Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Back into the Swing of Things: Part One

For many Twins fans, winter is simply a reality. Here in the Upper Midwest, many of us not particularly enjoy winter, but we accept it and get through the cold weather and snow just fine (even when it does overstay its welcome). For me, one of the worst aspects of the longest of our two seasons (the other one being, obviously, roadh construction) is the lack of baseball.

Sure, things aren’t so bad in November and December, what with the Hot Stove League and all, but by the time January rolls around, I start to go a little stir crazy. That is why this past weekend could not have come soon enough. I dedicated my entire Saturday to my favorite pastime, and since I have this forum available to me, I thought I’d share with you a few of the more interesting points from my day. I don’t think I’ll get through it all tonight, so this might be a two-part post. However, the best stuff definitely came Saturday morning.

Saturday Morning: 11 a.m.

Every year before the start of the new season, St. Olaf College (my school) hosts a baseball coaches clinic. Every year, the biggest speaker is none other than Twins general manager Terry Ryan. Longtime St. Olaf baseball coach Jim Dimick (any of you are familiar with MIAC baseball may know who I’m talking about) has been friends with Terry since his scouting days, and ever since he became G.M. Terry has been kind enough to make the short trip south to speak at our clinic. He brings a current player with him most of the time and speaks for about 30-45 minutes about baseball, the state of the game, and of course, the Twins. We’ve had just about every notable Twin come at one point or another: Torii, Koskie, Dougie, LeCroy, Pierzynski, and a few more I can’t remember. Last year he brought local boy Michael Restovich, and in a pleasant surprise, this year’s guest was Jacque Jones.

What makes this appearance so great every year is T.R.’s frankness. We all know that he is much more open about things with the public than most other baseball officials already, but in front of that relatively small audience of baseball coaches, I’ve found that Ryan always seems to “tell it like it is”. This isn’t an audience of clueless (albeit well-meaning) fans who think if you “hit and run” it constitutes a federal crime; these are mostly high school and college baseball coaches who have been around the game extensively for years and years. Stupid questions are not asked, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that even if the discussion becomes relatively complex, people are going to understand what is going on.

Terry started this year by going over a few things from JJ’s bio: some of his notable stats, his path to the big leagues (including the 1996 Olympics), and his performance the last couple of years. As he usually says when asked about Jacque’s contract situation, Terry said that he wasn’t the one starting the rumor of Jacque’s imminent departure. “Jacque, how come every time I pick up the paper Charley Walters has got you traded?” he asked (rhetorically, obviously), which garnered a few chuckles from the audience. “As long as you want me back I’ll be back,” said a smiling Jones in reply, which also drew some laughs.

Jacque also talked about losing his dad during last year’s playoffs. Jacque talked about how he had told his grandmother that he would call her the morning that she passed away (a few years ago) and was disappointed that he wasn’t able to talk to her one last time. He said he almost made the same mistake with his father the day before he passed, but instead turned around and picked up the phone before the team’s last game of the regular season and was able to speak with his dad one last time. He also said how much he appreciated the support of his teammates during that difficult time.

Terry made a point of talking about the unique bond the Twins continue to share, despite the fact that they have lost so many players over the past few years. “It’s odd that this club can stay together and continue to win,” he said. “Some of the reasons are that we have the types of guys like Jacque and Torii—guys with such great character. We certainly have the right manager and the right type of makeup, because on paper we aren’t the greatest team.”

Interestingly, the next topic was none other than steroids and the recently passed crackdown plan. “I was talking to Matt Lawton about this a couple weeks ago,” Jacque said. “We went over how guys kinda frowned on our numbers back when I used to hit 21 homers, he would hit 23, Corey would hit 24, but right now, we both feel pretty good about those numbers,” which coming out of the 5-10 Jones’ mouth was pretty funny I have to admit. “I think we’ll start to see things even just a hair” said Ryan.

A previous presenter had used a video of Randy Johnson to demonstrate something, and when Terry asked Jacque what he thought of the Yankees’ newest acquisition, Jacque responded “I think I might have to use a couple more sick days this year,” which was pretty dang funny too.

After briefly going over the AL Central and some of the other AL competition for the upcoming year, Terry brought up the fact that Jacque’s favorite park is actually pitcher-friendly Saefco Field in Seattle while he has hit just .209 in Camden Yards, a hitter’s haven. Jacque also made a couple nice points about how Tony Gywnn has helped him as a hitter by helping him simplify things. I can’t emphasize this enough for all you baseball coaches out there: keep things simple, even if you’re coaching at a higher level. No athlete performs at his/her best when they have too many things to think about.

Many Twins fans (including myself at times) are sometimes critical of Jones because of the fact that he is such a free-swinger. When asked why that was, Jones responded “It’s what got me here. I’ve always been that way and it’s who I am as a hitter.”

Jacque talked about how he was a mere 145 lbs. in 10th grade, which is a far cry from many of the behemoths we see in the league today. “I’m always amazed at how far you can hit a ball the opposite way,” said Terry. “So am I,” JJ replied, to the delight of the crowd.

“You’re going to be one of the few major leaguers that plays long enough to see free agency,” said Ryan to Jacque, “and you’re going to get there after this year. You’ll have all the freedom you could desire, which isn’t good for me.” That quote really brought home how highly Terry and the Twins’ front office thinks of Jacque. He has his weaknesses, but when you can keep a productive player (and great guy) like him around at a realistic price, it’s not difficult to see why the Twins re-signed him.

Speaking about his 2005 team, T.R. said “We’re in good shape and we have a lot of confidence in this club, even with the loss of Koskie and Guzman. With Morneau, a healthy Mauer, Stewart, and guys like Lew and Jacque and Torii we should have a pretty balanced offense. We brought back the entire pitching staff, and for the first time most people are looking at us as the favorites in the division.”

Then Terry opened up the floor for questions from the audience. A great number of topics were discussed, including Mauer’s health (obviously), Joe Mays, the incredible power of Justin Morneau, Jacque’s contract situation (and the role that agents play in the entire contractual process), among a great many other things. My digital voice recorder ran out of space about that time (curse it’s difficult-to-understand controls!) so I can’t exactly recount all that was said in this space.

However, I made it my prerogative to get my hard-hitting question in (as I do most years) and asked Terry about his confidence in the left side of the team’s infield, most notably Cuddyer’s defense at third and the shortstop race. Ryan was very upbeat about Cuddyer, praising his “coachability” (a quality that the audience obviously held in high regard), work ethic, and strong throwing arm. In the end, though, it all comes down to the fact that the team needs to get Cuddy’s bat into the lineup on an everyday basis, which is something we’ve all known for a while.

As for the shortstop sweepstakes, Ryan didn’t say anything too earth-shattering, probably because he doesn’t know that much more than we do right now. This was before the whole Punto-madness began, and T.R. said that it is pretty much a three horse race between Bartlett, Castro, and Punto. I get the feeling that the winner may actually be decided in spring training, which is something that hasn’t happened on this team for quite a while now (in terms of a position spot being won during the spring) perhaps dating back to the Mohr-Cuddyer-Kielty days.

Whew! I have typed quite enough for one day, and I congratulate you for reading this far down the page! It must have taken you quite a while, so now feel free to go about the rest of your day. I’ll probably leave this post up tomorrow before writing Part Two on Wednesday or Thursday. It will contain a few more thoughts/reactions from Twins Fest ’05. If you have any reactions of your own from the event, feel free to e-mail them to me and I will post them along with my own when I write that entry. Until then, so long!

-Ryan M.