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Hratio Alger would have liked this story. Boy grows up near ball park, dreams of playing for hometown team, applies himself, fools scouts, signs with hometown team, jumps to big show, hits game-winning HR in debut, becomes threat to win Triple Crown in rookie season, hits Herculean shots and leads hometown team to victory after victory.
That last part needs a little work, but otherwise, Kent Hrbek, the 22-year-old rookie first baseman of the Minnesota Twins, is the stuff of dreams. His team happens to be the stuff of nightmares right now. Hrbek and the Twins are rushing headlong into baseball history. So is the place they play their home games.
At the end of last week, Hrbek was batting .330, with 49 RBIs, 15 homers and hitting streaks of 23 and 17 games. In the days of yore they would have called him the Bohemian Behemoth, although he's as gentle as a puppy. He may be headed for the best overall rookie year since Ted Williams' 1939 season. Yet on June 21 Hrbek wasn't among the eight listed first basemen in the All-Star balloting. His 14-year-old sister Kerry was hoping to correct that oversight by writing Hrbek's name on at least 20 ballots a day until the voting concludes on July 4.
Through Sunday Minnesota was playing at a .247 clip and was 25½ games out of first place. The Twins have already been referred to as the Twinkies, the Tloses and The Who. They are threatening the futility record of the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics (.235) as the worst team in baseball history; Minnesota's 18-55 mark at week's end is "ahead" of the pace set by the 40-120 New York Mets of 1962, the losingest team in history. On Father's Day, Manager Billy Gardner got a card from his 15-year-old son Billy Jr. that said, "Hang in there, Slick," Slick being the elder Gardner's nickname. Enclosed was a picture of Casey Stengel with the caption, "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?"
The Twins aren't all that bad. And Hrbek may not be all that good, although his stats have held up his second time around the league. Only time will tell, and time is very important to Hrbek. Last year he found out that his father, Ed, was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a/k/a Lou Gehrig's disease. Kent wanted to come home from California when he got the news, but his father told him to stay put. Ever since, the tears have given way to a tear. Hrbek ripped apart the Class A California League and he was batting .379 with 27 homers and 111 RBIs for the Twins' Visalia farm club when he was called to the majors on Aug. 24. In his first game, he homered in the 12th inning to beat the New York Yankees. He was playing Gehrig's position in Gehrig's stadium.
The Hrbeks live in Bloomington, Minn., two miles from where the Twins played until this year. When Kent was a youngster he could see the lights of the park from his bedroom window. This season, his folks have attended every game but one at the new Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, and Kent had hit .355 at home through last week. In road games televised back to Minneapolis, he is batting .359.
The Hrbeks and friends sit in the last row of the lower deck behind home plate in the Metrodome. Sometimes they wear T shirts that say, HERBIE'S SISTER, HERBIE'S DAD, HERBIE'S MOM, HERBIE'S PAL.... Kent has one emblazoned HERBIE. Ed's disease has left him unable to speak, and he has had to struggle to stand for the national anthem and the 10 homers his son has hit at home. But his eyes light up at the mention of that other notable player of Czechoslovakian descent, Elmer Valo. Happier people can't be found in the stadium.
Kent is one of more than a dozen seeds that Twins owner Calvin Griffith has thrown out on the field in the last two years. While Hrbek has taken root, others have been blown away. To carry the metaphor one step too far, Minnesota fans worry that Hrbek will be transplanted when the Twins decide they can no longer afford him. He's now making $42,000 a year. Griffith, who is loath—both out of principle and because of economic necessity—to pay the big salaries that other owners do these days, isn't the most popular man in Minnesota. "I don't mind being called a dinosaur," says Calvin. "The dinosaurs were very strong people, er, things."
Griffith is in fact a likable man who just happens to be stuck in the wrong era. He tends not to listen to his Dartmouth-educated son Clark—they're barely on speaking terms. Instead, Howard Fox, executive vice-president and longtime traveling secretary, has Calvin's ear. Fox came to the organization from the peanut business 35 years ago, which could be the reason peanuts best describes the Twins' salary structure.
Since April, Minnesota has dispatched to other teams the salaries of Roy Smalley, Butch Wynegar, Roger Erickson, Rob Wilfong and Doug Corbett—$1.6 million a year in all. Smalley, now playing for the Yankees, had more major league experience (seven years) before this season than Minnesota's current starting lineup. Twelve of the Twins' 25 players are rookies.