Even in familiar surroundings, All-Star Game nervy for Perkins - NBC Sports

Even in familiar surroundings, All-Star Game nervy for Perkins
Twins lefty closed Midsummer Classic in hometown and at home stadium
July 17, 2014, 11:45 am

MINNEAPOLIS -- Well, like many dreams, this one starts in Rochester. I was there four years ago to write a story about a pitching phenom named Stephen Strasburg. He was pitching for Syracuse then, and he was the talk of baseball. As it goes when you write a story about one person, everyone else disappears into the background. I knew nothing whatsoever about the Rochester team. I was only looking over the Rochester roster to see if there was a familiar name who might talk a bit about Strasburg.

My jaw dropped. There was a familiar name. It was an old friend named Glen Perkins.

I had met Glen in a most unusual and somewhat embarrassing way: He wanted to meet me. I had been in Minnesota working on a story about Jim Thome, and when I walked out of the clubhouse one of the local writers wandered over and said: “Hey, have you stopped by to talk to Glen Perkins?”

And I said, “No. Who?”

“Glen Perkins. He’s a young pitcher on the team. He’s a big fan of yours.”

“I’m sorry. A big fan of mine?”

“Yeah. He wanted to come up to talk to you but he said he was too nervous.”

Like I say, I’m embarrassed to tell that story, but I tell it anyway because it tells you a little bit about Perk. That obviously never happened to me before, it has never happened to me since, it will never happen to me again. Glen is different. We did meet, and we went to get dinner and talk and we hit it off … but everyone hits it off with Perk. He’s that good a guy. He was a struggling starter when we first connected, a lefty with some good stuff who had some health issues and some consistency issues. His future in baseball was foggy.

The next time I saw him, he was a 27-year-old pitcher in Rochester -- and he really wasn’t getting many people out there. I just looked up his numbers that year: He was 4-9 with a 5.81 ERA. In Class AAA. You see a 27-year-old pitcher who has fallen out of the majors with those numbers, you are usually looking at someone who probably won’t be in baseball for too much longer. After the game, I found Glen and we talked for a long time. I remember Glen put on a brave face, and he talked about how he still believed in himself, but he was shaken. His career was closer to ending then blossoming.

That was four years ago. Four crazy years. On that day in Rochester, he was not even sure if he would ever play in the Major Leagues again. Instead, he became a baseball star. And Tuesday, Glen Perkins had a baseball day so good, it flew beyond childhood dreams.

* * *

Glen and Alisha Perkins woke up at the players' hotel at about 10 a.m. Tuesday -- later than usual but they had partied pretty late the night before. Well, of course they had: How often does the All-Star Game come to their home state of Minnesota anyway? The last time: 1985. Glen was 2 years old. He wasn’t old enough to carry a single memory of it, even though he lived just a few miles away.

They went downstairs to the All-Star Game brunch, where they drank Gatorade and Glen got his All-Star Game ring. He has two of those rings now -- he was chosen for the last year’s All-Star Game in New York too -- along with two Big Ten baseball championship rings from his time at Minnesota. He’d like to do something with those rings, a display maybe. He doesn’t wear rings. “Maybe if I won a World Series ring, I’d put that on,” he says. “I could see myself wearing that every so often if I was traveling or something. But an All-Star Game ring? I don’t need to walk around with an All-Star ring.”

At 1 p.m., he went downstairs to take part in the All-Star Game parade. He wondered how that would go. He had been in the All-Star Game parade in New York last year, and it was memorable, but it was also a bit odd. Perkins was one car behind Boston’s Dustin Pedroia and two cars ahead of New York Yankees legend Mariano Rivera. So as his car approached the New Yorkers who lined the street, he heard overwhelming boos for Pedroia. And as it pulled away he heard some of the loudest cheers he has ever heard for Mariano.

