Steve Rushin's “Sting-Ray Afternoons”

The longtime Sports Illustrated contributor and Bloomington native pens new memoir

Steve Rushin's "Sting-Ray Afternoons"

photo courtesy of little, brown and company

Longtime Sports Illustrated contributor Steve Rushin is one of the most lauded sports writers in the country and the author of several books. His new memoir, Sting-Ray Afternoons, published this month by Little, Brown, and Company, revisits his 1970s–’80s childhood in Bloomington, Minnesota. While his father sold audio and video recording tape for 3M, Rushin smoked candy cigarettes, rode “muscle bikes,” played hockey on flooded backyard rinks, and, as described in this excerpt, worked concessions at the old Met Stadium with his brothers Tom and Jim.

An introverted child who spent much of the 1970s reading his parents’ newspaper would have expected 1980 to be the dawn of a wondrous age. President Nixon had expected all of America’s energy needs to be met by America come 1980. Dr. James T. Grace Jr., the eminent cancer researcher, predicted cancer would be cured by this year. Bell plans to put a picture phone in every home in the new decade, and that isn’t even the most exciting technological promise. Once South Brook gets cable television, we’ll have fifty channels instead of five. And we won’t have to stay home to watch The Dukes of Hazzard because every house will have a videocassette recorder, releasing us from the shackles of time, so I can record That’s Incredible! and play it back at my leisure.

Those VCRs will require Scotch brand videocassettes, ensuring the prosperity of our household for another 10 years. Dad is a hermit crab, at regular intervals outgrowing one magnetic-tape format for a bigger and better one. He abandoned eight-tracks for audiocassettes and audiocassettes for VHS tapes. Except that he’s still selling audiotapes too, and so he doesn’t immediately dismiss my claims when I ask for a Panasonic RX-5085 boom box that weighs thirteen pounds.

Author Steve Rushin's 8th grade school photo from 1979, the year he started working at Met Stadium.
Author Steve Rushin’s 8th grade school photo from 1979, the year he started working at Met Stadium

photo courtesy of steve rushin

This is the one thing—more than a Sting-Ray, more than Adidas, more than flying a 747 to Television City—that will make me happy for the rest of my life. I would never want anything again if I only had a Platinum Power boom box with six-and-a-half-inch woofers and one-and-a-quarter-inch tweeters and “the miracle of Ambience Sound,” as Earth, Wind, and Fire sings in the TV commercials. “Stereo, AM/ FM, cassette! Platinum is the power to get!”

“Two hundred and forty-nine dollars and ninety-five cents!” Mom says. “You don’t have that kind of money.”

I promise I’ll buy the RX-5085 with the proceeds from my first job, the $3.35 hourly wage earned in the commissary at Met Stadium. “You have to save for college,” Mom says. “You don’t want to work at the Met for the rest of your life.” But that’s exactly what I want to do! And I think Mom knows it, which is why she said it. The trouble is, I can’t work at the Met forever because the ballpark has been condemned, “slated to close”—as the newspapers put it—after the 1981 season. Likewise, Lincoln High School is “slated to close” after the 1981–82 school year, when I’m a sophomore, at which time everyone at Lincoln will be forced to attend one of our two archrivals: Jefferson or Kennedy. Bloomington’s youth population is shrinking. Not every family, it turns out, has five or six or seven kids. Only the families I know.

The Twins and Vikings are moving into a new domed stadium in downtown Minneapolis, which will rob Bloomington of its dateline status. We’ll no longer appear in papers around the world or issue from the mouth of Johnny Carson or Howard Cosell. We’re getting demoted from an all-caps dateline—BLOOMINGTON—to a lowercase burg that people soon enough will confuse with the Bloomingtons in Illinois and Indiana.

