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One manís ceiling is another manís floor

 

By Gordy Jones

 

In the first few weeks of the 2011 season, it has been tough to find a bright spot to write about. Flu has spread throughout the clubhouse, Tsuyoshi Nishioka broke a leg and Joe Mauer is not right. Joe Nathanís arm hasnít fully recovered from surgery, and he was getting shelled before he stepped up and demoted himself.

Something else has been missing from this yearís team, besides quality play: Itís the stability that comes from bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek. Rick, or ďStelly,Ē has been a coach for the Twins since 1981.

In the winter, he had a detached retina and was supposed to have routine surgery to repair it. Since then, his eye has had as many problems as the 2011 Twins. It has had fluid buildup and infections, which kept him from flying. Stelly missed spring training and the season until now.

It wasnít the same without him. Maybe he has brought a little magic with him. If anyone could use a little luck right now, itíd be Stelly and the Twins.

When players go down, either from lack of performance or an injury, it is an unfortunate incident for the manager and his team. However, one manís fall is another manís opportunity. There are bench players who become regulars, and minor-leaguers who are called up to the majors. Theyíll tell you that they hate to see a guy get injured or in a slump, but they love the fact that they are given their chance for stardom. Remember, thatís how Lou Gehrig began his dazzling run that lasted 2,130 games.

One guy who is seeing more playing time is Matt Tolbert. It was fun watching Matt at spring training, competing for the spot on the roster created when the Twins released Nick Punto. Matt is the perfect utility player, pretty good at short and second, and now learning to play first.

In Florida, I saw him come in early and stay late, taking extra batting practice and infield. I am sure he realized that at age 29, he had better make the squad if he wants to stay in baseball.

Matt is a speedster, maybe one of the fastest on the team. He grew up in Mississippi and excelled in football as well as baseball. He set a record his senior year of high school as a running back, rushing for 2,561 yards on 326 carries. Thatís nearly eight yards per run. He went to the University of Mississippi for four years, where he played shortstop and second base.

Another Twin who battled for that utility spot is Luke Hughes. He was sent to Rochester so heíd have more playing time, and was recently called up when Nishioka broke his leg. Luke can play any position in the infield, has even played outfield, and can hit home runs! He led the Twins in home runs in spring training.

Luke grew up in Australia where cricket and football (soccer) are prevalent, and baseball is on the back burner. In fact, he almost gave up baseball at the age of 16.

He told me, ďI grew up playing football in the winter and baseball in the summer. I never played cricket because that is also in summer. I started playing baseball at the age of 12 or 13. In Australia, you play tee-ball until youíre 11 years old. I was about to quit baseball, but I changed my mind.

ďAn academy was started on the gulf coast by Major League Baseball. You live on the gulf coast, you attend school there and play baseball. Itís kind of like spring training. I was part of their first year, and itís the Academy that changed my mind from playing football to baseball.

ďThere are a lot of (major-league) scouts in Australia; I think every team is represented. After camp I was lucky enough to be chosen to play for the World Cup on the Australian National Team. There were scouts up there, and the Twins picked me up just before my 18thbirthday, and thatís when I came over here.Ē

He said it was tough coming over here, being away from his family at such a young age. He said that the Academy got him ready for the adjustment, and taught him what the game is like here.

He now mentors other young Australians as they chase their dream of the American pastime. Grant Balfour, former Twins pitcher from Australia, was one of the people who helped Luke out upon his arrival to the States, and now Luke tries to return the favor as more Aussies arrive.

Luke maintains a hearty and healthful diet, because he said he burns many calories with his hard work. He loves a good barbeque Ė but donít throw any ďshrimp on the barbeeĒ Ė because Luke shies away from seafood, saying ďI donít seem to feel so good the next day! I prefer a good steak or ribs.Ē

Luke wanted to pass along a piece of advice for kids playing any sport: ďIf you want something bad enough, you have to work hard. Youíve got to work harder than the guy sitting next to you. You also have to dream. Donít be afraid to put high expectations on yourself.

ďI always dreamed about coming over here to play baseball. Some people will try to tell you your dreamís not possible. I worked hard, tried to put things in place Ö and I made it. I never let anyone tell me I couldnít do it. And now that Iím here, I continue to work hard!Ē

Go Luke!

 

Fans! If you have any Twins related questions, email Gordy at gejones1@aol.com

 

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