The Man & The Woman on The Hill

A red sun is setting over the lake, its hue cast through the shutters of a rustic living room where a small television atop a white wicker stand is tuned to a Twins game. “Get some hits, damn it,” seethes the increasingly agitated sports agent on the wicker couch. “Crying shame.” The agent glares at a listless Twins hitter, stands abruptly in anger, and steps out to tend to his steaks on the outdoor grill. His son—the other lawyer in the room—remains on the couch reading the New Republic, shaking his head in parallel disgust.

For six innings, Brad Radke, the Minnesota Twins’ ace starting pitcher for most of the past decade, has pitched a masterful game, giving up just six hits, no walks, and one run. “He’s pitching a Van Gogh,” his agent, Ron Simon, says as he stomps back into the room. “And they aren’t doing a thing to help him.” It’s true: Despite the ace’s ace start, Twins batters are getting smoked by a twenty-year-old fastball phenom in just his second major league start. Simon takes a seat on the couch and grabs a handful of jalapeño-flavored potato chips. “Drives me crazy.” Radke goes to the mound, and Simon leans forward, chomping angrily. “Upper right corner,” he demands with a clap of his hands. “Change-up.” He takes a swig from a bottle of James Page and then quietly, gently confides, “I love watching him. Especially when things are going well.”

Truth is, things are going very well for Brad Radke. At age thirty-one, he is the finest pitcher—and the finest player—employed by the Twins in a decade. His ability to throw a ninety mph baseball sixty feet, six inches, and have it strike exactly where he wants it, is feared, admired, and very well-compensated. Four years ago, Radke signed the largest contract in Twins history. However, unlike Kevin Garnet, a celebrity athlete recognizable on the basis of his silhouette alone, the Twins’s highest-paid player is a low-key, shy, and even anonymous presence in Minnesota. Yet as the 2004 baseball season comes to an end, Brad Radke’s profile is about to rise. The Twins, on the verge of another division title race, will depend on him as never before to be their clutch big-game pitcher. As a sideshow, the team will also deal with the fact that Radke’s contract expires at the end of the season.

A ruthless competitor on the field, away from it, Brad Radke is a soft-spoken and retiring husband and father of two sons.

His wife, Heather, is a successful businesswoman in her own right. She already spends most of the year near her family in Tampa, Florida—a town, she will have noticed, with its own Major League baseball team. Though deeply supportive of her husband’s career, Heather is quite open about the stresses it can put on a family. As she and Brad prepare to decide whether they will remain in Minnesota, it is those concerns, as well as the baseball and salary issues, that will carry the discussion.

“They’re gonna relieve him,” sighs Simon as Radke finishes the seventh. “No runs, they’ve gotta do it.” Disgusted, Simon returns to the steaks on his grill. Meanwhile, the camera slowly follows Radke from the mound into the dugout as the score at the bottom of the screen is momentarily pinned on his chest. His head is down, his lips are tight and angry. He walks in short, petulant steps, his wiry body strung tight with competition and frustration. This is a man who makes a living by throwing very hard things very fast at other people.

At 7:20 on a Wednesday night, halfway through the first inning, Heather Radke and her two boys—eight-year-old Kasey and four-year-old Ryan—arrive at their seats behind home plate at the Metrodome, in the section informally designated for wives. She wears a black coat over a white blouse and black skirt. The boys wear warm-up suits, carry baseball gloves, and clearly want to be somewhere else, even if it is their father who is standing on the mound, throwing strikes. “They ask me, ‘Why do we have to watch it up here when it’s on TV downstairs [in the Twins’ family lounge]?’” she says in her South Florida lilt. “And I tell them, ‘Baseball’s not forever.’” Hers is a modest presence, the only suggestion of baseball-wife status being a diamond tennis bracelet that hangs loosely from her wrist as she hands money to the hot dog and Cracker Jack vendors. “After the second inning, I’ll take them down to the family lounge.”

Heather Radke attends most Twins home games. “Brad goes to the park at one, so by seven I’m ready to get out.” As she watches, she tenses, and her hands are clasped tightly. Strikeouts and pop flies result in short, polite applause; hits, hit batters, and home runs result in sighs. Her approach to the game is more nerves than emotion, except when she sees Brad in danger. Late in the game, when he rushes home to make a defensive play against a runner, she grabs my arm in alarm and exclaims, “They almost hit him in the head!”

