The Last of the Pure Baseball Men

Calvin Griffith is a holdout against the forces of change

Losing Streak

By the fourth day of the 1981 season, the Twins were in last place in the American League West, with a record of no wins, three losses. The Oakland A's were in first—three wins, no losses. Before that day was over, Ken Landreaux, who had been traded by the Twins during spring training for Los Angeles Lodger Mickey Hatcher— a young, eager, and inexpensive ballplayer, more Griffith's type of player—hit a double and a two-run homer to lead the Dodgers to a 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros. Mike Cabbage, who after four years with the Twins had signed on with the New York Mets for $150,000 a year—more than Griffith thought he was worth— stroked a pinch-hit sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth to drive home the winning run in the Mets' 2-1 defeat of the Chicago Cubs. Rod Carew, the seven-time American League batting champion, traded by the Twins to California in 1979—a year before he became eligible for free agency—stole home with two out in the ninth inning to break a 6-6 tie with the Seattle Mariners, and the Angels went on to win the game, 8-6. In Minnesota, meanwhile, the Twins were up against the scratch-and-run, anything-goes "Billy Ball" of Oakland manager Billy Martin, who was first employed as a major-league manager by Griffith, in 1969. The Twins won the Western Division championship that year, and Martin, wildly popular with the Minnesota fans and press, was fired on October 13, after the World Series.

Only 5,639 people thought the Twins' Sunday-afternoon game worth attending—the 42,658 who had come on Opening Day were rapidly being averaged into oblivion—but Griffith, number-one fan, presided over them as he always does, from a private eight-seat box on the third level of the stadium, over the first-base line. The box is enclosed in glass, with front panels that can be opened when the weather in Minnesota allows—say, June or July. Griffith sat in his regular corner, the one farthest from home plate, and his regular refreshment was waiting for him when he arrived: a can of Fresca, with two cups, one inside the other, the inner one filled with ice. Howard Fox, who seems to be Griffith's most trusted confidant and adviser, was also in the box, with a newspaper and a scorepad. Members of Griffith's extended family were elsewhere, as usual, but as usual plenty of comrades were in the grandstand seats just below the box. The people who sit there seem to be acutely aware of Griffith's presence behind them; when they want someone in front of them to sit down, they yell, "Down in front! Calvin wants to see the game!" or "Siddown, that comes right from the top!" Occasionally, when an umpire makes a questionable call against the Twins, one or two will stand up, turn around to face Griffith, spread their arms wide, and shake their heads vigorously in sympathy, exaggeratedly mouthing some expression of dismay. Often, a couple of teenage boys find their way to the back door of the box and come in to say hello or beg an autograph. "Don't you ever sell this team," they tell him. "We're with you a hundred percent." "I'm for ya," Griffith replies. "I don't want to sell it. Thank you."

There were plenty of distractions that Sunday, but Griffith rarely missed an important event on the field. After the first inning—the A's scored one run on a Rickey Henderson double, a sacrifice bunt, and a single by Dave Revering—Howard Fox passed Griffith his copy of Parade magazine, in a way that suggested it was a Sunday tradition, and Griffith pored through it eagerly, commenting on this article and that advertisement. "Mmmm … King Hussein has a food taster …Can you believe that the IRS can pull you out of your own automobile? Look at this"—he held up the magazine— "they dragged this girl right out of her automobile for not paying her taxes. Boy, I knew they were something, but I didn't know they could go that far. I'm gonna have to read this one. C'mon, Jackson, drive a run in in April this year instead of waiting till May."

Griffith had his head buried in a stat sheet when Mickey Hatcher, playing center field after a couple of shaky starts at first base, came to bat in the Twins' half of the third. Hatcher hit a hard grounder down the third-base line, took off for first as Wayne Gross fielded the ball on a high hop, and then, as Gross's throw was speeding across the diamond, stopped in mid-stride and turned back toward the plate. A voice from the back of the box asked what in the world was going on, and Griffith, without having noticeably lifted his eye from his reading material, explained that it was a foul ball.

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