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‘Celebrate Good Times’: Welcome-home rally was an unforgettable moment for ’87 Twins team, fans

MINNESOTA TWINS: OPENING DAY Here’s a good way to celebrate baseball season’s Opening Day: an excerpt from “We’re Gonna Win, Twins!” a new book by MinnPost’s Doug Grow on the 50-year history of the team.

Editor’s note: Here’s a good way to celebrate the Twins season’s Opening Day: an excerpt from “We’re Gonna Win, Twins!” a new book by MinnPost’s Doug Grow on the 50-year history of the team. Grow, a former sportswriter and Star Tribune metro columnist, now covers politics, government and other issues for MinnPost. This excerpt is reprinted with permission of the publisher, the University of Minnesota Press.

The Minnesota Twins were exhausted as their flight approached the Twin Cities on October 12, 1987. So there was a small groan when the pilot announced that there were “a few thousand” fans at the Metrodome to greet them.

Hours earlier, the Twins had defeated the Detroit Tigers in the American League playoffs, winning the chance to go to the World Series. As thousands of Detroit fans had watched sullenly, the Twins had danced around the field, jumping into each other’s arms and shouting, “We did it! We did it!” And then they’d jumped and shouted some more before entering the cramped clubhouse in ancient Tiger Stadium, where they had poured champagne and beer over each other while hugging and screaming, “Can you believe it?”

On the plane, they were emotionally drained and quiet. The pressure of the last weeks of the season, the intensity of the playoffs, the improbability of the triumph over the favored Tigers, the joyful outburst following their 9-5 victory, which had finished off a best-of-seven series in just five games, and the excitement over the thought of playing in the World Series had wrung the last energy from the players. The party was over; it was time to go home.

One more stop to make
But there was one more stop to make — at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome — before they’d be free to go home and collapse. The players boarded buses and, escorted by police cars, headed from the airport, where they’d been greeted by a few hundred fans, to the Dome. Slowly, the players awakened from their stupors as they became aware that something strange was happening around them.

It was almost 10 o’clock on a Monday night and yet there was activity everywhere. There were people on the overpasses waving banners. And the closer the buses got to the Dome, the more people there were.

The buses made it to the loading dock area behind the Dome. There were people, yelling and waving.

“Why aren’t they inside?” Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek asked a security man on the bus.

“There’s no room inside, Herbie,” the security man said.

The buses pulled into the stadium. The players got off and headed toward the right field entrance to the playing surface of the Dome. The doors to the field opened, and the players were overwhelmed by the sight and sound of 60,000 people.

“We walked onto the field and you could see the Dome wasn’t fully lighted,” recalled catcher Tim Laudner. “There was a bank of lights on over third base and a bank of lights on maybe in right center. So it was half light, half dark. Almost eerie. I looked toward home plate and I said to whoever was near me, ‘There’s no aisles!’ There were just people everywhere and the most incredible cheers.”

The players were stunned.

“They opened the door in the tunnel, I looked out and I thought, ‘Oh, oh, here come the tears,'” said third baseman Gary Gaetti. “I bawled the whole time.”

Juan Berenguer waves to the massive crowd.
Photo by Brian Peterson. Copyright 2009 Star Tribune/Minneapolis-St. Paul.
October 12, 1987, became a small-town night in the big city. Fans filled the Metrodome to welcome home the American League champion. Juan Berenguer (aka El Gasolino, Señor Smoke, and Pancho Villa) waves to the massive crowd.

Others, like Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven, laughed and waved. “What are we doing here? What are we doing here?” Blyleven kept asking.

Then there was Juan Berenguer, also known as Señor Smoke and El Gasolino. He was a passionate, usually reliable, relief pitcher. He strolled around the field wearing a long trench coat, which he had purchased at a shop on Nicollet Mall when he had come to Minnesota as a member of the Twins at the start of the 1987 season. This coat was topped by a large fedora, presented to him by his friend, former Twins star Tony Oliva.

“I thought it would look beautiful on him,” Oliva said.

The Twins players had laughed when they first saw Berenguer in the getup. “They called me Pancho Villa,” said Berenguer. “They would say, ‘Hey Pancho, where’d you park your horse?’ ”

Berenguer, with his sweep-down mustache, loved the villainous imagery. But he didn’t look threatening on this night. He was almost regal as he strolled around the field toting a briefcase with one arm, waving with the other.

Berenguer always carried the briefcase because it contained things most important to him, such as family pictures, including several of his father, who had died when Berenguer was a child in Panama. There was also a doll, presented to him by a fellow Panamanian when Berenguer signed his first professional contract in 1975 with the New York Mets. He was twenty years old and didn’t speak a word of English. The doll, which he called Little Smoke, traveled with him through the minor leagues and to major-league stops in New York, Kansas City, Toronto, Detroit, and San Francisco before he arrived in Minnesota before the ’87 season.

Before every game, Señor Smoke and Little Smoke would have a conversation: “Be ready, Little Smoke. I may need you tonight.” On this night, Señor Smoke waved, while Little Smoke remained in the briefcase.

