From left, Maureen Marek, Al Smith, and Patrick Marek at Al’s 87th birthday party.

Post Card: The last caravan


(6/6/2018)

Godspeed Al Smith

by Publisher Patrick P. Marek

Say it ain’t so. When I heard the sad news that my friend Al Smith had passed away, I immediately thought back to a day last December when I noticed that the message button was lit on my phone. It was Al Smith … and he sounded excited. “Patrick. I have important news about this year’s Twins’ Caravan. Call me right away!”

My first thought was that it was a miracle that Al Smith was calling me at all. Last summer Al was battling with cancer, and the fight wasn’t going well. Then, an invitation to Al’s 87th birthday arrived in the mail. Apparently, he had rallied in the ninth, and was going for extra innings. The party was at Holzinger Lodge and it was attended by over 300 of Al’s closest friends. He was skinny, to be sure, but Al was at his best: full of energy, greeting each guest personally and sharing stories and memories. We feasted on pulled pork, beans, and birthday cake, and serenaded Al with “Happy Birthday,” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” It was a very good day.

After I listened to Al’s message I gave him a call. He answered on the first ring. He gave me the “exclusive” on when the Twins were coming to town, and provided a head’s up (not for publication of course) on the proposed line-up of who was going to represent the team. It was a Twins fan’s dream that included Hall of Famers Jack Morris and Paul Molitor, World Series hero and current broadcaster Dan Gladden, current players Eduardo Escobar and Alan Busenitz, and of course ... TC the Bear. For $12, you would receive a chicken dinner with all the trimmings, free personal autographs from the players, and the chance to win great prizes, including tickets to Al’s spectacular seats at Target Field. Sound good? Al was worried because he had to raise the price a dollar to cover increased food costs.

I tried to explain to Al, that with this line-up of stars, he could charge a lot more per ticket, and still sell out. The autographs from the two Hall of Famers alone were worth hundreds of dollars on the open market. Al would have none of it. He wanted to make sure that families could afford to come to the event and that the kids would get the chance to meet their favorite players.

That was vintage Al Smith. As a veteran of many Winter Caravans with Al before, during, and after my radio vacation, I watched Al sweat the details, organize his team of dedicated volunteers, and worry that everything wouldn’t turn out perfectly for those who attended. The proceeds of the dinners went to support Winona Chiefs baseball, a team that Al supported physically, emotionally, and financially for over 35 years.

The Post has a proud tradition of supporting Al’s efforts with the caravan with free advertising. For some reason, this year I decided to give Al an in-person proof … something I had never done in the past. I dropped in unexpectedly at his apartment in Callista Court. He seemed delighted to see me, approved the ad, and then pulled over a chair. “Do you have some time?”

What a gift. We both took an hour and a half trip down our shared memory lane. I brought up the time when I was trying to sell Al a Christmas advertising package at Smith’s Winona Furniture and he turned me down … despite my best efforts. As I was slinking out of the store in defeat, Al said, “Don’t be sad. Let me buy you a gumball.” He dragged me to the gumball machine and started shoving pennies into it. I left with no ad, a pocketful of gum, and a great memory.

We talked about the times when Kirby Puckett came to town, about the time he called out my wife Maureen in front of the crowd for being a Red Sox fan, of how he devoured Mrs. Beck’s chicken, and how local fans overflowed Smith’s Furniture in search of Kirby’s autograph, and how Kirby tried to get a special deal on furniture after the event.

Kirby visited Winona several times during the Twins’ Caravan, and he and Al became true friends. Al traveled to Cooperstown to attend Kirby’s Hall of Fame induction, and was in the front of the crowd as Puckett was walking to the stage. Kirby spotted Al, stopped in his tracks, and raced over to give him a hug. Al was a world-class hugger.

Al was involved with the Twins since 1961, and was a season ticket holder since 1982. He had special relationships with many players and members of the Twins executive team, including Public Relations Chair Tom Mee, Tony Oliva, and Bert Blyleven. Al told me that Bert would call him a couple times a year, just to catch up and check on him.

Al set up the press conference for the 2018 Caravan in a meeting room at Callista Court. He was nervous, of course, that the players weren’t going to arrive on time, but they delivered, and good naturedly signed all the baseballs that he presented to them. Unfortunately, Al was not able to attend the actual banquet because he didn’t feel up to it, and that’s a shame, because I’m sure that Winona would have cheered for him loud enough to raise the rafters. Fortunately, Paul Molitor gave a heartfelt tribute to Al’s lifetime of contributions to local amateur baseball and the Minnesota Twins in-person to Al at the press conference.

Al Smith … so many stories, so little time. Make sure you read Al’s obituary in today’s paper. It just scratches the surface of his many accomplishments. Here’s just one more story that tells you all you need to know about Al Smith. When Al and the love of his life, Patty, first started Smith’s Winona Furniture, they worked long hours, and for Al, there was a lot of manual labor. Sometimes he would come home at 8 p.m. … tired to the bone. Invariably there would be a knock on the front door. It was the neighbor kids, asking if Al could come out and play. No matter how tired he was, Al would go out and spend time with the kids, playing pepper, catch, or tossing batting practice.

I was sharing memories with Al’s longtime friend and former Chief’s manager and player Mark Metzler. He said that Al idolized former Yankee great Lou Gehrig, and was fond of imitating the Iron Horse’s last speech at Yankee Stadium complete with echoes. “I consider myself … self … self, the luckiest man … man … man ... in the world … world … world.” While I’m sure Al felt that way, he only got it half right. We are the luckiest people in the world to have had the pleasure of knowing and experiencing the friendship of Al Smith. We shall not see the likes of him again.

 

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