Kirby, Gibby, & the Homer Hanky: My Introduction to an Obsession

In early 1987, the Minnesota Twins were never considered anyone’s idea of a championship-caliber team. They had teased the Midwestern faithful a few times in the early 80’s but in general, had been miserably incompetent. Minnesotans habitually looked ahead to football season, intending to bypass the Twins’ schedule entirely. The payoff of being a Twin’s fan was simply too small, if not non-existent. Being a Twin’s fan in 1987 meant stoically hoping for the best, while outwardly lamenting the worst. But they proved us all wrong. The 1987 Minnesota Twins played well. Minnesota was intrigued. I was intrigued. Up to that point, my dabbling into baseball had consisted of being voted off my after school team for “throwing like a girl.” The humiliation was compounded by the fact that they kept all the girls on the team. I didn’t owe baseball anything.

That all changed for good in August 1987. I was dating a girl who, unlike me, was a diehard Twins fan. She knew what Frank Viola’s best pitch was, what a hot-foot was, and what a ground-rule double was. I silently suspected she threw a baseball much less like a girl than I did. When she invited me to attend an August game against the Detroit Tigers, I accepted more to impress her than through any sense of team spirit. So, on that humid Minnesota evening, we crammed into a paneled station wagon with her mother, father, brother and grandmother; they in their assorted Twins’ attire and baseball gloves, me wondering what I had gotten myself into.

The fans at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome were rabidly edgy. I had a vague recollection of the hyper-drive excitement of football fans over the Minnesota Vikings. The scene unfolding in the Metrodome that evening had all the intensity one witnessed at a tail-gate party in sub-zero temperatures, absent the bare-chested, purple-painted warriors screaming at their Hibachis like William Wallace taunting the British. The Twins entered August with a slim lead in the old American League West, while the visiting Tigers were baseball royalty. The stands were a sea of white as the home fans exuberantly flailed with their ‘Homer Hankies,’ a 1987 tradition that spread like wildfire as the Twins kept on winning. Instead of meaning waving a white flag for surrender, these white flags were a call to action, an incitement for the Twins’ bats to send the visiting team’s pitches into the white-domed stratosphere. It was a mob scene of beautifully choreographed proportions.

We had seats in left field, good for catching Twin’s homers and throwing back those of the Tigers. The Twins fell behind early, but there was entertainment to be had elsewhere. The Detroit left fielder that night was Kirk Gibson, a famously intense player who always seemed to hurt the Twins; a year later he would cement his legacy in baseball lore with an unforgettable walk-off homerun against one of baseball’s best relief pitchers. That night in 1987, however, he was fodder for the fans in the left field bleachers. The taunting that Gibson endured that night was intense and of a graphic nature. While I was no neophyte to profanity, I was a bit shocked at the creative combinations of words being tossed around. This wasn’t Yankee Stadium where fans used expletives regularly in greeting friends. This was Minnesota, the paragon of Mid-Western propriety. People got worked up over the use of “gosh” in a sentence and parents soaped kids’ mouths for blasphemy when they heard them utter “Holy Cow.”

I asked my girlfriend’s brother why Gibson was the focus of Twin’s fans ridicule. “I heard he’s dating a stripper,” he remarked casually. “That’s not true,” my girlfriend’s grandmother declared. “He’s not dating a stripper – he’s married to a stripper!” No one seemed to know the exact truth of Kirk Gibson’s personal life, but it seemed to center around a stripper. True or not, it was definitely making the rounds around left-field. The Twins were mounting a rally after falling behind and Gibson’s alleged dating habits took a momentary backset. “Isn’t this great?!” my girlfriend’s father shouted in my ear after a line drive fell just beyond Gibson’s reach, plating the tying run. The Homer Hankies swirled and Gibson stoically returned the ball to the infield while comments about his association with employees of the exotic dancing industry rained down on him. I imagined steam whistling from his ears like Elmer Fudd after he realizes Bugs Bunny has tricked him yet again. I hoped that the Homer Hankies would keep my face covered so that if Mr. Gibson glanced into the stands, he wouldn’t fix his building rage upon me.