Pity, because it’s a dream working at the Met, preparing the food that the vendors hawk in the stands. This is the fantasy I’d choose on Fantasy Island, without the bit where everything goes wrong in the end. Breezing past the employee entrance while I flash my Minnesota Twins pass, Jim (back from college, working his old job again), Tom, and I punch in at the Main Commissary, a windowless expanse in the bowels of the Met. It’s hotter than the engine room of a burning tugboat down here. The metal doors to Main are graced with permanent graffiti: MAIN IS HELL. Hung above the entrance to the center-field commissary is an ancient hot dog, shriveled and black with age, and frequently likened to the unfortunate appendage of a frostbite victim on Everest. Attached to it is a sign: GOOD LUCK FROM EDDIE AND THE BOYS.

“The Met introduces me to a whole new lexicon: ‘Dogs’ are ‘stabbed’ then ‘bunned.’”

Why Twins “executives” never ordered the petrified hot dog taken down and the signs scrubbed away—and, on the contrary, seem to enjoy the message as a welcome-to-the-big-leagues kind of hazing—says from the moment of arrival everything I needed to know about this place.

Drinking as much soda as possible from the company’s endless stores of CO2 canisters is encouraged, as long as you bring your own cup. (The wax cups emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo are meticulously inventoried.) For the same reason, infinite hot dogs may be eaten so long as I never consume a single bun. My coworkers often smuggle in a twelvepack of buns from Red Owl because the buns are inventoried but the dogs are not. “You do the math,” my coworker and South Brook colleague Jim Clancy says. “Seventy-five cents times twelve hot dogs equals nine bucks. The pack of buns cost eighty-nine cents.” Clancy clears $8.11 on the black market in a single day but feels so guilty afterward that he puts his entire profits into the collection basket during Mass at Nativity the following Sunday.

Free to eat all the bunless hot dogs we want, commissary workers appear to be chomping on cigars as we go about our business, but the smoldering Cohibas plugged into various mouths are in fact steaming Schweigert hot dogs. A vast walk-in meat freezer holds endless reserves of those wieners and boxes of Northland Dairy Frosty Malts, but this same freezer—a ballpark food Fort Knox—is also used to lock away any commissary workers who “fuck up.” (The Met’s introduction of daily profanity into my life is another Rubicon crossed, an irreversible passage.) Anyone caught warming their hands on the bare bulb suspended from the freezer’s ceiling has their sentence extended.

Commissary crimes might consist of anything: singing the wrong lyrics to whatever song is on the radio that plays pop music throughout the Twins games. (The radio never, ever plays the Twins games themselves.) It might mean failing to boil the hot dogs long enough, so that an irate fan gets a frozen franksicle from a vendor. Or it might mean boiling the hot dogs too long, so that they all split down the center to form a little flotilla of meat canoes. These dogs are bunned split side down, so that the vendors (and the spectators they sell to) are none the wiser.

Vendor at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota
Vendor selling peanuts at Met Stadium

photo courtesy of the minnesota historical society

The Met introduces me to a whole new lexicon, not all of which is profane. “Dogs” are “stabbed”—forked out of the boiling water—then “bunned.” (We’re taught to break a dog open and lick the inside to see if it is hot enough for serving to Twins fans. The licked dogs are thrown away or, more often, eaten on the spot.) We “cup corn”—scooping cups of yellow popcorn from enormous clear bags whose corners get nibbled by mice whenever the Twins are out of town. (Veteran corn cuppers vigilantly screen out any mouse turds.) “Sodas” are “pulled”: a tray of two dozen wax cups filled with ice is slid onto a stainless-steel rack; each cup is machine-filled and topped off by hand with a soda squirt gun—eighteen Cokes, six Sunkists; a sheet of cling film is stretched over the tray; and an ancient device is pulled down over the rack, sealing the cups and trimming off any excess cling film. At least one time a superfluous bolt falls off the sealing contraption and is entombed inside a cup of Coke.

“Missing something?” says the unlucky buyer of that soda, presenting the bolt at the commissary door, to which he was directed by the vendor who sold it to him.

The vendors are arbitrarily our enemies. A sign in the commissary reminds us that we’re not allowed to give them food. DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS, it says. Some of these animals are our high school classmates; others are thirty years our senior. None of them complains directly to us because Jim is  our  manager  and  he  frightens  everyone,  including—especially—Tom and me.

