CARY, N.C. -- Tink Larson has given a lot of guidance to a lot of people over the years, because that’s what legendary coaches do.
When it comes to baseball in Minnesota, there’s Harmon Killebrew in the big leagues and there’s Larson everywhere else. In a career that dates back to midway through the Kennedy administration, Larson has touched literally thousands of lives at almost as many different levels of the sport in the state.
Count all the years Larson has served as head coach for various teams, and it would go back to well before the Civil War. At the age of 72, the Minnesota State-Mankato assistant still plays in a 50-and-over league once in a while. Cut him, and he’ll likely bleed horsehide and red stitches.
Yet for a few minutes Monday as the Mavericks took batting practice, Larson didn’t just discuss the game and his place in it. He talked about his wife, Sharon, who died suddenly on January 24. He talked about the concession stands she worked for 2,000 games or more, and the three jobs she worked so he could keep playing and coaching baseball.
She was the one who made sure everything was in order for the two grandchildren they raised. Sharon was the one who meant everything to Larson.
Take what Larson says about hitting and fielding to the bank. That’s a given. But it’s a parting thought about something else that stops you in your tracks and puts a lump in your throat. The thought is at once heartbreaking and uplifting.
"My only advice to people nowadays is if you’re married and you love your wife, treat her like she might not be here five minutes from now."
Larson had just arrived on campus for practice on that Friday when he got the call from Sharon. She said she couldn’t breathe very well, and just from the sound of her voice, he knew it was serious. Because it was another 30 minutes back home, Tink told Sharon to go ahead and try to get to the hospital.
It was the last time they spoke.
He called ahead to the emergency room and told them to expect her. At about the same time, Sharon called a friend who in turn contacted 911. The best Larson can figure, his wife was gone almost as soon as she hung up the phone.
A heart attack or blood clot might have claimed her life, but there was no way to tell for sure because there was no autopsy. For Larson, the cause was not nearly as important as the result.
With a career record of 2,572 wins and 1,910 losses, Larson is in no less than 11 halls of fame. The most recent such honor was being named to the prestigious American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. She was proud, incredibly proud, of that one because, really, his accomplishments were hers as well.
One of Sharon’s happiest days was followed exactly three weeks later by Larson’s saddest.
“Very hard, the worst you can possibly imagine,” Larson said. “As every single person who has lost a spouse has told me, until it happens to you, you’ll never know what it’s like. You can imagine what it’s like, but you won’t know. She did everything for me.”
Larson’s work with Minnesota State-Mankato’s baseball team is no honorary emeritus gig, either. His stretching routine is a sight to behold, and one player after another comes up to him as he goes through it all.
Hey, Coach. How’s this?
Coach, how do I look?
He’s an inside baseball guy who has forgotten more about the game than any 10 hardcore fans who sit in the stands would ever know. Being around these guys, being around head coach Matt Magers and the other assistants … there’s no way to fully calculate what it has always meant to him, and in the past four months in particular.
“It helps keep me busy,” Larson said. “Obviously, a person has to keep busy when something like that happens, especially as much as I miss her. It does not take my mind off of her, so it’s not something that gets me completely away from it, but it does help. It’s fun to be around these guys. I enjoy it, so it does give me some joyful moments.”