The pitcher doesn’t seem to share his wife’s concern. He returns from home plate with a glare at the first baseman—a glare meant to acknowledge the superb role that the first baseman just played. Later, when the first baseman makes a phenomenal out, Radke gives him another steely gaze, this time accompanied by a harsh nod. And when the catcher makes an athletic stolen-base put-out at second, Radke gives the young player a glare, a nod, and a stab of his index finger.

“That’s always been the question,” explains Heather. “How to put together the Brad on the field with the Brad at home.” As she fiddles with her tennis bracelet, Heather relates how, after Brad was injured in a game two years ago, she rushed to the locker room only to find him “in game mode, with that fire in his eyes.” Her eyes go wide and she gives a slight shake of the head. “That was weird. I don’t see that very often.”

The yellow Cape Cod-style house sits on a narrow gravel road that runs a hundred feet off the Lake Minnetonka shoreline. Parked in the driveway is a black Ford Expedition with Florida plates. Through the home’s front windows it is possible to see a sunken living room, overstuffed couches, and a breathtaking panorama of the lake glowing in the early afternoon.

A soft presence passes in silhouette and the door opens. Just over six feet, slight, in sweats and a T-shirt, he is a boyishly handsome young man with a shy smile. “I’m Brad,” he drawls, extending a very soft handshake. “C’mon in.” His face is unshaved, his hair is wet. His walk is a slow, lazy shuffle, his bare feet barely rising from the floor. He runs his right hand through his hair, and the sleeve of his shirt falls to his shoulder revealing the rest of his lithe pitching arm. Walking beside him is blond-haired Kasey.

Heather approaches from the hallway in black sweats and bare feet. “Brad, why don’t you sit over there,” she suggests, gesturing toward the dining room, with its massive wooden table set beneath a swirling baroque ceiling and an ornate iron chandelier. Doing as he’s told, Brad comfortably slouches into a chair at the head of the table and props a knee up on the edge. Heather gets some bottles of Dasani from the pantry adjacent to the dining room, stops in the kitchen for some large goblets, and places them on the table. She is just a shade over five feet tall, but I would not describe her as small; she moves with a sureness that is big. When she sits, she leans forward, elbows on the table, her chin propped, monitoring the bashful, brief glances that her husband gives me.

“My dad played college ball in Bemidji and Mankato State,” Brad explains. “I was born in Eau Claire.” The family moved to Florida when Brad was one. “When I was two, three, my dad says I was throwing things. Rocks.” There’s a pause, a shrug. “I guess I just liked to throw things.” When he was old enough to pitch, his father—a schoolteacher—coached him, suggesting an unusual wind-up that emulated the high leg kick of Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. As for further instruction, Radke shrugs. “Just throw strikes.”

At Jesuit High School in Tampa, Radke could not only throw strikes, but he could throw them at “ninety, ninety-one miles per hour.” Naturally, pro scouts were aroused by heat like that. But there was another factor: Radke had the uncanny ability to locate the ball wherever he wanted it. “People always ask me where I get that from,” he says with a shake of the head. “I don’t know. It’s just what I do.” Radke is unfailingly modest and terse about his skills, but it’s not just politeness. He wears his talent with a quiet confidence that precludes questioning it. When pressed to define what makes him successful, he is more inclined to credit factors like “the zone” than his years of practice and training. So, for example, when discussing what went into a win-streak, he explains, “When you’re in the zone, you just see things better.”

Heather, a Tampa native, was a friend of Brad’s older sister, and she recalls herself “and a lot of pretty girls” being around the Radke household while he was in high school. Two years older, she didn’t initially see herself as a potential girlfriend. But as time passed, the attraction grew. “I was so outgoing,” she explains, looking directly at her husband.

“And I liked his passiveness.”

The ace remains impassive at this revelation.

They started dating on the assumption that the relationship would continue while Brad was pitching at the University of South Florida. But in June 1991, he was drafted by the Twins and so began a four-year minor league career that went from Florida to Wisconsin, back to Florida, and then Nashville. “We took it day by day,” Heather recalls of their early relationship. “It was the only thing I could do. I didn’t really aspire to become a baseball wife.” Early on, there wasn’t much reason to believe in a future. For example, during his summer playing in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Heather saw him only once, despite the $500 phone bills. “Sure, I would’ve liked to have seen him more,” she admits. “But from the beginning, I always thought that baseball should come first.”

Brad seems a bit embarrassed by Heather’s revelation of self-sacrifice, but he acknowledges that baseball had to be the priority if he was going to make it to the big leagues. “Yeah, I’m not gonna lie,” he concedes. “But I’m not saying she was a distraction. I just didn’t think I was gonna make the team.”