The game was tied at six in the later innings and the noise swelled beyond what I imagined the eardrum could stand. The dome seemed to move up and down with each round of cheers as if it was a giant set of artificial lungs. The first Twins’ batter of the inning drew a walk and the dome’s speakers blared out the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian.” This, to me, was the height of cleverness. Then, rolling out of the tinny PA system erupted an announcement that built and boiled like a tsunami over the crowd: Now batting, the center fielder, number 34….. Kirrrrrrrrrrrbyyyyyyy PUCKETTTT!!!! We were no longer in a baseball stadium, we had been transported to an enormous tent revival, waving and hollering to be saved. Lay your hands on me Tom Kelly, I’m a believer!

When Kirby Puckett stepped to the plate with a runner on, I thought the roof would burst like an over-filled water balloon. Puckett was the face of the Twins and their playoff charge. He looked nothing like a baseball player; he was stubby and short. He ran, hit, and caught the ball with all the energy of a kid playing a pick-up game after school. He loved baseball. Minnesota fans loved him. A young mother in front of me hoisted her infant above her head and bounced him back and forth. The baby gurgled with joy and I noticed the huge red 34 emblazoned on his jumper. A father and son to my left furiously waved a handmade sign proclaiming “Puckett for President!” There was no doubting the sincerity of the love Minnesota held for their squat swatter. It was hard to resist its pull.

He swung at the first pitch to him so hard I thought he would drill himself into the turf. It was widely known that Kirby would swing at the 1st pitch, even if it was three foot over his head. This only endeared him to the fans more. He swung at the next pitch too, planting it two rows behind me for a two run lead. Puckett rounded the bases in what resembled a skip, pumping his fist and shouting something that resembled “wheeeeeeee!” High-faves smacked their way around the dome in a frenzy of reddening palms. The wind from the swirling Homer Hankies threatened to flatten Kirk Gibson, whose scowl was as pronounced as Kirby Puckett’s grin. He slammed his hand angrily into his glove and the left-field fans howled with demonic joy.

The Twins held on that night and put a game between themselves and the second-place Kansas City Royals. My girlfriend and I held hands as we left the Metrodome, our steps light and happy. Outside, the air was full of honking horns and screaming fans. I knew I was among the newly obsessed. I waved my newly purchased ‘Go Twins’ banner at passerby and felt myself suddenly part of a much larger community linked by nothing more than Homer Hankies and a sense of shared accomplishment. The Twins had played the game, but hadn’t we willed them to victory? I wanted to skip like Kirby Puckett rounding the bases but restrained myself out of fear that Kirk Gibson might be lurking somewhere nearby waiting to exact bloody vengeance on unsuspecting Twins’ fans.

The Twins went on to the ALCS to face those heavily-favored Detroit Tigers. Banners made from bed sheets and plywood decorated yards and campuses all over Minnesota, adorned with spray-painted slogans like “Flush De-Troitlet!” and “De-claw the Tigers!” When they eliminated the Tigers, our high-school principal made the announcement over the intercom with all the consequence of the moon-landing. The Twins advanced to the World Series for the first time in nearly twenty years and faced the heavily-favored St. Louis Cardinals. The handmade banners switched to “Clip the Cardinals!” and “Blast the Birds!” I watched the series on television with my newly converted family. When Willie McGee grounded out to Gary Gaetti to end the series, we all hooped and hollered like the primates in the opening scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mom up-ended a bowl of popcorn into the crevices of the couch and my sister’s boyfriend planted a kiss on my sister that rivaled the famous Time’s Square photo from the end of World War II.

By the end of that dizzying run, I knew what a ground-rule double was, what made a hot-foot hilarious, and that Frank Viola’s best pitch was his changeup. I got a baseball glove for Christmas that year. My sister gave me a Twins jersey wrapped in a commemorative Minnesota Twins Wheaties box. I have long since worn out the jersey and the relationship with my sister, but I still have that slightly crumpled cereal box. That next spring, with my dad as a patient long-toss practice partner, I made my school’s junior varsity team as a ‘reserve.’ I knew what the title meant:” For the love of God, don’t put him anywhere where he has to throw the ball to anyone!” I didn’t care. I had been fully converted to the church of baseball. Bless me Father, for I have sinned; it has been three days since I filled out my last scorecard.

Young love is a fickle thing. Like the Twins of 1987, it can be spiritual and intoxicating. Like the Red Sox of 1986, it can leave you feeling broken and betrayed. My relationship with the girl who gave me pennant fever ended within a year of that loud, August evening. Like many high-school age relationships, it ended badly; a victim of encroaching adulthood and realizing there is so much life to live beyond high school. We are always linked by my first game and the lifelong obsession all true Twins fans have. While we may have long since parted ways, we still enjoy joint custody of that team.

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