Still having a ball

Kent Hrbek retired from playing baseball decades ago, but he still works for the Minnesota Twins — when he isn't fishing, hunting or hanging out with his friends. Photos by Tracy Walsh Photography

Kent Hrbek
Kent Hrbek retired from playing baseball decades ago, but he still works for the Minnesota Twins — when he isn't fishing, hunting or hanging out with his friends. Photos by Tracy Walsh Photography

Proof that time flies like a grand slam in the World Series: Already it’s been 26 summers since Kent Hrbek retired as employee No. 14 from his corner office at first base with the Minnesota Twins.

“My buddies joke that I should write a book about retirement,” Hrbek said during a recent interview. “I should be an expert by now.”

The two-time world champion may be in his second quarter century of post-professional life, yet in some ways he’s just getting warmed up. Earlier this year Hrbek turned 60. Meaning, he’s only now the age when many people mark the date they’ll stop working. What’s for sure is that he doesn’t feel old.

“It’s just a number to me,” he said of the milestone. “I was happy to turn 60, and I will be just as happy to make it to 61.”

Some athletes struggle to adjust after the games are over. Hrbek, who retired from baseball when he was only 34, doesn’t seem to be among them.

“I pinch myself every day,” he said. “Every morning I say to myself, ‘Boy, you’re lucky, Kent.’”

Father and time

Hrbek may be “humbled” and “blessed” — two other words he used to describe his life — but he also knows that no amount of time is a given.

“My father never got to enjoy a day of retirement in his life,” Hrbek said.

It’s an under-appreciated story what Hrbek endured during his first years as a Twin, being a 21-, 22-year-old breaking into the big leagues as his father, Ed Hrbek, was suffering with and eventually succumbing to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I’m living his retirement,” said Hrbek.

Retirement tips

Only when asked did Hrbek offer retirement advice. “You have to have hobbies,” he said. There’s nothing wrong with watching television once in awhile, he said, but you need more than that. Hrbek has always had other things in his life besides baseball.

This is a guy, recall, who went duck hunting in the hours between Games 6 and 7 of the 1987 World Series. For several years he hosted an outdoors show on local television. He still hunts, fishes, golfs, goes camping with his daughter and “dinks around in the yard,” planting flowers and vegetables.

Hrbek and his wife of more than 30 years divorced a few years ago. It was to him a “shocker.” He now has a girlfriend, Kristen Thoen, who had no idea he was a baseball player when they met. He said he’s had fun getting to know her, going out, dating again.

He also messes around with his buddies and otherwise has a good time. He and his friends make sure to regularly mark their calendars with fishing trips and the like so they don’t “let the old man in,” he said, echoing the lyrics from the popular Toby Keith song.

That’s why the fun-loving moniker “Herbie,” broken off his vowel-challenged surname, was apt; Hrbek doesn’t seem to take anything overly seriously. “That’s always been my M.O.,” he said. “I try to enjoy life. I’m a pretty stress-less guy.”

And, as he enjoys his extended retirement, he’s never alone. “I take [my father] with me,” he said, “when I’m doing these things.”

Kent Hrbek and his girlfriend, Kristen Thoen, relax in the baseball-themed room Hrbek created at his Bloomington home.

A Twin from the start

There was never a time, really, when Kent Hrbek wasn’t a Minnesota Twin.

His relationship with the team began not unlike that of most fans of the era: through the sound of Herb Carneal calling games on WCCO.

Hrbek’s mother, Tina Hrbek, had an old green transistor radio, and she would always listen to Twins games, even while hanging clothes out on the line, as Kent played whiffle ball in the backyard of his boyhood home in Bloomington. “Herb Carneal was like part of the family,” Hrbek said from his adult home in Bloomington.

Here’s how Hrbek knew he had made it: In 1981, the same kid who had been playing whiffle ball in a backyard that was a bicycle ride away from Metropolitan Stadium, the first home of the Twins, was playing in that stadium and “wouldn’t you know it?” Hrbek said, “Herb Carneal was saying my name through that green transistor radio.”

Still part of the team

In truth, Hrbek still works. You’ve no doubt seen him on television promoting Carrier air conditioners for Minnesota Air. He started doing the spots during his playing days. Over time he and the company’s owner, Mike Metzger, became close, so he never stopped helping his friend. “There are some people who know me more for selling air conditioners than from the Twins,” Hrbek said, laughing.

Hrbek’s also still employed by the Twins. He meets with sponsors and other friends of the team, shaking hands and telling stories, and could there be a better person to represent the team?

Hrbek was born shortly before the Twins were — he entered the world in 1960 and the team that would be called the Twins arrived from Washington, D.C. in 1961. As a kid he ran around the bleachers at the Met. He’s a key figure in the greatest moments in the history of the Metrodome. He has a restaurant with his name on it at Target Field. He was drafted by the Twins in 1978 and has worked for the organization ever since. Not since before Tina first turned on her radio has there been a time Kent wasn’t pulling for the Twins.

Kent Hrbek
Kent Hrbek

Retirement could’ve been different

But for one decision during his career he seriously considered making, Hrbek’s life today might be very different. Before he signed his last contract in 1989, he received significant offers from Boston and Detroit. He could have gotten somewhat more money, he said, and remembers emotional conversations with his then-wife. Imagine how that one decision would have altered not just the rest of his playing career — no 1991 World Series, for starters — but also every year of retirement. Almost certainly there’s no statue of Hrbek outside Target Field, no restaurant inside and maybe no role with the team.

Ultimately, he couldn’t see himself as anything but a Twin and, to this day, he said he has a hard time putting on “a hat with another [team’s] logo on it.” If it’s not a Twins hat, it doesn’t feel right.

Mr. Minnesota Twin

He had a Hall-of-Fame swing and he was gifted with his glove. Jim Kaat, who won 16 Gold Gloves as a Major League pitcher, called Hrbek the greatest fielding first baseman he ever saw.

Still, no one argues that Hrbek is the greatest player in Twins history. His career wasn’t long enough or productive enough — only once did he appear in 150 games — to be a serious candidate for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Yet in another way Hrbek is distinguished from all other Twins in his relationship with the team.

Neighbor. Fan. Draft ee. All-Star. World Champion. Ambassador. Restaurant namesake. As a player, he even famously helped public address announcer Bob Casey tell fans there’s “noooooo smoking in the Metrodome.” No one is more enmeshed in the living history of a Minnesota sports organization.

He’s in many ways Mr. Minnesota Twin. It’s a title he cannot retire anytime soon. For who else could assume it?

Kent Hrbek with his World Series trophies
Kent Hrbek with his World Series trophies. Photos by Tracy Walsh

Sweeter with time

With deference to the old Minneapolis Lakers and the modern-day Minnesota Lynx, the Twins’ World Series wins in ’87 and ’91 are unique in Minnesota sports history. Nothing compares to the way those title runs were celebrated.

You may wonder if Hrbek gets tired of fans (or nondescript writers) asking him about events that took place half a lifetime ago. He never gives the impression it’s a burden but a gift . He talks not just of the moments we all recall but also the time he was part of what he calls “an only.” On July 17, 1990, he and teammates Gary Gaetti and Al Newman turned two triple plays in the same game against the Boston Red Sox. The Twins remain the lone team in history to perform that trick.

Of course, the World Series wins were pinnacles which Hrbek seems to appreciate no less today.

“Over time you find out [winning championships] isn’t an easy thing to do,” he said. “It’s more special as the years go on.”

Tom Swift is the author of Chief Bender’s Burden, winner of the Seymour Medal for best baseball book of the year. He lives in Minneapolis.