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Enthusiasm is a gift!
By Gordy Jones
Every now and then, a ballplayer comes along who has an extra amount of enthusiasm, making his brand of baseball a little more fun to watch. One of the most famous of these players – historically, and to the extreme — was Pete Rose. His enthusiasm and hustle made an average Major League player into a superstar.
Another is A.J. Pierzynski. When he catches, he is so into the game, he talks to the ball, talks to the batter, talks to anyone else within the sound of his voice. He can be so intense, sometimes he doesn’t even realize what he’s saying, but the opposing players and fans sure do. He drives them nuts — especially the fans here in Minnesota. That’s mostly because he used to be a Twin.
But I’ve been in social situations with A.J., or as Tom Kelly calls him, Anthony, and he is really a nice guy. I remember when he was at the Dome in 2009 for the last time as a White Sox, he was getting choked up as he reminisced about the good times he had there. And that was after he received a bad case of boos from Twins fans. He even defended Twins fans, saying they should root for their team and boo the opponents, it’s only natural.
And then he went on to remind me that he never chose to leave Minnesota. With Mauer coming up, he was traded to the Giants for Joe Nathan, Boof Bonzer and Francisco Liriano. I remember he was sad when he said, “I have friends and family in Minnesota. I didn’t want to leave.”
Many times, these types of players are known as “good clubhouse” guys because in some cases their talent is fading with age, but their high enthusiasm acts as a sparkplug for the rest of the team. One player of that nature was another Twins catcher, Mike Redmond. He backed up Mauer when Joe was an almost-everyday catcher. Yet Mike’s enthusiasm, even while on the bench, fired the boys up. You might’ve run into Redmond at a restaurant several hours after a game, and he would still be talking about the game.
There was another such Twin at the same time, who was younger than Mike, but whose enthusiasm made him play at a higher level. That man is Nick Punto. Nick told me that when he was a kid, his dad took him aside and said (paraphrasing), “You’re smaller than the other kids. If you want to make it in this game you’ll need to take advantage of every opportunity you can.”
With that thought, his dad taught him to be a switch hitter. Nick did the rest himself: diving, hustling, lifting – his wrists are as strong as Popeye’s. After the second inning, you’d rarely see Nick wearing a clean uniform, and on the bench he was another one of the team’s sparkplugs. And like Redmond, you’d hear Punto still talking baseball two hours after the game – sometimes with Mike. When Ozzie Guillen nicknamed the Twins infield “the piranhas,” Nick was the poison he had foremost in mind.
A current enthusiastic Twin is Drew Butera. Drew’s father, Sal, was also a Twins catcher, and was on the 1987 World Champion team. This, in its own right, makes Drew unique; he is the only son of a former Twin to be a Twin himself. And to play the same position as his father must give them both a special, proud feeling.
Drew grew up in Florida, and out of high school he was drafted by the Blue Jays. He declined and elected to attend college and play ball at the University of Central Florida where he was one of the top players in the conference. In the 2005 baseball draft, the Mets picked Drew in the fifth round. In 2007 the Twins picked him up as part of a deal for infielder Luis Casilla. After getting some experience in the minors, he was on the opening day roster in 2010. He’s made a few trips back to Rochester since, but his defensive work behind the plate is outstanding. He sometimes struggles at the plate, but of late has done some nice clutch hitting and raised his average to the upper .200’s.
Drew is a lot of fun to be around, and attends nearly every Twin charity event. Redmond, A.J. and Punto were all generous with their time, too, but Drew will take the stage, answer questions from fans or media, and seems to love facing a crowd. He is very entertaining, confident but not cocky, and is quite kind to the fans.
He takes charity appearances very seriously, just like his game of baseball. In fact, after a recent event where he and Brian Dozier raised money for military families at Woody’s in Woodbury, I asked if I could have a couple minutes of his time, and he cheerfully obliged. I asked him if he had changed his swing at all, because he’s been hitting so well. He looked … not angry, but awfully disappointed. “Are we not doing questions about this event, or baseball?”
I’m a multi-tasker in my questioning. If I get a few moments to interview a player, I will cover the event, baseball and anything else I can think of. I like to seize the moment and make the most of it. He said,” OK, OK, that’s fine. No, I haven’t changed a thing. I have a better approach. I know myself a lot better. We worked on some things in the offseason. I’m going to try and keep it going.”
Then I mentioned his pitching debut, when the Twins were being blown out by Milwaukee and Drew was called in to pitch a scoreless inning and struck out Carlos Gomez. I asked him if he had practiced pitching. “No, no, it was a complete surprise,” he said. “I did not expect that at all.”
He went on: “But tonight … this was really a great event. I’m glad so many people came out for this. It was a lot of fun! The money raised tonight goes to a great cause: military families.”
Drew is a perfect fit for the Twins. He loves and plays great baseball, and he is a great guy.