And in the short time between Pedroia’s loathing and Mariano’s love, he heard, well, not much. “I probably heard 20 or so people yell, ‘Hey Glen, I’ve got you on my fantasy team, keep on going,’” he says. “That was about it. … It was great, but I would say last year, I felt like just another guy at the All-Star Team, and an insignificant guy at that.”

Well, last year, Perkins was a somewhat shocking All-Star pick. His ascendance from struggling starter to dominant reliever went almost completely unnoticed nationally. The Twins had switched him from starter to reliever one year after Rochester, and his arm responded well. His fastball velocity jumped about five mph. It’s easy to make too much of fastball velocity, but in this case it was defining -- with a 95-mph fastball (instead of one that went 89 or 90), hitters fouled off pitches that they were hitting hard before. And because they braced for the fastball, Perkins’ slider became a strikeout pitch rather than a home run risk.

Perkins before Rochester: 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.3 homers per nine.

Perkins after Rochester: 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings, 0.7 homers per nine.

Someone this week asked Perkins if he was disappointed that it didn’t work out as a starter. He gave a typical Perkins answer: “I wanted to be a starter until I stunk at it. Then I wanted to be a reliever.”

In any case, this year’s All-Star Game parade was very different. This one was at home. Glen Perkins is just about as Minnesota as you get. He was born in St. Paul. He grew up in Stillwater, a quaint Minnesota town where the cabin scenes for “Fargo” were filmed. He went to the University of Minnesota. He was drafted in the first round by the Twins, the team he grew up loving. He’s a Garrison Keillor story.

He knew this would be a different kind of parade from New York. But he did not know HOW different. He and Alisha climbed into the back of a truck, and it started moving down rolling down the red carpet they had stretched along Nicollet Avenue, and right away he heard the cheers. They were louder than he expected. They were more personal than he expected too. He and Alisha waved and smiled, and they heard a few individuals -- “Hey, Glen, I played against you in high school!” and “I’m from Stillwater too!” Mostly it was just cheering.

Then the truck turned onto 7th and it stopped, and there were a lot of people there, thousands of people, and the cheers pushed up to 11, pushed to a sound Glen had heard before -- the sound he had heard for Mariano Rivera. Only this time those cheers were for him. Surreal.

“I Just stood up and clapped for them,” he said. “I mean, I didn’t really know what else to do.”

The parade dropped him off at the ballpark, and he made it into the clubhouse at about 1:30. At that point, things shifted a little bit, became more normal. He was back at his own locker in his clubhouse in the stadium where he pitches. He was back in a routine. Of course, it was different being around American League All-Stars instead of his Twins. It was different seeing Derek Jeter hanging out in front of Joe Mauer’s locker. But one thing that he’s learned at his two All-Star Game is how eerily alike baseball players are.

“It’s funny, this guy’s from Virginia, this guy’s from California, this guy’s from the Dominican Republic,” he says. “But we all like to fish. We all like to hunt. We tell the same jokes. Everyone’s different. But in a way, everybody’s the same too.”

He dressed like normal, went out for batting practice like normal and had baseball conversations with teammates like normal. Sometimes, it felt so normal he had to stop and remind himself that it wasn’t, that he had to take it all in. It wasn’t until he was lining up for All-Star Game introductions that he became fully aware for the moment. He expected cheers. But it turned out different from what he thought. There were special cheers for three players. One special cheer was for Pat Neshek, a Minnesotan who had played for the Twins and had overcome so much to be there. One was for Derek Jeter, playing in his last All-Star Game. And one -- perhaps even the loudest one -- was for Glen Perkins.

“I anticipated that,” he says. “But you don’t really know what it’s going to feel like.”

“What did it feel like?” I ask him.

“Overwhelming," he says. "I’ll tell you what I was thinking. There were probably 30,000 Minnesotans in the stands, right? I was thinking that with one turn here, one turn there, I would have been one of them in the crowd cheering. I’m a Minnesotan too, I’m no different from any of them, except my job is to play baseball.

