When people think of Minnesota, they generally think of snow, cold, winter, Prince (not the Fielder type), mosquitoes, snow, ice, Garrison Keillor, snow, cold, Bob Dylan, hockey, snow, ice, "Fargo" ... and did I mention snow and cold and ice?
Yet despite its northern latitudes and cold, lengthy winters, Minnesota has a baseball culture and history as strong and vibrant as anywhere in the country.
"It's kind of ironic that in a northern state, where you think hockey would be the dominant sport, baseball has a prominent place here," St. Paul native and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor says. "I'm not sure where that tradition began, but I know the Twins coming here in 1961 was a huge part for me as a young kid developing the passion. We have a lot of ways we show that we love baseball, whether it's showing support for the Minnesota Twins or enormous youth programs, high school programs and American Legion programs. And then, even when you're done playing, you join your amateur town team and you play baseball until your 70s. It's just a great phenomenon.
"People gravitate to this game in Minnesota."
Do they ever. The Twins were the first American League team to draw 3 million fans -- they did it a full decade before the Yankees did -- and some of those amateur town teams Molitor mentions occasionally draw crowds larger than the home team city's entire population. Why wouldn't they, though? Minnesota has been the site of some of the greatest baseball you can ever hope to see, including the greatest game in World Series history: Jack Morris' 1-0, 10-inning shutout in Game 7 in 1991. Morris pitched it just miles from his boyhood home.
Molitor, Morris, Dave Winfield, Joe Mauer, Kent Hrbek, Terry Steinbach and 2014 All-Star Glen Perkins were born and raised in Minnesota. Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Roy Campanella and Duke Snider played minor league ball in the state, although they were born elsewhere. Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven played with the Twins. And the Twins have won two World Series, in 1987 and '91, the memories of which can still warm the heart on the coldest night in January (or April).
All this baseball in a state where the winters are so cold and long that the Twins started a game in subfreezing temperatures this April, and the independent St. Paul Saints will hold a polar vortex snow globe giveaway night in August.
Perhaps that's exactly what makes baseball so precious here.
"It signals the coming of spring and summer, and that's what we look forward to up here," Twins reliever Caleb Thielbar says. "Spring and summer are always nice seasons up here. It's kind of the thing to do in summer. You got rid of winter, now you can go outside and play on the fields."
Perhaps no one epitomizes the state's love of the game better than Thielbar, who grew up in Randolph, a small town of roughly 400 people 30 miles south of the Twin Cities. He played town team ball while he dreamed of a major league career. He kept those dreams alive by playing for the St. Paul Saints. And now he pitches for the Twins, the team he and his parents grew up rooting for.