Hasty arrangements for a homecoming party
Watching over this eruption of wild Minnesota joy were Dave Moore and Mark Weber of the Twins’ marketing department, and Bill Lester, who had become executive director of the Metrodome in June of 1987. They had thrown together the homecoming over a 48-hour period. But they hadn’t expected this. In fact, they would have been terrified had they known 60,000 people would show up.

It had happened like this: The Twins had won the first two games of the playoff series against the Tigers in Minnesota, 8-5 on October 7 and 6-3 on October 8. The two wins were only a mild surprise, because even though most in baseball assumed that the Tigers were the superior team, the Twins had been monstrous in the Dome all season long, compiling a 56-25 record, the best home record in baseball. But on the road they had been dismal, winning just 29 of 81 games.

True to form, the Twins lost, 7-6, to the Tigers when the playoff series resumed in Detroit on October 10. But then, on Sunday, October 11, the Twins did the unthinkable — they defeated the Tigers 5-3. One more victory and they’d be headed to the World Series.

“It dawned on us,” recalled Weber. “They could win it in Detroit. What should we do if they did?”

Moore, who was in Detroit with the team, and Weber and Lester, who were back in Minnesota, started having conversations about what should happen if the Twins were to win the playoff series in Detroit. All three were small-town guys. All three thought in terms of a small-town high school basketball team winning the state championship and being welcomed home with a motorcade and a rally in the high school gym. They wanted something like that for the Twins.

“These were still the simplest and most innocent times,” said Lester. “This was long before 9-11. There was no al-Qaeda. You didn’t have to deal with Homeland Security. We were just this little city in the Midwest. We were the Waltons. The biggest problem you had to concern yourself with was people drinking too much.”

The three decided that if the Twins did win in Detroit, they’d throw open the doors to the Dome, have a couple of high school bands on the field, let the players wave, and call it a night. There was a pool in the Twins’ office as to how many people would show up for such an event. High guess: 17,000.

The parade through Minneapolis and St. Paul sometimes came to a complete stop, as it did here on Wabasha Street, as fans mobbed their team.
Courtesy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
The parade through Minneapolis and St. Paul sometimes came to a complete stop, as it did here on Wabasha Street, as fans mobbed their team.

Lester did have some moments of trepidation when he went for a jog Monday morning. “I was running along and it suddenly dawned on me, ‘We don’t have an event. There’s not going to be a game. We’re going to have people in the Dome who have had all afternoon and most of the evening to drink.’ ”

But by then, it was too late to make changes in the plan. Lester made sure that there were enough people available to staff a few concession stands. The Twins made arrangements to have enough security personnel on hand to manage a crowd of up to 20,000.

“When they told me about the homecoming plan,” said Jerry Bell, who had become the Twins’ president at the start of the season, “I had my doubts. I said make sure you put all the fans in the sections behind home plate and put the TV cameras out by second base. I wanted to be sure that on TV it looked like there were some people there.”

On Monday afternoon, October 12, during the telecast of the Twins’ game against the Tigers, a crawl ran across the bottom of the screen: “If the Twins win, there will be a welcome-home celebration at the Dome. Gates will open at seven o’clock.” The possible celebration was also mentioned by announcers during the broadcast. That was the extent of the marketing.

Waves of euphoria — and fans — washed over Twin Cities
The Twins did win, 9-5, and a wave of euphoria rolled across the Twin Cities. “Actually, it had been building up for the last month of the season,” Weber said. “But nobody could have predicted this. When you look back, I don’t know if something like that night could ever happen again. Everything was special. The fans had seen the nucleus of this team grow up together. Remember, we still hadn’t come to the era of multimillion-dollar contracts. There was a connection between fans and players that probably can never exist again.”

Weber was in his office, deep in the basement of the Dome, when people started arriving by the hundreds, then by the thousands, for the celebration. They kept coming and coming.

“There were thousands of people with their kids,” said Lester. “That’s what saved us. Everybody was well behaved because there were so many kids. The ushers would open up one section of the Dome and as soon as that filled up, they’d open the next section. They just kept filling it up. There were a few drunks. But by the end of the night I think the only damage done was a broken sink in one of the men’s rooms. The bill to fix it was $85.”

When the players arrived, a roar filled the Dome that would continue on through the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The players had heard ovations in the final weeks of the regular season, but nothing like this. They kept looking up from the field into the wall of noise and people. There were a few speeches. There was more roaring and waving.

For one night, Minneapolis was the world’s biggest small town. For one night, everyone in Minnesota was a fan. For one night, all the politics and bottom-line business of major-league baseball was not just forgiven, but forgotten.

Juan Berenguer looks back at the night in the Dome as the most incredible of his baseball life. Sometimes he still gets goose bumps thinking about it. And sometimes he slips on the long coat and the big fedora and starts heading for the front door of his home in the Twin Cities suburbs. “But my kids always stop me,” he said. “They say, ‘Leave it home, Dad.’ ”

Tim Laudner has talked about that night to schoolkids and Kiwanis clubs for years. And every time he talks about the event, it gets to him. His throat tightens, his eyes moisten. “The emotion of the fans and the players was genuine,” he said. “To share that moment with those guys and those fans still gives me the chills. It was as good as it gets.”

“We’re Gonna Win, Twins!” Copyright 2010 by Doug Grow.

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