“I think that’s what made it so emotional for me. I think the big reason people were cheering so loudly is because I’m from here. I mean, I’ve always tried to be as normal as I could, as accommodating as I could. I always make sure if I’m in a restaurant, I say, 'Hi,' I want to make it clear I’m the same. We’re all Minnesotans. I think that, even more than the baseball part, is why they were cheering. It was like, ‘We’re all Minnesotans and we’re proud of you.’ That was more emotional than I thought.”

He spent the first three innings in the dugout rather than the bullpen so he could see Derek Jeter’s last All-Star at-bats from a different perspective. He fully expected Jeter to do something great. “There’s something about greatness that comes out in the big moments,” he says. Before the game, Perkins saw Twins Director of Baseball Communications Dustin Morse nervously go over to Jeter to ask if he wanted the baseball retrieved from the crowd if he hit a home run. Jeter laughed and said, “I ain’t gonna hit a home run.”

Then Perkins went over to Morse and said: “I wouldn’t be too sure about that. The guy’s magical.” So Perkins was utterly unsurprised when Jeter rifled Adam Wainwright’s fastball to right field for a double. Magical. Perkins stood up and cheered like everyone else. “Legends like Derek Jeter have this ability to step into the spotlight,” he says, “and somehow make the spotlight even brighter.”

Then, it was time to go to the bullpen -- and that’s when Perkins started to get nervous. He had been told that American League manager John Farrell wanted to use him in the ninth inning, assuming the game worked out as hoped. So he tried to prepare himself like always. But it wasn’t like always. He usually waits until the seventh inning to down a Red Bull in anticipation of a save, but this time he nervously drank his Red Bull right when he got to the bullpen. Then, in some weird attempt to counter the Red Bull mistake, he drank another Red Bull. “I don’t do well with that much caffeine,” he says. So he started chomping on sunflower seeds to calm his nerves. That didn’t work either.

The game was close. The American League had scored three runs in the first, and Perkins would have been perfectly happy to go out there with a 3-0 lead. But the National League had tied it. This was a bit much. He didn’t want to go into a tie game or even one with a one-run lead. “It’s hard enough to do that in a June game against the Royals,” he says. “To do that in an All-Star Game?”

In the seventh, he began to play catch -- his usual warm-up routine. And he waited. “It was horribly, excruciatingly long,” he says. “It felt like forever to get from the seventh inning to when it was my time.”

The American League scored two more runs and had a 5-3 lead in the ninth. The phone rang. It was Perkins’ time. He began his typical warm-up. At this point, he says, he barely remembers anything. He felt some weird mix of familiar (this is, after all, what he does) and childhood terror (he was about to pitch in the All-Star Game in his hometown). When it was his time, he jogged on the field and that amazing sound of the crowd roared, and he told himself to slow down. He was only jogging, but he said it felt like he was sprinting like Usain Bolt.

He went the mound and threw seven warm-up pitches. It’s always seven for Perkins, even though relievers are granted eight. When he finished, the umpire said to him: “Uh, you still have another minute and 15 seconds.” Perkins wasn’t quite sure what to do, so he just stood there and listened and looked out at the stadium. I ask him if this was the time when he thought about the journey, about growing up a Twins fan, about the hard times when it seemed like he would never get here, about the craziness of his story. He said: “No. I guess it would be more dramatic if I was thinking about all that. I really wasn’t thinking at all. I was really just standing there and waiting.

“I can always hear the crowd cheer. I heard them start a “Let’s go Perkins” chant. I wanted to step out, be able to take it all in. It was so cool. It was beyond a playoff environment. It was a carnival. But I stayed tethered to the moment. I had a job to do. I really didn’t want to pitch badly. That would have ruined all of it.”

The first batter was a lefty, Arizona catcher Miguel Montero. “The last time I faced him, he pulled a fastball through the right side for a single,” Perkins says. He started Montero off with a 95-mph fastball that he hoped Montero would take for a strike. That worked out. Then he threw a slider outside, hoping Montero might hit it to the left side. Montero flew out harmlessly to left-center.

