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Monday, March 19, 2012

Kent Hrbek's Last Game

Most of us remember Kent Hrbek for his lumbering physique, affable nature, power swing, underrated defense and, of course, his roles on the 1987 and 1991 World Series teams. Do you remember how his career came to an end? I bet some of you do, but others might have been too young (gasp!) to recall. Hrbek was 34 years old for most of the 1994 baseball season. Though he had been healthy and productive most of his career, injuries and age (code for "weight" and "not taking great care of yourself once your metabolism slows down") started taking their toll on him following the 1991 season. He batted .284 in 1991, .244 in 1992, and .242 in 1993.

I wish they would bring these jerseys back.
Maybe with buttons, though.
1994, of course, was the year that there was no postseason due to the baseball strike. The strike began on August 12, 1994, and lasted until April 2, 1995. As a 14 year old, I was just old enough to begin to understand some of the economics, but still young enough not to understand how the heck baseball could be cancelled.

Hrbek played in 81 games in 1994, and put together a decent season for a guy whose best days were clearly behind him. He ended up with a .270/.353/.420 slash line, hit 10 home runs, and drove in 53 runs. The Twins finished in 4th place that season, at 53-60. Their last game that season was August 10, home at the Metrodome, against the Red Sox, who, like the Twins, finished 4th in their division with a 54-61 record. The Twins ended up winning big, 17-7. Hrbek batted 6th in the order. In fact, the starting lineup was pretty decent:

Chuck Knoblauch 2B.
Scott Leius 3B.
Kirby Puckett RF.
Shane Mack CF.
Dave Winfield DH.
Kent Hrbek 1B.
Pedro Munoz LF.
Matt Walbeck C.
Pat Meares SS.

Hrbek played the entire game. Here's how his night went:

In the first inning, Hrbie came up with two outs and the bases loaded . . . and was hit by a pitch, scoring buddy Puckett. The Twins take a 1-0 lead, and Hrbek gets credited with an RBI (and probably also gets a bruise somewhere).

This was not a defensive struggle, and Hrbek led off the third inning, the Twins up 5-3 by now. He took a called third against Scott Bankhead, the second pitcher of the night for the Red Sox. In fact, Hrbek's third at-bat, in the fifth inning, wasn't much better. The Twins were leading 9-3. Hrbek struck out swinging to end a scoring threat, stranding Puckett on third, Mack on second, and Jeff Reboulet (in as a sub) on first. But don't worry -- Hrbek would redeem himself.

By the seventh inning, the Red Sox had made it a game. Mo Vaughn had just homered off of Mike Trombley in the top of seventh to bring the Sox within two runs. Hrbek came to the plate, again with the bases loaded. Puckett was on third, Mack on second, and Reboulet had just bunted for a single. On a 2-1 count, Hrbek laced a line drive single past second base, scoring Puckett and Mack. He would later score on a Pat Meares single.

The Twins would actually bat around in that seventh inning. Hrbek came up again, but by now the Twins were up 17-7. He flew out to center field on the second pitch he saw. That would be his last career at-bat. For the night, Hrbie ended up 1-for-5, with 3 RBIs and 2 strikeouts. He was also credited with 11 put-outs and 1 assist on defense. It's interesting that he came to bat 3 times with the bases loaded in a single game. And that hit-by-pitch in the first inning -- it was the only time he was hit that entire season.

I wonder if Hrbek had 100 percent decided that he would indeed retire after that game -- if he knew that August 10, 1994 would be the last time he would wear #14 as a player? What do you think he did after the game? My guess would be beers and pranks in the clubhouse with Puckett and some of the other guys (Hrbek never seemed a somber one), but given the fact that the strike was commencing, who knows if the players were even allowed to linger like they normally would.

It's easy to remember Puckett's final at-bat, unfortunately, because he was hit in the face with a Dennis Martinez fastball. It's easy to remember Ted Williams' final at-bat, September 28, 1960, because he hit a home run in Boston, beyond that cavernous Bermuda triangle near center field. Not to imply that Hrbek was on the same level as Puckett or Williams, but he was important, and remains important, in Twins Territory. His career ended in strange circumstances. Sure, the Twins weren't going to win the division and go to the playoffs, but perhaps Hrbek (and the other players that saw their last MLB action in August, 1994) wish they left the game under different circumstances. Hrbek, at least, received a much better sendoff the very next season, after the strike ended, when the Twins retired #14, and he officially became a legend in Minnesota Twins history.

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