“That’s not true,” Heather retorts. “You always told me you’d make it.”

Brad smiles bashfully. “But I didn’t think that way. I really couldn’t think like that.”

Heather persists, recalling a trip the pair took to Wrigley Field in Chicago during a break in the Kenosha season. “I remember standing outside of the stadium and asking, ‘Will you make it?’” she says, turning to her husband. “And you said, ‘Yes.’”

Brad, still smiling, looks down at the table. “I don’t remember that.”

In 1993 Radke was promoted to the Twins’ minor league team in Nashville, and Heather went with him. They were engaged shortly thereafter and married in 1994. “We weren’t stressed, but we were strapped,” Heather recalls. “We ate a lot of mac and cheese,” Brad adds. While Brad played, Heather worked in the fragrance department at Dillard’s department store, where she made more money than he did. Alone much of the time, she became close to the group of wives and girlfriends surrounding the Nashville team. “When the guys were gone, we’d go to the movies, do other things.”

Brad helpfully adds, “They had their hen parties, that’s for sure.”

Meanwhile, Brad was beginning to show the stuff that would get him promoted to the major leagues. In the middle of the 1994 season, he pitched three consecutive complete games while allowing a mere 1.69 walks per nine innings for the entire season. He was invited to spring training during the strike-shortened 1994 season, and he was finally called up to join the Twins in 1995. During his first major league appearance he managed to bean Cal Ripken—who was then in the midst of his record-setting consecutive game streak. “Afterward, Heather asked me how it went and I didn’t remember a thing,” he admits. “I still get nervous. If you don’t, there’s something wrong.”

When I ask him whether he ever feels vulnerable on the mound, he answers: “You’re alone out there. It’s kind of like you’re king of the hill.” Slowly, he windmills his pitching arm, working out some of the stiffness that lingers from the previous night’s strong start. “You kind of have to feel that way. Above and beyond. It’s like you’re at war. Sometimes when I’m doing my thing, it’s like, ‘If I can’t get this guy out, it’s like taking food from my kids’ mouths.’”

Beside him, Heather visibly flinches at this admission.

“When you’re getting hit around, sometimes you try to throw harder,” he continues. “But the right thing is probably to pull back. You’re fighting yourself, and that’s the mental side of it. You and the hitter, too. It’s a mind game. Sometimes they give me a look before they get in the box, just to get an edge. And sometimes I’ll look at a hitter—” he pauses, with his boyish smile. “I try and look mean, but I know I don’t.”

Modesty aside, Radke’s ability to control the ball with consistency is his strength as a pitcher. In more than two thousand innings pitched, Radke has thrown just twenty-four wild pitches. That averages to one misfire for every nine complete games. Over his entire career, Radke has averaged 1.68 walks per nine innings. The league average this year is 3.37.

Yet statistics also tell a different, more frustrating story with Radke. Dating back to the start of his career with the Twins, his win-loss percentage has mostly not been as rosy as the team’s. (There was that memorable twenty-win season that marked him for greatness in 1997.) Why? For the past decade Brad Radke has had less run support than almost any other pitcher in major league baseball. Many of his best performances on the mound ended in frustration; the Twins lost by one or two runs. Just this year, Number 22 had a long run of beautiful seven-inning games by failing to put more than a single run across. In fourteen losses in which Radke started this summer, the Twins produced an average of just 2.4 runs per nine innings. For all other pitchers this year, the team has scored twice as many runs. This has been the anemic pattern for most of Radke’s career in Minnesota. It is this more than anything else that had him considering the possibility of leaving the Twins four years ago. Ever the team player, though, he refuses to place blame. “Run support,” he says with a shrug. “Yeah, it’d be nice. But I can’t yell at them for not scoring runs. And the flip side is that when you get a lot of runs, pitching gets harder.” He pauses, considering how to describe the subtle shift in the mental game. “In a one-run game, you’re in it for every pitch. If I have more runs, I might not pitch so well.”

Nevertheless, there have been indications during the 2004 season that Radke is becoming frustrated by the lackluster bats of Twins hitters. In June, after a 4-2 loss in Tampa where he gave up nine hits, three runs, and one walk, the ever-polite Radke left the stadium without talking to reporters. Meanwhile, influential Twin Cities sports columnists and commentators began to publicly note that if Radke had benefited from even average run support, he’d be approaching a twenty-win season—or perhaps even a Cy Young Award. Things came to a head on July 31, after manager Ron Gardenhire pulled Radke in the seventh inning of a game against Boston. The move was a bad one. The relief pitcher gave up a run and Radke ended up with a “no decision” instead of a win. After the game, he trashed the team clubhouse and openly questioned Gardenhire’s judgment to the media. Agent Ron Simon, when asked if the lack of run support bothers Radke, answers simply, “Oh yeah, it ticks him off.”