One night in the seventh inning of a Twins game, after the commissary shuts down and a fellow 14-year-old is mopping the floor, an irate drunk walks in, demanding to speak to the manager. “I’m the manager,” Jim says, “and we just mopped that floor so please don’t…”

But the drunk keeps walking, stepping up to Jim aggressively. The man is brandishing a hot dog. It’s squeezed in his fist like a bouquet of flowers. Every commissary worker turns to watch, curious which one of us fucked up and how. There is silence save for the radio—Eddie Rabbitt singing about windshield wipers slappin’ out a tempo.

“Notice anything?” the drunk says, thrusting the fisted bun in my brother’s face. Jim leans back and slips on the freshly mopped and highly polished concrete floor.

We all know that any number of things could be wrong with the man’s dog. Perhaps there was no dog in the bun when he bought it, or the dog had a bite taken out of it in advance by a hungry commissary worker. All I know is that Jim is fueled by testosterone and two gallons of Coca-Cola. He picks himself up off the floor, his T-shirt wet and soapy, and drops the complaining customer with a left cross. When the guy doesn’t get up fast enough, Jim grabs him by the belt and collar and slides him across the soap-slick floor and through the commissary door like a curling stone.

I know exactly what will happen next: nothing. The drunk doesn’t return with a cop. He doesn’t return with a friend. He doesn’t return with a broken beer bottle or any other weapon, because he has learned what I knew all along, without Jim ever having had to say so: that he has made a grievous error. The drunk just melts into the crowd.

Except that there’s never a crowd at Twins games. In 1981, their final season at the Met, the Twins average 8,529 fans in a 45,919-seat stadium. Just before one sparsely attended game, a commissary colleague whom everyone calls Ziggy retreats to a men’s room stall, shits in a paper cup, and beckons several of us to the empty second deck of the stadium to see what happens next. Holding the cup over the railing, he decants its contents onto the first deck below, safe in the knowledge that these sections down the right-field line are yawningly empty.

Aerial view of Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota.
Aerial view of Met Stadium

photo courtesy of the minnesota historical society

After seven innings, we can punch out, unless we’re sent to Trays. Trays is another windowless room, down the tunnel from Main, where the vendors’ empty hot dog coolers—reeking of boiled sausage and stained with ketchup and mustard—are stored after every game. The unlucky commissary worker sent to Trays has to wash all of these coolers out with a single filthy rag, watched by an overlord named Twister.

Commissary workers are sentenced to Trays for errors of omission (giving a vendor thirty-five hot dogs instead of thirty-six) and errors of commission (Ziggy, on a dare, also took a dump in a hot dog vendor’s empty cooler). If there is no obvious candidate, the commissary manager—often Jim, or his friend Dobesh—holds a contest. All the workers line up against the wall as if to face a firing squad. Instead, they face a guy called Gumper, who—at the count of three—rolls up his T-shirt, exposing his vast, fish-white belly. The first one to laugh goes to Trays and spends an unhappy hour with Twister. If no one laughs immediately, Gumper is asked to jump up and down. It never takes more than 15 seconds before someone breaks. Gumper is happy to participate because it gets him out of Trays.

I almost never go to Trays because Jim is my ride home and he doesn’t want to wait around. Come fall, when he’s back at Providence and the Twins are playing out the string and the Vikings are starting their season, Tom drives or we get a ride with a coworker. One day Ziggy gives us a ride and—on a dare from Tom—takes a shortcut. A middle-aged man is sitting in an aluminum-framed lawn chair on the concrete front stoop of his corner-lot house when Ziggy, driving his father’s Oldsmobile Cutlass, abruptly turns off East 86th Street and cuts across the guy’s front lawn. As we pass, not 10 feet away, the man throws down his newspaper and actually shakes his fist at us in anger. I’ve ducked below the window line, fearful that any transgression I’m a party to will go down—in Mom’s words—on my “permanent record.”