Sports fans are entitled to various idiosyncrasies, and mine include disproportionate affection for Brad Radke, Twins pitcher from 1995 through 2006. “Disproportionate” is the term others would apply; I feel entirely justified in proclaiming Radke among my all-time favorite players. Here’s my three-point case for Radke.
First, he played his entire career for the Twins. Around the middle of his career, the current free agent bonanza started up in earnest. A player with any kind of success whatsoever was supposed to change teams and quadruple his salary as soon as his first day of free agency came round.
Radke was not the CC Sabathia of his day, but he was a notch or two above some typical recent cash-ins, like Gil Meche, Carl Pavano, and Erik Bedard. The starkest parallel is to Johan Santana, who came into the Twins rotation alongside Radke. No, Radke couldn’t have gotten Santana dollars, but he certainly could have left Minnesota as Santana did. Santana left for the sake of leaving, as the Mets topped the Twins’ offer by a negligible amount but offered a preferred zip code. Radke didn’t leave for money, and he didn’t leave for fame. In fact, it appears he may have stayed not only because he liked the Twins organization plenty well, but because bigger city was not to his liking.
Point two: he was a finesse pitcher, who played with wits and cunning. He had a fine fastball, but it wasn’t atomic, nor possessed of as much movement as the Roger Clemens signature heater. He had an above average curveball, which he could throw ahead or behind in the count, but, again, it wasn’t the curveball of the ages. Then he had a changeup. His arm action sold it as a fastball, and it was an out pitch that left the strikeout victim muttering on the way back to the dugout.
Radke changed speeds well, and he also pitched to the corners. He liked to start a hitter with a strike that might glide just low enough to fool him. Then another strike, this one biting the inside. Third pitch was often well outside, and plenty of batters chased it. Radke moved the ball left and right, up and down, fast and slow. It sounds simple, but it isn’t. Many pitchers try to overwhelm with power, but Radke was very Greg Maddux-like in his craft.
Radke had two crucial flaws, and they got larger toward the end of his career. He let hitters get under the ball, and this could lead to easy outfield plays. It could also lead to home runs. It often led to home runs. It led to some home runs in playoff games that Radke, and all Twins fans, would prefer not to recall. (Oakland, Anaheim. . . )
His other flaw was pretty puzzling. It always seemed like more a statistical anomaly than a real trait, but year after year it only grew more prominent. Radke could not get through the first inning without giving up runs. I don’t have the stats at my command, but I have a well-formed memory of seeing him stake the opposing team to a lead game after game. It didn’t always sink the Twins, but playing with your back to the wall is never desirable. He tried everything to shake this bugbear, shuffling his game-starting routine in myriad ways, but there was something about starting a game that just made him crazy. If he didn’t allow a score in the first, all the Twins fans sighed with relief and assumed he’d march on to the win; certainly the odds swung all the way round into his favor.
Radke was otherwise a solid pitcher, capable of going deep in games and deep into the season. He pitched over 200 innings nine of his twelve years, and the injuries that prevented him the other times were severe. The high inning consumption rate was one reason I located him when trolling for players on my first fantasy team. I latched onto Radke for fantasy baseball and lived and died with his every start. It was watching Radke that got me watching the Twins. When he retired three years ago, I wasn’t truly sure I’d stay a fan, but here I am. Here I am, watching Kevin Slowey pitch with quite a bit of Radke about him.
Point three: Radke pitched well when it counted, and boosted the Twins into the playoffs four times. He won 20 games in 1997, though he never came close in subsequent years. It was his stellar season, and he came in third in the Cy Young voting behind the roadblock of Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson.
He pitched when he hurt, working through a torn labrum and stress fracture in his shoulder in his final season. He pitched hurt and he pitched hard and I’d like to interpret his work as pitching with heart. From all I could see, he was committed to the Twins and his teammates.
So perhaps I have made a sufficiently airtight case for you to understand why I named my cat Radley as a concatenation of Bradley and Radke. I doubt I’ve persuaded you that Radke belongs in the hall of fame. I couldn’t put him there myself—a career 4.22 ERA and merely average W-L and WHIP means that Radke stands out for durability more than dazzle.
Still, among Twins, he’s a standout, ranking third in wins and fourth in strikeouts among Twins pitchers. Saturday night, he was inducted into the Twins own Hall of Fame. That means a vinyl banner hangs in the Metrodome for the last 40 or so games to be played there. I hope a less plastic-based shrine awaits him in the new park.
As Radke would say later to the TV commentators Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven, as soon as he heard in January that he would be called to the Twins Hall, the need to make a speech was on his mind. It must have weighed heavily. While he was still playing, I heard an anecdote that once Radke and two other Twins player were asked into the TV booth for a little interview and commentary. They were there for ten minutes or so. And when it was all over, the Twins players realized that Radke hadn’t said a word.
But Saturday night, Radke did just fine. He spoke haltingly, and with some emotion, thanking teammates, friends, and fans. Nothing special, just your standard sports hero clichés, but Radke is so sincere that you pause to listen. To listen and to remember him playing, playing with dignity and that stoicism that was the closest he could get to joy.
Just a few bits of flashback video brought it all back to me—the high leg kick, sure, and the downward follow through. But I also remembered what they edited out, his inessential motions on the mound. There was the pointed toe scuffing the dirt in a sharp line, and the look down into the glove. His earnest, impassive face. Radke at peace with his pitching skills, a picture I want to keep forever.
The game following the short induction ceremony was a Twins loss. The White Sox, powered by four runs batted in by Jim Thome, won 8-7. The game had some zigs and zags, but the Twins were always chasing a White Sox lead.
They closed in a couple times, most notably using the bottom of the ninth to pull within one run. Even with two out, a tie seemed possible, but Chicago closer Bobby Jenks finally shut them down.
The Twins are back at their all-too-familiar .500 mark, and have won only three of eight against the Sox so far this season. It was a loss, but I enjoyed tipping my cap to Brad Radke once again.