Softball and baseball’s favorite newspaper since 1987


Giving more than RBI’s

  

By Gordy Jones

 

Twins first baseman Justin Morneau and his wife, Krista, got a new hobby last year. They find worn-out and bumpy amateur ball fields, then spearhead the task of refurbishing them.

It began when Justin was visiting Krista’s hometown of Winthrop, Minn. Fans in the area have told me that Justin pulled over, unannounced, to watch some kids play ball, and began giving autographs and just hanging out with them. He noticed that the field was in rough shape and ended up donating money to spruce up their ball field.

Since then, he has done the same for the Northeast Ballpark in Minneapolis. He even got the Twins to match his donations through the Twins Community Fund, and they plan on helping more ball parks this year.

Last fall, Justin donated $11,000 to renovate the Northeast Ballpark in Minneapolis. The project cost $21,000, with $11,000 donated by Morneau and $10,000 donated by the Minnesota Twins Community Fund. The renovations include building a new outfield fence, top dressing and seeding the outfield, adding an irrigation quick coupler to the pitcher’s mound, painting existing fencing and installing new foul poles.

I asked Justin why he made the donation. He said, “I may have been raised in Canada, but I’m in Minnesota now. I play ball here, I live here and I want to help others here.”

The other night, as Justin finished his batting practice, he approached me with a proud smile and said, “The park in Winthrop is finished! They had their first softball game there last night, and I saw pictures of it. I’ll probably get down there sometime in the next couple of weeks and take a look at it. It’s pretty exciting. And they started working on the field in Minneapolis. It was played on until the end of last season, and then construction began as soon as the snow melted this year. I should drive by and take a look at it. It’s pretty cool.”

He seemed as jazzed about it as the neighborhood kids will be.

 It’s not unusual to find Justin spending time with children, giving autographs and posing for photographs. But more importantly, whenever it’s possible, he gives them one-on-one time.

No matter who the nation’s baseball writers vote for, Justin will always be an MVP to the kids of Minnesota.

 

Cool and Content Kubel

Everyone, including me, has been talking about the depth of the Twins’ outfield with four possible starters: Delmon Young, Denard Span, Carlos Gomez and Michael Cuddyer.

People forget that we are even deeper than that. We have a fifth outfielder, Jason Kubel, who’s fully capable of being an above-average left fielder. Sure, he is listed on the Twins’ roster as a designated hitter, but for my money, he can play leftfield better than Delmon Young. He sees the ball right off of the bat, gets a good jump on it, runs well and catches what’s catchable.

A couple of years ago, Kubel had sore knees – which earned him a bad rap as a slow runner. He actually runs fairly well. In fact, he had five triples last year, trailing only speedsters Gomez and Span, who each had seven.

Jason is a very threatening lefthanded hitter, who had 20 homers last year. That was second-highest in the Twins’ lineup – just behind Justin Morneau, who had 23. And I know Jason can hit a lot more. Having Jason’s bat behind Morneau is good for Justin, too. At times, it saves the big first basemen from being walked intentionally.

Always cool and low-key, Kubel is very content at DH. One year ago, he and I chatted about his role with the Twins, and he had this to say: “I want to be part of the game any way that I can. I really like playing the outfield, but DH’ing is fine. It’s still playing the game and is actually more relaxing for me now. Last year I got a little more comfortable doing it. It gave me a new confidence level. I’m looking forward to putting up some big numbers.”

A year later, I asked him the same question. “Right now I’m a DH and I’m not concerned with the outfield situation. I’m concentrating at getting a good feel for hitting, and we’ll go from there. I feel really good so far.”

I commented on how happy he appeared. “Playing baseball’s something I’ve done my whole life,” he said. “It’s something I love doing. I feel happy, I feel really fortunate to play ball.”

I asked him if he changed anything in his swing over the winter. “Not really,” he said. “I’m just trying to get my bat on the ball. Maybe I’m trying to spray it around the field a little more.”

I was wondering what he had done all winter. “A lot of family time,” the papa of a 1-year-old boy said with a proud smile. “And I live in the hills [near Palmdale, Calif.]. Every day I would work out. I would mountain bike, lift weights, then go down to the high school and throw the ball around and do a little hitting. I didn’t see any of the guys, though, not until Twins Fest. I’m just happy we’re here now and that the season’s started.”

