granted, Steinbrenner’s money allows him to sandbag and surround those players with big-ticket additions, but without those products from the farm system the Yankees are still exhibit A in the argument that money can’t buy success in the Major Leagues. Ditto for teams such as the Atlanta Braves and the Seattle Mariners. Market limitations may limit you in keeping the good young players your system develops (See: Montreal Expos), but that doesn’t excuse the Twins’ failure to bring their prospects along and help their transition to big league players.

At this stage the evidence would seem to be irrefutable that Kelly and his moribund field staff have failed miserably in evaluating and developing the young players they’ve been given. In 1987 and 1991 it can convincingly be argued that Kelly won with squads whose nucleus by and large managed themselves. Players who have thrived under Kelly have almost always tended to fall into the category of self-starters, guys who come to the majors with a complete package of skills and the intensity and make-up to succeed.

It’s interesting that Kelly’s real success stories—aside from the journeymen relievers and utility players he is inarguably adept at handling—have been players whose success has been largely uncredited to Kelly or his staff, players who Kelly can send out there with confidence that they can do the job, coaching staff be damned. The real challenge for Kelly has come in dealing with young players unfamiliar with his passive-aggressive style and harsh demands and criticisms, players who may struggle and benefit from the confidence or patience of the coaching staff.

Yes, part of it is throwing the guys out there and letting them play, and there are certainly a number of young players to whom Kelly has given ample opportunities and who have been huge disappointments thus far (Rich Becker, Scott Stahoviak, Todd Walker, and Frank Rodriguez, to name just four of the current batch), but there is also the stuff that goes on outside the lines of the playing field, the preparation and coaching and development and nurturing that constitute a very large part of a major league manager or coaches job. Kelly and his staff cannot possibly be regarded as anything but failures in this regard. Inevitably when a player scuffles Kelly’s response had been to lose patience, and either to consign the player to the bench or bullpen, or to move them to another club (it’s a long list, but it arguably includes players from Gary Gaetti and Tom Brunansky to Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani).

In 1996 Kelly routinely gave at bats and playing time to obviously marginal players at Ron Coomer’s expense, and even went so far as to belittle Coomer on his radio show and in print. It is certainly apparent now that the Twins could have profited with Coomer’s bat in the line-up. The same was true for much of the first few months of this season, when Kelly time and again trotted out to the mound a gallery of incompetents ranging from Scott Aldred to Rich Robertson to Kevin Jarvis. Meanwhile, as we learned in the last month of the season, potentially promising pitchers like Dan Serafini were languishing at Triple A, and Greg Swindell—by any measure a better alternative to any of the above named—was pitching out of the bullpen.

Kelly and his hopeless pitching coach, Dick Such, can hardly be blamed for the performance of the bums they trotted out to the mound, but they certainly should be held accountable for the performance and progress of the younger pitchers that come through their system. And they should certainly be held accountable for the fact that they sent those bums to the mound in the first place.

You honestly can’t name another professional sports coach or manager who has been allowed to endure five straight losing seasons without being asked to either step down or make some significant changes in his field staff. Kelly’s loyalty to his coaches is admirable on a very human level, but is inexcusable at the level of professional sports. It’s a scary situation when a manager of a team that has lost as consistently as Kelly now has, and whose teams have demonstrated an almost across-the-board falling off in performance, remains the most obviously powerful figure in the organization.

Now that he seems as resolute as ever in bringing back the coterie of dog track cronies that passes for his coaching staff, it’s time to acknowledge what has long been plenty obvious to those of us who have suffered through every one of the 810 games over the last five seasons: If people really want to point fingers for the huge current public indifference regarding the Twins, they might very well start by pointing a finger squarely at Tom Kelly.

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