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A luxury problem: Twins’ four-man outfield

  

By Gordy Jones

 

Although having four outfielders capable of being starters is a luxury problem for the Twins, I hope manager Ron Gardenhire usually starts – from left to right: Denard Span, Carlos Gomez and Michael Cuddyer.

We have high hopes for some pop in Delmon Young’s bat – but his fielding is just adequate, and watching him chase a ball hit to his right can be painful. It looks like he’s not taking full strides as he runs. They are more like baby steps. Meantime, speedy Carlos Gomez can run all the way from deep center field, catch up with Delmon, and be there for back-up if Young finally hauls it in.

Both Gomez and Denard Span can fly around the outfield, and they play very aggressively. They were both very influenced by Torii Hunter. Carlos knows Torii, and told me that he watched Torii play ball on TV as a child. He wanted to play center field just like him. He’s still learning to do so…but what a great student!

Span told me that when he was very young, Torii took him under his wing and mentored him on the game and the life around it. To this day he stays in contact with his friend, who is now an Angel.

In right field, a healthy Cuddyer is a reliable glove. He gets a jump on the ball and runs well, and has a killer arm – strong and accurate.

All four outfielders have the potential to hit with power.

After Gomez hit several balls over the fence during batting practice the other day, I asked him if he had changed his swing over the winter. He replied: “I just try to play. I played a little ball to get ready for this season. I was in the Dominican. Only took 40 at-bats. You know, I don’t change anything. I try to do the same thing. But every year I play, every year I get better.”

Carlos is a complex fellow. He can be quiet with anticipation in the pregame clubhouse. But as he walks through the tunnel and down the stairs that lead to the field, you can see him getting excited. Sometimes he may start dancing or singing. As he steps onto the field he laughs and tells funny stories to his teammates in a childlike voice which is natural, but almost cartoon-like. When he gives an interview, his voice reverts to a more serious tone. He loves to laugh and loves to joke with the fans.

I asked him about his extreme happiness on the field. “You know, baseball is a game that you have to be happy to play it. Baseball can be up and down, but you have to take it on this level all of the time. I come here every day and have fun.”

I mentioned how he seems to bring joy to those around him, too. “You know, that’s the kind of person I am. When I get here, sometimes I see that some teammates don’t look happy. So I start playing around here, and start laughing and make them happy. The Twins know how to have fun. My manager just says: ‘Play ball and have fun!’”

One thing that is not fun is getting hit by a pitch. And that was one of the few times I saw Carlos frown last season. He was hit by a pitch and took first base. The next batter popped up for the third out. Carlos walked slowly towards the dugout to retrieve his glove, and as he did, he looked as if he were a child ready to cry. He looked at the photographers’ well at the edge of the dugout where I sat and said in a very sad voice: “Carlos does not like getting hit by pitch.” Seconds later he had his glove on his hand and a smile back on his face, and was running like lightning to center field.

Last season Carlos was always full of surprises. I think he surprised his manager at times, too. I asked Carlos if we can expect more of the same this year. He just grinned, saying: “Many more surprises this year. I gotta give surprises! And this year we win championship!”

 

Putting a little spring into your game

One of my favorite times of year is baseball’s spring training in Florida. You can’t beat an 80-degree March afternoon watching the Twins play in Fort Myers.

It’s fun to watch the new season develop right before your eyes – to see the veterans reunite and the new players meet and greet while trying to fit in on the team. You look at those kids in Twins uniforms and wonder if someday they may be in Cooperstown…or more likely, back to riding buses in the minors.

This may be the last shot for some guys, and they may be packing for home in a few weeks. But even for them, this is a memorable time. They are on the field with greatness.

When Dave St. Peter took over as president of the Twins, he thought it was odd that we have such classic ballplayers among our alumni, yet we had literally no relationship with them. So he immediately reestablished a friendship with them, which opened the doors to some wonderful possibilities. As a result, we now have spring training coaches in Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Paul Molitor, Tony Oliva and Tom Kelly. They are fully uniformed and on the field, sharing their vast knowledge and experience of baseball.

Looking at them, you’d think you’ve gone back in time. In their pinstriped Twins uniforms, they all look as if they’re in playing condition. They are here for a week or two, and their weeks are staggered throughout the duration of camp. If you are a fan going to a game, you should be able to see one or two of them mentoring the guys no matter when you are here.

If you come to a game, make a day of it. Arrive in the morning and watch the workouts. You can walk over to the minor league camp and watch Joe Mauer’s brother, Jake, manage the rookies. Players, rookies and veterans are very close and accessible to fans during spring training. They may walk from infield practice to the clubhouse right through the crowd of fans, giving autographs along the way.

Veterans generally play only a few innings of an exhibition game because there are many young players who must be evaluated. After leaving the game and running their laps, they may walk around the warning track, chatting with fans and signing autographs.

Even when the team is on the road, half of the guys stay behind and have a morning workout. That’s a good time for fans to get close to their team. You can walk around the complex with no admission charge and see and hear their training. They are usually finished by noon – so now you have your beach day, too.

 

It’s a pain in the back!

You could see the frustration on Joe Mauer’s face as I talked to him and asked him how he felt. He looked at me sadly and said, “It’s just more of the same.” He is very tired of having ailments. Although it’s very painful, thankfully the inflammation on his right sacroiliac joint, which connects the spine to the pelvis, is probably not serious. But because of his setback, Joe will not be ready for the season opener. In December, Joe had surgery to clear an obstruction to the kidney.

 

Competing factors

Michael Cuddyer is excited to be healthy after his bad luck in the injury department last year. “It was definitely an unfortunate season last year. But I’m really proud of how this team played. I’m really proud how they progressed. And now I’m able to come back, and maybe I can help this team get to where we ultimately want to go.”

He said that the Twins’ four starting-caliber outfielders will make this team better. But when I referred to it as healthy competition, he corrected me, “I really wouldn’t call it competing. We all have the same frame of mind: that’s to win and help our team.”

It is interesting to see how a young player with his role not so defined as Cuddyer’s thinks about a similar situation. Here are Brian Buscher’s comments about trying to land an infield job: “I’d like to see myself in the lineup. I’ll probably be a bench player. Hopefully I’m just on this ball club. It’s a competition now. But after everyone’s set and we know where we’re going, it’s all about working together. It doesn’t matter where I have to play or where anyone has to play. The goal on day one is to get to the playoffs.”

That is one thing that’s unanimous; everyone I’ve talked to feels there will be postseason play for the Twins this year.

 

Great fans

The Minnesota Twins’ 2008 total attendance of 2,302,431 was the third-highest single-season total in team history — trailing only 1988 and 1992. Those were the years which followed the World Series, when the Twins were World Series Champions. It also marked the first time in Twins history that the team drew more than two million fans for four consecutive years. As Bert Blyleven says, the fans were the 10th man on the field as they showed their tremendous support at all home games. They really made a difference in the incredible season.

Carlos Gomez had this to say about the fans: “You know, it’s amazing! It’s amazing! We’ve got good fans in Minnesota. When you are a player and you come here, and you hear your name so loud like that, you feel more emotions to play baseball.”

 

Check out Gordy’s book at http://www.baseballguy.org. Gordy can be reached at gejones1@aol.com.