I will never make it to Cooperstown. It is not because I can’t hit a curveball, and not because I can’t break 70 mph with the pitch. I will never make it to Cooperstown because I bet on baseball.
It must have been around 2005 and my hometown team, Minnesota Twins were in the middle of an impressive stretch of winning seasons the locals were unaccustomed to. I was at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome watching the Tampa Bay Devil Rays take batting practice early before a Sunday game. Normally, I would not be at a game early enough to watch batting practice, but this day was a bobble head give-away game. I didn’t collect all of the bobble heads, but a couple of times a year, a group of my friend and I would get up at a ridiculously early hour, get dropped off at the stadium by a candidate for father of the year, and camp out for hours to get a bobble head doll. We were not necessarily avid collectors, but we enjoyed the entire experience of getting up early, camping out, getting the bobble head and then falling asleep during the game.
It is widely held that The Dome, as it was called, is one of the worst baseball stadiums of all-time. Erected in 1982, the stadium was designed for football and sported a fiberglass fabric dome to keep out the harsh Minnesota elements. To change the stadium from football to baseball, a portion of the stands were pushed back in like a high school gymnasium, and cover with a blue trap, lovingly referred to as a ‘baggie.’ Picture the Green Monster in Boston, but in right field and instead of an icon, it was a complete joke. The roof was such a close match to the collar of a slightly used baseball that players would routinely lose sight of a pop fly against the backdrop of the roof and stand helplessly as the ball landed feet from their upturned hands. For most of the stadium’s existence the playing surface was a glorified green carpet, called Astroturf. Players had to wear long sleeves to play so if they dove they wouldn’t get horrible rug burns on their arms. Gold Glove centerfielder Torii Hunter would claim that when he dove for a ball and slid on his stomach, arms and legs raised to avoid rug burn, the plastic buttons on his jersey would melt from the friction.
However, when the Twins were good, the entire state rallied behind our team and that stadium would get packed all the way to the pressurized roof. In the playoffs when the Homer Hankies were waving and every pitch came behind a deafening roar of a crowd reverberating off of the roof, few atmosphere compare.
On top of that, the Dome as it was called, was the ballpark my dad took me to as a kid, so it will always have a special place in my heart. It does not matter where you take in a professional ball game in this country, there is always something magical about the park in which your dad taught you about the game. The Dome, with all of its faults will always have a place in my heart. Kind of like a bologna and cheese sandwich on Wonder Bread, I know it is not any good but it’s from my childhood so I still kind of like it.
The gates opened two hours before the game started, we got our bobble heads and went to our seats. That particular day we played the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and they were still taking batting practice as we moved from our seats to the front row to improve our view. We decided we were going to try to get some of the players to respond to us while they were practicing. We weren’t necessarily autographed chasers or super fans, we were just bored kids trying to fill a couple of hours by connecting with a real pro athlete. We got a nod or a wave here or there but nothing worth writing about. After a few hitters had gone through batting practice, I decided to try a different approach to goat a player into engaging with us.
The man standing on deck, closest to us, swinging a bat with a weighted doughnut around the neck was named Toby Hall. He was steady catcher in the major leagues for nine seasons sporting a career .262 batting average and a small triangular flavor saver goatee under his lower lip. My strategy was to make a very specific claim and see if he responded. “Hey Toby,” I shouted. “I bet you a dollar-seventy-four that you can’t get a hit in your second at-bat today!”
Admittedly in the years since, I have vastly improved in my ability to get under a stranger’s skin. He heard me and turned around and looked up at me while he bent to rub dark brown pine tar on his bat. He must have only half heard what is said and responded. “What? You don’t think I can get a hit off Santana in my first at bat?”
Years before any of my formal improv training, I ‘yes and-ed’ Toby Hall. “Not only that, I bet you twenty bucks you can’t even get on base!”
“You’re on.” Replied Hall. He turned back towards the field and took a few cuts before turning back to us. We were giddy with sleep deprived and sugar enhanced energy.
“How am I going to get my money when I get a hit?” Hall asked us.
In the defense of Mr. Hall, I’m pretty sure he was just making playful banter with a couple of young fans to pass the hours before a game in the doldrums that is Midsummer baseball on a middling team. So don’t start trying to compare Toby Hall to Pete Rose for the first time in his life.
“Don’t worry,” I scoffed. “I’ll let you know where to send the money.”
Johan Santana was fresh off a Cy Young Award winning season. He was far and away the best pitcher in baseball and one of the only professional athletes I got to see play in Minnesota who became an icon of the sport. In my mind there is absolutely no way Toby Hall would do anything other than ground one of Santana’s signature sliders to the shortstop for an easy 6-3 out.