Radke’s first two years with the Twins were workmanlike. “From my point of view, I didn’t think they were so great,” he admits. But the Twins, well known for their thrift and willingness to develop low-paid players, allowed him to grow. By the start of the 1997 season, Radke was showing some consistency, but there was no indication that by midseason he would be on the verge of putting together one of the most impressive and unlikely twenty-win seasons by a major league pitcher in recent baseball history. The first month of that year was not strong for Radke. But after a particularly poor start in Texas, “I took a couple of beers from the park back to the hotel,” he recalls. “And then I won twelve straight.” That is as simple as it gets in explaining how a pitcher could supply a team with nearly one-third of its wins (twenty of sixty-eight) in a season.

Now, approaching the peak years of his career, Radke not only is relied upon as the team’s ace starter, but he is also a model for younger pitchers, who, prior to his starts, can be seen reverentially watching his warm-ups. Carlos Silva, a young Twins starter, refers to him as “the professor.” Radke laughs when I mention this. “Yeah, and get three or four bad starts and they don’t call you ‘professor’ anymore. They start calling you something else.”

Heather’s earliest memories of being a baseball wife are not altogether warm. At the time Brad reached the majors in the mid-1990s, the culture of the baseball wife was very much about projecting a wealthy, conservative image. “Wearing suits to games, things like that,” she recalls from the Metrodome’s stands during the middle innings. There was a hierarchy—and a rookie wife, naturally, was at the bottom of it. “The tone is really set by the guy,” she explains matter-of-factly. “And Brad was a rookie.” She recalls a meeting of wives where a woman announced “everyone we have pregnant this year.” Heather was seven months pregnant at the time. “But she didn’t mention me.”

The culture has since changed, according to Heather. “There’s a lot more camaraderie among the wives, and over the last couple of years there hasn’t been a pecking order.” She pauses. “There was a wife a couple of years ago who would say things like, ‘Great, there goes my husband’s win.’ But that’s pretty rare.” Nevertheless, Heather keeps her distance from the other wives. “There’s so much that goes on in baseball and in your own marriage.” She smiles tightly, reflecting on what happens when very young couples are confronted with sudden wealth and fame. “And I learned very early to keep my mouth shut.” Watching as her husband stalks—yet again—from the mound, she adds, “I used to worry so much about being pretty enough, young enough. The women calling after Brad at games, as he’s getting off the bus.” She stops. “You know, it’s flattering now. But it’s only in the last four years I’ve had that maturity. Now I have more important things to worry about, like what kind of men my boys will be in spite of all these blessings.”

She is particularly proud to relate moments when her sons seem to reject the glamour of the life that surrounds them, such as when Ryan “blew off” Derek Jeter in the family lounge. Yet she is quick to acknowledge the challenges inherent in parenting “baseball children.” “When Brad leaves for spring training [in February] I go through weeks of hell to the point I’m ready to call in counseling,” she jokes. “I’m effectively a single parent until we get up to Minnesota [in May].” Despite their Lake Minnetonka home, Heather spends only three months per year in Minnesota (during school summer vacations), but even the extended periods in Minnesota don’t make the child-rearing challenges any easier. “It’s the same thing during and after a road trip,” she explains. “Those first couple of days after Brad leaves or comes back, the kids are difficult. It sort of puts me in the unnatural role of being a dominant parent, and Brad gets to be the ‘good guy.’”

The dynamic that Heather first accepted early in her marriage—baseball comes first—is still maintained. Days when Brad is pitching are sacrosanct around the Radke household: “We try to give him his space.” Heather doesn’t really discuss the game with him, or even acknowledge it until he’s almost out the door, when she’ll say good-bye with a “good luck.”

Though there is no denying the importance of the money in Brad’s 2000 contract, Heather is much more likely to cite the “no-trade clause” that Simon negotiated against the wishes of Major League Baseball (at the time, it was one of only two in the entire league). “The money allowed us to take care of our family,” she explains. “But we’ve had so much certainty because of the no-trade clause. It allowed us to buy a house and let the kids see Minnesota. That’s been really great. Not many baseball families have had that kind of stability.”