 

Backup Backstops

The Twins played .500 baseball for the first 22 games of the season without their all-star catcher, Joe Mauer. That is not too bad, considering the contributions Joe brings to the ballpark every day. He is a two-time batting champion, and the spark of his bat can ignite his teammates’ bats, too.

Defensively, he is one of the best catchers ever. Joe has a great arm to second base, he handles pitches cleanly and he has full control of his fielders. It’s almost as if he were manager Ron Gardenhire’s sixth sense. He sees things happening on the field and can maneuver the fielders around. And the way he handles his pitchers…they all seem to have a bit more confidence and an inner calmness when he is behind the plate.

Mike Redmond and Jose Morales did a fine job in Joe’s absence. Redmond is not only tough, but a wise old goat who knows the game as well as any TV analyst, seasoned veteran or baseball philosopher. He is a perfect backup backstop to a guy like a healthy Joe Mauer — but early this season, with Mauer disabled, Mike sustained a groin injury that cramped his style even more.

In Jose Morales you have a talented kid who is still learning how to play catcher. I asked Jose what his experience with the Twins has been like. “Man! It’s a dream come true. Since I started playing baseball in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when I was young, all I wanted to do is play in the big leagues. I definitely remember watching the Twins play in the ’87 and ’91 World Series.”

Were the Twins his favorite team? “I watched them, but I also loved to watch Michael Jordan and the Bulls,” he said with an ear-to-ear grin. “In 2001 I signed as a shortstop. When they first told me they were going to convert me to a catcher, I didn’t like the idea at all. But then Twins batting coach Joe Vavra told me this could be my quickest route to the big leagues. It paid off! And, you know what? The Twins fans are great!”

I asked Redmond how he thought Morales has done. “He has done well. Sometimes you just learn from experience. You just go out there and you learn more as you play. I help him when I can. Sometimes we go over scouting reports together, and I try to help him as much as I can. But I don’t want to give him too much information and confuse him. You want to keep it as simple as you can. But of course whenever I see something that I feel might help him, I let him know.”

 

The Lumber Doctor

When a team’s bats are sleeping, it is easy for folks to point fingers and blame the coaches or the manager. Twins batting coach Joe Vavra is a peaceful and caring man. He tends to his players like a holy man tends to his flock. He is always there for them. I see him at the ballpark early, and I see him there late. I have often heard him volunteering to come in on his own time to work with a player who may need special attention.

I asked Joe if he changes his routine when the team’s slumping. “No, it doesn’t really change,” he said. “We try to be consistent with our routine. You might start analyzing swings a little bit more. You might have a little more video time. I try to see a difference from when they were going good versus when they went bad. If I notice a difference, I’ll try to present that to the player. I try to get them feeling good about handling the bat. I try to not let them leave the cage on a negative. The coaches are in the business to try and help people succeed. I love to teach. I love to help people. I love to try to help others find success. I can’t achieve that as a player anymore. I’m never going to go up to the plate again holding a bat.”

Joe was drafted by the Dodgers in 1982 and played in the minors for several years. He was about to be called up to the majors when he broke his thumb, then came down with desert fever — which took him two years to recuperate from. When he did, the Dodgers took him on as a minor league coach. He managed and coached at various levels before coming to the Twins’ organization in 2002.

In 2005 he became the Twins’ major-league batting coach. He loves it. “If I can help others to succeed, I’m happy. I’ve always considered whatever my job is, as the best job in the world. When I take that kind of passion towards my work, I never have a bad day.”

 

Who’s at Third?

Joe Crede says he is enjoying being a Twin. “Yeah, I’ve always enjoyed Minnesota. Minneapolis is a great city with nice suburbs. We have some great guys on the team and great fans cheering us on! They’ve all treated me great.”

 

The Meat of the Order

Michael Cuddyer was eager to tell me that August 17 has been set as the date for his 3rd Annual Celebrity Waiter Fundraiser at Morton’s Steakhouse in Minneapolis. Last year, more than $40,000 was raised for the Boys and Girls Club at the event where Twins players wait tables and bartend for their fans. For more information on this evening of fun hosted by Michael Cuddyer and his wife Claudia, go to www.twinsbaseball.com.

 

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