Santana started out true to form, retiring the first seven players he faced. With one out in the third inning and not a baserunner in the game, Toby Hall stepped up to bat, and four obnoxious kids stood up behind home plate and cheered like it was game seven of the World Series. Hall was not amused. We knew he could hear us, because we were five rows behind home plate and because we could hear our own echoes in the domed stadium.
Santana came to the set position on the mound, nodded at the sign from his catcher, and went into his delivery. A four seam fastball came streaming out of his hand headed for the inside black of the plate. At the time Santana’s fastball consistently hit 96 mph, and was deadly accurate. Either through divine providence, a good scouting report, or just a damn lucky guess, Hall saw the fastball coming, got his hands through the box, extended, and pulled a line shot into the left-center gap.
Catchers are not typically known for their speed, and Hall was no exception. He lumbered around first and made his way toward second. It would have been an easy standup double for any middle infielder, but the relay coming in had a chance on the slower Hall. Second baseman Luis Rivas applied the tag to Hall’s shoulder blade sliding headfirst as his arms wrapped around the bag. Safe.
I admit I am proud of my reaction. I heard the crack of the bat, then saw the flight of the ball, and gasped at the tag. My first thought was, “No way.”
Then, “You have got to be kidding me.”
Then, “This is awesome.”
And after that, I was all smiles. I knew I could easily leave the stadium and never be held accountable for my bet. I knew legally and ethically there was no way Hall would ever actually accept payment for the bet. But I knew what I had to do. Knowing full well that my twenty-dollar bill would end up in the back pocket of the bat boy, I flagged him over after the game. My friends and I leaned over the railing trying to explain our situation to the bat boy.
“Hey do you know anyway I can get something to Toby Hall?” I asked as inconspicuously possible.
He laughed, “Are you the guys who made that bet about his first at-bat?”
“Ya, that’s me and I think I need to pay up can you get him this twenty for me?”
“For sure man, I’ve never seen a fan get under his skin like that before. He was really pissed. I thought it was hilarious. I’ll make sure he gets it.” And he disappeared down the gangway into the clubhouse, and we never saw him or the twenty-dollar bill again.
My friends started going nuts. “Did you hear that man! He said you really got under Toby Hall’s skin. That’s amazing you affected a major league baseball game just by making a bet.”
“Well, I didn’t just make a bet.” I began to fully inform my friends as we walked out reminiscing over our day. There was a part of the story they were not yet privy to.
After I had made the bet and before the game started I went to the bathroom by myself. On the way back I talked to an usher and regaled him with my tale of successfully bating Toby Hall. The usher seemed thoroughly amused by my account, so I took a chance. I handed him my ticket and asked him if there was any way he could get it into Hall’s locker before the start of the game as a subtle way of saying, “this is where you can send the money when you lose this bet.”
The usher loved my idea and assured me he knew the right person to pass the ticket off to. I sat the entire game, not knowing if my ticket stub had made it into Hall’s locker, until the bat boy clearly knew who we were. The bet alone was not enough to anger a player to the point that a lowly bat boy would have heard the story. The ticket must have reached Hall before the start of the game and gotten under his skin. I will spend my entire life not knowing if the twenty-dollar bill ever made it to Hall, but based on my conversation with the bat boy after the game, I have full faith that the support staff at the Hubert H Humphrey Metrodome came through for me and got my ticket stub into Toby Hall’s locker.
As I look back on a story that ultimately amounts to a brief conversation with a forgettable catcher, and giving a crafty bat boy my hard-earned twenty-dollar bill for no good reason in a terrible stadium, I learned several things. First I learned that if you are going to try to mess with an athlete, make sure you know what you are doing. A lot of athletes perform much better when they’re angry, and all they need is some punk kid to piss them off and they can rip a double off a Cy Young Award winner. The second thing I learned, is don’t always follow the rules at your job.
Both Toby Hall and the usher probably broke some sort of rule or protocol with the bet, or getting my ticket into Hall’s locker. However, both men saw an opportunity to make a memorable experience for an avid young fan and instead of saying, ‘Sorry buddy that’s against the rules,’ they allowed their human side to indulge the playful whimsy of the young sports fanatic. Through a willingness to engage, and a minimal effort, the people working at the Metrodome that day gave a lifelong memory to a lifelong baseball.
Next week, I return to the baseball field as on-field Emcee for an independent league team. I am the guy who hosts the dizzy bat race and the other goofy entertainment at the stadium. I see thousands of kids every year fall in love with baseball and I am reminded of what I learned at the Dome. It does not matter how fancy the ballpark is. It doesn’t matter if the player who engaged you in conversation was an All-star of not. It doesn’t even matter who’s head was bobbling on the free bobble head doll. What matters is having a place to call your own, where someone who loved you taught you about this beautiful game. What matters is every little moment when an hourly employee or an old ball player at the end of a grueling road trip gives that little extra effort to make sure a kid leaves with a story and a smile. And yes some of my most fulfilling moments have come at the expense of the slightly bent rule.