In conversations with Heather, or with Heather and Brad, the phrase “after baseball” recurs repeatedly. Both are aware of and comfortable with the fact that Brad will not be pitching at age forty. “And when baseball is over,” Heather says. “It’s over.” In other words, baseball will no longer come first, and Heather is preparing for the change. Three years ago she started a prestigious salon and spa in Tampa with her sister and mother. “I always said that once Kasey entered kindergarten, I wanted to regain some independence. I didn’t want to wait until after baseball.” In addition to overseeing her business, she also runs the Brad and Heather Radke Foundation, which was established in 2000 and is the only such foundation currently operated by a Twins player or family. Its contributions so far have followed Heather’s interests. “We took a tour of Hennepin County Medical Center in 2001, around the time they started cutting health care,” Heather recalls. “And I asked for a wish list.” That list resulted in a major donation to the hospital’s neonatal care unit. The foundation also supports families with children in treatment at the University of Minnesota’s pediatric bone marrow transplant unit and underwrites performing arts programs for low-income children.

On a cool summer morning, Ron Simon stokes the kindling in the fireplace at his lake home. He’s relaxed in baggy jeans and a polo shirt; his son sits across from him, still reading the New Republic. In a sports-agency career that began in the 1970s, Simon has amassed a client roster that could serve as a short-list for a Minnesota Sports Hall of Fame: Molitor, Hrbek, Broten, McHale. “You know, the thing about Radke is that I’ve never had a guy so quiet,” Simon says, when I ask him what stands out about the pitcher. As for Heather, Simon just smiles. “You know, Brad isn’t into too much socializing or business. That’s her thing.”

Simon was introduced to Radke by Radke’s financial advisor. “I thought he was a pretty good pitcher. But I didn’t think he’d become a great pitcher. And I don’t think he thought so, either.” The twenty-win season changed perceptions. “My thoughts were that he’d probably want to leave the Twins and go somewhere he could win.”

The 2000 contract negotiation lasted for much of the season, and both sides became increasingly frustrated. In the media, various suitors were mentioned for Radke’s services, and neither Radke nor Simon did much to dissuade the speculation. Nevertheless, it was clear that the Twins wanted the young pitcher, and they wanted him badly. Simon, meanwhile, was not only asking for serious money, he was also asking for that no-trade clause. The Twins, reportedly at the behest of Major League commissioner Bud Selig, were encouraged to reject the deal. They didn’t: Radke got the money, the no-trade clause, and a provision that would allow him to opt out of the contract after the first season (he never exercised it).

As the next contract approaches, Simon and the Radkes are hopeful that the negotiation will be less contentious, and less public. Still, some issues could result in an impasse. “Well, one problem is that Brad lives in Tampa,” Simon says simply. “And they’ve got a young family.” Playing for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays probably would not mean a significant boost to Radke’s run support, win total, or salary prospects. But that may not matter so much at this stage in Radke’s career. This next contract, more so than the last one, will be about stability and family. “It’s up to him. If he wants to stay with the Twins, I’ll put him there. If he wants to go to Tampa, I’ll make it happen.”

At nine o’clock on a summer’s evening, the Radke residence casts a warm glow on the lake. Brad, who has just come in from an evening of fishing with Ryan and Kasey, is in a relaxed mood. He’s chatting happily in the foyer about his bass boat, and the other boat he has in Florida. Heather, busy making dinner, hears us talking and encourages us to sit in the dining room. The night before, Brad had started a no-decision game at the Metrodome. “It’s hard sometimes to come down, especially if it’s a loss,” he says. “It can stay with you.”

Heather sits at the table. “He leaves work at work,” she says. “If he’s going to complain about something, it’s after the kids go to bed.” But if work stays at work, the opposite is not always the case. “If we have a rift, he has a good game. If he leaves the house and we’re mad at each other—he has a good game.”

Brad continues the list of what might generate an inspired performance. “On the road, if something goes wrong—if room service is late or bad—that might give me the edge. Or maybe the luggage is late or lost.” More often than not, though, the life of a major league ball player offers few discomforts that occur on schedule. So, on pitching days, in hope of creating that edge, Radke drives to the Metrodome with Metallica and Kid Rock pumping in his SUV. “Some wives will drive their husbands to the game,” explains Heather. “But I don’t.”

Radke leans back, his arms behind his head, and yawns. “It’s a great job, but when baseball is over, it’s over. I won’t miss the travel and bouncing around.” He glances at Kasey. “You just miss so much. And they’re growing up so fast.”
As if on cue, Kasey announces, “I like it when Daddy is here to give us baths.”

Brad smiles bashfully and says nothing.

Heather, though, can’t help herself. “You act like a superstar, you get treated like one.”