This has been perhaps the most wonderful, magical year for the Twins and their fans. They were left for dead, and they came back. They have had several players emerge as true stars. They have clinched a spot in the playoffs. Heck, they even got funding for a new baseball stadium. And yet, for all this wonder, this season will feature one of the most bittersweet moments in recent Twins history, because tonight is the night that Brad Radke will make his final start. Oh, there's a chance he'll pitch in the playoffs. And a really slim shot that he'll come back next year. But when the dust settles tonight, we very well may have seen Radke for the last time. And as a Twins fan, there is not much that could make me more sad.
"Bradke", as he's known to fans, has been with the Twins for 12 seasons. It was the only organization he's ever known. First brought up in 1995, he's gone 148-139 in his career. At first blush, that doesn't look like the most spectacular record. Truth be told, at first blush, Radke doesn't look like the most spectacular pitcher. But look deeper and you'll be impressed at what you find.
Recall that the Twins were an absolutely miserable team in the mid and late 90's. Perennial bottom dwellers, the Twins were barely able to put a marketable product on the field. In many ways it was probably this stretch of awful teams that put the Twins up for contention when the contraction issue came about. Fortunately for Minnesota - and baseball - the Twins began to develop some very real talent, and all of that contraction talk went away. It's been a storied decade for the Twins - from horrible to hopeful, from contraction to contenders - and only one player has been there through it all: Brad Radke.
Here is a pitcher who was the single ray of sunshine during the darkest days of the 90's, poking through that little hole in the Metrodome roof. No matter how bad the Twins were, Radke was consistent. In 1997 he even managed to go 20-10 for a team that finished with 68 wins and 94 losses. So maybe his numbers don't look overwhelming. But when you consider who was playing behind him during those early years, his accomplishments begin to look substantially better.
More important than his stats has been Radke's steady presence. Throughout the 90's, and even up to today, the Twins have been a roster in flux. This is the curse of a small market, where players move on when they get too expensive, and new faces come up to take the open spots. Throughout all of the turmoil and roster turnover, Radke has been a calming influence. This was true for the new players, who looked to Radke for guidance and wisdom. If ever there was a pitcher who knew about working a hitter, Radke was it. He never had overpowering stuff, but he always seemed to get the job done. He worked hard with every pitch, always expanding the strike-zone, making hitters go after the pitch that he wanted them to hit. With his approach - throw strikes, make every pitch work for you - and his work ethic - always focused, dedicated to the task on hand - Radke had an amazing influence on the younger Twins players.
Radke's stability also had a wonderful effect in the Twin Cities, and around Minnesota. Radke and his wife Heather have always been very active in the community, spending significant time and money supporting children's organizations and hospitals, such as the Hennepin County Medical Center's neonatal ICU. Lots of ballplayers give back to the community, but Radke has gone above and beyond the call. Here is a player who seems genuinely grateful for everything he has, and who understands the importance of giving back to the community.
Radke has also been a wonderfully stable figure for Twins fans who needed someone they could relate to. When Kirby Puckett's career was tragically cut short many Twins fans lost their hero. Though a lot of people around the country looked up to Pucket, many never understood exactly why Puckett was a hero in Minnesota. The reason wasn't simply that he was a terrific player, but more so that he was our player. He was a Twin, through and through. When he thought about signing with Boston, that alone nearly killed hundreds of fans. We Minnesotans are fiercely loyal. And we want the same from our heroes. When we lost Kirby, we had nowhere to turn. There were no other career Twins.
Until Radke filled the void. Sure, he wasn't the spectacular athlete that Puckett was. And yeah, he gave up too many first-inning homers. But he was still our guy. And in Minnesota, that counts for a lot. Radke was always there, day in and day out. There was never any question about who was going to start our season (Until, of course, Santana came along...). We always knew who would lead our staff. Despite the constant turnover, there was always a player we could come back to, someone familiar who played a key role on the team. When the Twins started winning in 2001 they were doing it with new faces, players nobody knew. But thankfully there was still Radke. We didn't know these new guys, but we knew that with Radke as a leader we could trust that they'd all be out there bustin' their hump. Just like Brad. Radke has always exuded that same midwestern work ethic we Minnesotans cherish, and he was always reliable. Even the past couple years, despite a torn labrum, despite a stress fracture in his shoulder, Radke has sucked it up, and pitched through the pain. He's given everything he possibly could.
I'm unable to attend tonight's game. Something about me living in D.C. and the Twins playing in Minnesota. But I wish could. Of all the games they've played over the past 10 years, if I could pick one, this would be it. I wish I could be there to hear the ovation Radke will get when he steps onto that turf. And I wish I could be there to hear it when he steps back off. I wish I could be there to cheer every pitch, filled with joy that I got to watch this man for a dozen years, and filled with sadness that I have to say goodbye.
In Field of Dreams Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) delivers one of the most poignant speeches of American cinema:
"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again."
For Minnesota, Radke was our baseball. The Twins have been erased and rebuilt more times than I can count. But through it all, we've had Brad Radke.
Steady as she goes