Southern Minny Stars 1997 – ;br; Who loves ya baby

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 13, 1999

Boy, could he sweat, that Juan Berenguer.

Friday, August 13, 1999

Boy, could he sweat, that Juan Berenguer.

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I can just spot him clear as a knuckleball. Standing there, bull drenched, sweat manufacturing from every pore, at the concession stand, soaking in a soda during the seventh-inning stretch and hollering to manager Kevin Graber, "Keven, I can go another."

I was there the night Berenguer tossed nine innings on the Fourth of July in 1997 – the longest fireworks display of the evening courtesy of Senor Smoke.

There were a lot of people at that game. Seven-hundred or so may be stretching it. My parents were there. I wanted to let them in on Austin’s least-kept secret – the Southern Minny Stars were the best ticket in town.

They played with a cocksureness that only comes with the belief that you could have any woman in town.

But this isn’t about the Bull-Durham antics of the Stars. Because what they did better than anything else was play baseball.

Berenguer was just the tip of the iceberg.

There was Doug Kimbler, the stocky second baseman who brought with him every trick they ever taught you in the minor leagues. I saw him make a play one night – two-hopper behind the bag, gloved, then flipped (still using the glove) behind his back into the covering shortstop’s leather – that I saw later the same night on SportsCenter as performed by Craig Biggio or somebody like that.

There was Eddie Gerald. The first time I talked to him he was basking in a sofa placed straight behind home plate and midway up the bleachers. He talked about having a monster year. Only he couldn’t throw. Oh, he tried it a couple of games, but couldn’t go. Off-season elbow surgery left him a DH, which I’m not complaining about. He handled the part well, playing the best hitter on the prairie. Like Juan did sweat, Gerald oozed talent. He hit with runners on base like nobody’s business and just loved to bang those game-winning homers. He was once a Twins prospect who got lost behind one of the many Kent Hrbek replacement projects.

Speaking of homers, Ramon "Pico" Vega one night hit two home runs while Patrick Reusse was at the game to do a story on Juan. I remember Reusse say out of the side of his mouth, "Who’s this Vega-guy? He looks like Babe Ruth to me."

Vega was anything but. Well, not entirely. He had the smoking and the drinking down right. Don’t ask me where I heard that.

One nice thing about the ’97 Stars was they won. Made it to the Prairie League’s North Division Championship Series and lost to Minot. It was a downer, because all season long the Stars had been hunting the Mallards. The Stars rise to the best record in Prairie League baseball was founded on big early season series wins over the Mallards, the league’s perennial force. So the Stars earned respect early and often.

The guy pushing the buttons was Graber. A young skipper who had a heart of gold and a body of steel. He’d fought off cancer in his chest twice by 27. Last time I heard, he was fired from his last baseball gig and working a more pedestrian career. I thought it hard to believe, because he really managed lightening in a bottle in 1997. I don’t think that’s an easy thing to do.

I’m looking at the media guide photo of Joe Gordon. He had a real good camp. Drove here from California and hit right out of the car for two weeks. Then stunk it up at the plate in the regular season. A week in, Graber cuts him. That’s exactly seven days after Graber said he digs him and keeps him aboard. Graber wasn’t afraid to win. He shipped out what he didn’t like and brought in whatever he did, including Kimbler – in retrospect, the team’s MVP as it’s No. 2 hitter and defensive stopper. Kimbler was a former Cubs guy who got stuck in Mudville.

They were all frail characters who knew they were spinning on the black hole of professional baseball.

But, like Sean McKamie our shortstop, the Stars were all Smooth. And I like my baseball teams the way I like my whiskey.

Brady Slater’s column appears Fridays