“If he had fouled that off, I would have gone for the strikeout,” Perkins says. “In a way I kind of wanted him to foul it off so I could try for the strikeout. But, really, my philosophy as a closer is to try and get the first out as fast as possible. I haven’t really studied the numbers on it, but obviously, teams are going to score fewer runs with one out and nobody on than with nobody out and a man on first base. I wanted to try for the strikeout then, but now I’m glad he flew out.”

The second batter was Pittsburgh utility man deluxe Josh Harrison, and Perkins had never faced him before. “He seemed to me a standard, good right-handed hitter,” Perkins says. “I wanted to start him off with a fastball in that hopefully he would take for a strike.” That’s exactly what happened. Then Perkins threw him two more fastballs, hoping that he would foul off one. And that happened also. It was all going eerily well. Perkins had a 1-2 count and had his chance for the strikeout.

“I tried to throw a slider in the dirt to get him,” Perkins says. “But I didn’t quite get it into the dirt. He sort of clunked it foul. I had him ahead. I knew if I threw another slider but got this one to the dirt, he would swing over it. And I threw a better slider, and that’s just what happened.”

Two outs. The Minnesota cheers, at this point, were a constant. Perkins’ heart rate had slowed to its usual beat. He was just a pitcher now, just a guy trying to get the third out. The batter was Colorado outfielder Charlie Blackmon. Perkins had just faced him on Sunday in Colorado -- struck him out on a slider. He admits thinking, just for an instant, how great it would be to end this on a strikeout. But he missed the plate with first pitch fastball. He had to get a strike so he threw the fastball again, and Blackmon grounded out to second.

And, like that, it was over.

If Perkins thought that the bullpen experience was a blur, what followed was something even more confusing and disorienting. The next few minutes was a barrage of cheers and pats on the back and half-completed thoughts. One thing he did remember clearly was thinking that he wanted that baseball, wanted it for his children, wanted it so he could reach out and touch this moment again. Chicago’s Jose Abreu had it and was waiting for him.

The rest -- applause and pats on the back and repetitive questions about how he felt. “You guys know that I don’t usually have any problem talking,” he told reporters. “But I don’t know how to put any of this into words.” His mind rushed so fast and in so many directions that he found that he could not move. Public relations people shuffled him around. Then he sat in the clubhouse and accepted the many congratulations. Oakland’s Scott Kazmir told him, “Man, I felt goosebumps when you were out there.” And players started to leave … but Perkins just sat there in a daze. Soon he and the equipment guys were the only one in the clubhouse. He wordlessly watched them pack things up.

“It just doesn’t compute, you know?” he says. “It just doesn’t even make sense. To close out an All-Star Game in our home park in the state where I grew up … you don’t even dream about stuff like that when you’re five. You might dream of playing in the All-Star Game. But this? I couldn’t process it.”

After a long while, when he finally felt together enough to move, he walked out to meet Alisha. She had been going through many of the same emotions. They went to a familiar hangout in Minneapolis and talked about it all, but they were both too excited to make any sense of it. They went to bed late and exhausted. Wednesday morning, Glen and Alisha and their two young daughters packed up from the hotel and headed toward home a few miles away.

On the way, they bought paddleboards and they went paddleboarding out on the lake near their home. It was 85 degrees, perfectly calm on the lake, a perfect Minnesota summer day. “You know, in a weird way, I still don’t believe the game happened,” he says. “I was out there today with my family on the nicest day of summer, and that’s what I thought: Did that really happen? I think I’m going to watch it on TV tonight. We recorded it, so I think I’ll watch it. See how other people saw it.”

And with that, I ask Glen Perkins one more question: What did he do with the baseball? He laughs for a second. “You know what?” he says. “It’s still in the glove in my locker. I forgot it.” 

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

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