Remembering Brad Radke
When Kirby Puckett went down in the spring in 1996, I think I was still too young to really comprehend what it would mean to the Minnesota Twins. There seemed to be some confusion and a bit of doubt about his future, but there was always hope and speculation that he'd be able to get back onto the field. Or maybe that was just me being young, and reading into things exactly what I wanted to see.
The next few years would be pretty harsh on the Twins, a stretch I've personally dubbed The Dark Years, simply because of how competetive the teams Minnesota fielded were. Or weren't. As time passed and I started looking for other players, for leadership or production or role model or most likely a combination of all three, a couple of names skimmed the surface before disappearing forever. Chuck Knoblauch soon left, and Marty Cordova wasn't exactly the stud he was made out to be. But then, in the summer of 1997, I found hope in the name of Brad Radke.
I knew who Radke was. He was in his third year, looked like a decent enough player who could succeed if his offense would support him. That's actually what I thought. I naturally wasn't aware of how accurate that statement would be in the years to come.
I noticed because it was exatly one month after my birthday. Sure, I'd read about a little streak in the paper, but until July 15, 1997, I wasn't really paying attention. That day Radke went seven innings against the White Sox in Minneapolis, striking out three and allowing five hits en route to an 8-4 win. It was Radke's eighth win in a row, elevating him to a record of 12-5. At the time I didn't quite understand the whole concept of winning and losing as the starting pitcher, but I did know that wins were a good thing. And if one guy can win that many games, when his team insists on losing every time he doesn't pitch, he had to be good. So I started paying attention, and I finally had someone to cheer for again.
For the next ten years I cheered for Brad Radke.
Brad won 12 consecutive decisions that summer, eventually winning his 20th game of the year on September 21. He went 10 innings against the Brewers, holding on until Paul Molitor would triple to score Brent Brede. Radke threw just 123 pitches that game, 93 for strikes. But that was pretty much his MO.
Radke never won more that 15 games again, but he could have had he played on better teams. That was one of his biggest appeals, signing an extension to stay in Minnesota for significantly less money than he could have made on the open market. New York or Boston would have snapped him up in a second, but Radke wasn't about to leave. Not only did his family like it where they were, but Brad wanted to stick around to help the Twins complete their rebound.
Minnesota rebounded, avoided contraction, won four division titles in the last five years of Radke's career. Click here to read The Ice King Cometh, my account of Radke's final regular season start. Brad's career meant something to me, first as a fan of the Twins but eventually as a fan of the man himself:
You know that this game and this appearance mean something to Brad, and it's what that fact implies that magnifies the situation. He's not just doing it for the Twins because they need some stability in the rotation going into the playoffs, but he's doing it for himself as well. This game and baseball in general still mean something to Radke, and he's determined not to leave it until he lets it go. This is his last campaign, and he's not about to let it be taken from him.
Inning one came and went with nothing to tell. Seven strikes, five balls, three outs and zero signs of trouble. The crowd stood and applauded, and just like every other inning in his career Radke began a slow walk toward the dugout; head down, no expression. Like every other inning he did his job, and he asked for no ovation.
For five innings the process repeated itself. He left the mound after those five innings and fifty-seven pitches, for what would be the last time. As I had every inning, I watched him leave the mound and cross the field, and descend the dugout steps. I told myself I was looking for signs of pain or signs of fatigue, but really I was trying to engrain the memory of a great player who is everything I admire in an athlete into my mind. This was the last time I'd see Brad Radke pitch in person, and I wanted to remember it.
When time passes you tend to forget the intimate details of certain situations, instead recalling the bigger picture. So we tend to forget how much pain Radke pitched through in his final seasons with the club, and how much it meant to the organization at the time that he took the hill.
Brad finished his career with integrity, something he'd carried with him his twelve seasons in a Twins uniform. The numbers tell their own tale: fourth in wins, third in walks per nine, eighth in games played (pitchers only on this one), fifth in innings pitched, fifth in strikeouts, third in games started, fifth in batters face and, naturally, first in home runs allowed.
I always enjoyed watching Bradke pitch, and he's the only pitcher (Johan Santana included) who I would will to get a winning decision every time he got the start. He was always a consumate professional, and there's no doubt that he deserves his induction into the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame.
Thanks for the memories, Brad. It was an honor to watch you pitch.
Some additional Radke: