Second in a series. Read Part One here.
Fort Myers, Fla. – Two of the best young baseball players in the world stand on a practice field, stretching. There is little else they can do. ¶ They have been linked by age and reputation ever since one became the consensus top prospect in baseball, and the other became perhaps the most fearsome power hitter in the minor leagues. Someday, they should grace the cover of the game-day program at Target Field. Maybe they’ll even stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Today, they work out in anonymity, on the last field at the Twins’ minor league complex, wading through the invisible fog of Florida humidity months after they expected to depart.
After stretching, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano jog onto the field to play catch, but bring only one glove.
Wearing Twins caps, shorts and cleats, the injured prospects stand opposite a minor league pitcher, who throws the ball toward Sano. Sano gloves it and flips it gently to Buxton, who snags it with his right hand and fires the ball back to the pitcher.
“It’s quite funny at times,” Buxton said. “He always wants to throw the ball, and he can’t. It’s weird for me, because I don’t have a glove weighing down this hand.”
They step back every few throws. After 20 minutes, Buxton’s baseball activity for the day is over. Sano will continue, by sitting on a stool as a coach hits him ground balls.
No spectators watch, and no one asks for autographs. Someday, they may be two of the most recognized faces in baseball. On this day in early June, you would have to know their faces, or their unique frames, to differentiate them from the more anonymous Twins minor leaguers.
“It’s strange, two top prospects for the Twins being hurt,” Sano said. “But that’s the way it is.”
By now, Sano, a massive third baseman, was expected to be on the cusp of the big leagues, and Buxton, a fleet center fielder, was expected to be right behind him, the way he often catches up to teammates on the basepaths.
Instead, it takes two of them to perform the rudimentary ritual taken for granted by millions of Little Leaguers every day.
Sano underwent Tommy John surgery to repair his right elbow this spring. He is not expected to play this season. Buxton injured his left wrist in a minor league spring training game March 16, then re-injured the wrist May 8.
Twins farm director Brad Steil said Buxton won’t swing a bat until all of the soreness in his wrist is gone. Then he will need a couple of weeks before playing in extended spring training games, and if he remains healthy he would begin playing for the Class A Fort Myers Miracle.
Doug Mientkiewicz, the former Twin who manages the Miracle, has jokingly told Sano to be ready to be his designated hitter in the playoffs, but it’s more likely Sano won’t play until this winter in the Dominican Republic.
“It’s just a waiting game,” Steil said.
Buxton is not yet allowed to wear a fielding glove, much less batting gloves.
“I really can’t pick up anything heavier than my phone, or a video game controller,” he said. “I definitely can’t lift weights or swing a bat.”
So Buxton and Sano while away the summer, stuck in Fort Myers during the rainy season, betrayed by the very physiques that embody hope for a struggling franchise.
They stand next to each other by a creek, trying to catch Sano’s dinner.
Buxton, his red Ford F-150 pickup truck parked by the side of a prominent road in Fort Myers, holds a rod and reel. Sano, his Buick parked behind Buxton’s truck, wears a sun hat and a Dwyane Wade jersey. He and his friends pull in fish the way Buxton normally pulls in fly balls, while Buxton changes lures, trying to keep up.
Buxton doesn’t seem to mind. He grew up in little Baxley, Ga., living the country life. If he can’t stand beneath the sun in an outfield, fishing will have to do.
Finally, he puts away his reel and watches as Sano and his buddies pull a dozen fish from the creek and stuff them in a plastic shopping bag.
“We’ll cook them,” Sano said.
Buxton and Sano have been aware of each other since Buxton became the second overall pick in the 2012 draft. The Twins had signed Sano as an international free agent in 2009.
“I remember him coming to Minnesota,” said fellow Dominican native Carlos Gomez, then the Twins’ center fielder. “I talked to him, and I’ve followed him. He’s going to be a great player.”
As the Twins’ major league record waned, Buxton and Sano came to represent the franchise’s future. Perhaps they were fated to become friends.
They spend mornings at the Twins’ minor league compound. They spend some of their afternoons fishing together as thousands of people speed by, unaware of their impending stardom. In a few years, people will be able to see them together in public only if they buy tickets.
“Most of the time, we just waste time together,” Buxton said. “I was driving the other day and I saw him on the side of the road. I thought his car must be broken down, so I turned around to help him out. He said, ‘No, just fishing.’ So I joined him.”
Buxton and Sano were expected to start the season at Class AA New Britain, where, if they played well, they’d be a phone call away from the major leagues.
Both played for the Miracle in 2013, and made their first appearances at the Twins’ training camp this spring. Neither expected to be back in Fort Myers until the spring of 2015.
On March 16, Buxton, having been cut from big-league camp, was playing center field in a minor league spring training camp. He bolted into right-center in pursuit of a fly ball, and dived.
“My wrist bent back,” Buxton said. “All the way back.”
Instead of packing for New Britain at the end of spring training, he remained in Fort Myers, at the Twins’ complex, to rehabilitate the injury. On May 4, he played in his first game of the season, with the Miracle. On May 8, after his first extra-base hit of the season, a double, he tried to score.
“The catcher made a sweep tag and kind of pushed my arm back out the opposite way,” Buxton said. “At the time I didn’t feel it. I had on a brace. Once the game was over and we got back in the clubhouse, I took off the brace. It was feeling pretty bad.”
Buxton finished that game. The next day, he tried to take batting practice and could barely swing. He tried to hide his pain and jogged to center field to shag balls.
“When I walk in and my name is in the lineup, I’m going to be ready to play,” he said.
Mientkiewicz followed him to the outfield, where Buxton stood, stone-faced.
“I can’t play you when you’re hurting like this,” Mientkiewicz said.
“I remember him saying that,” Buxton said. “I don’t remember anything else.”
“He wants to be known as a kid who plays through everything,” Mientkiewicz said. “He doesn’t want to hear about being the top prospect or us having to take care of him. He only wants to hear that he can play. That’s what’s going to make him great. He craves being out there, and he knows that his team is better with him at 50 percent than someone else at 100 percent.”
Injuries haven’t diminished their promise. ESPN analyst Keith Law recently ranked Buxton, despite his badly sprained wrist, as the best prospect in baseball for the second consecutive year. Sano is ranked anywhere from third to 14th, depending on the source.
Rankings are no more comforting to Buxton than an ice pack. For the first time since middle school, he’s not spending his summer evenings playing baseball.
“It’s devastating,” he said.
Most days, he wakes at 6:15 a.m., makes breakfast and heads to the ballpark. His personal mantra is “if you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late.”
“I like getting there early and joking around with the guys,” he said. “I don’t like to be in a rush.”
He’ll undergo treatment for his wrist, and sit in the hot tub “if they’ll let me.” At 10 a.m., he’ll take the field with Sano and throw.
Then he’ll work out in the weight room and undergo more treatment. By midday he’s done.
“It’s been a quiet summer,” he said.
Videos instead of games
They sit next to each other on the couch at Buxton’s condo, playing video games.
The games vary, but Sano insists they always come back to PlayStation’s “MLB The Show.”
Sometimes they play the 2014 version, sometimes the one from 2010 that featured future teammate Joe Mauer on the cover.
“I’m better at video games,” Sano says.
“He says he is,” Buxton says with a smile.
Sano finds himself imitating Buxton, and stealing bases. Buxton finds himself imitating Sano, and swinging for maximum distance.
“It’s about the only kind of baseball I can play right now,” Buxton says.
Even as they convalesce, their names cause scouts and Twins employees to perk up. For a franchise that has lost 90 or more games in three consecutive seasons, “Buxton and Sano” are the baseball equivalent of a double espresso.
This spring outfielder Jason Kubel, a longtime Twin recently cut by the team, said, “I never felt old and slow, until I saw Byron Buxton chase a fly ball.”
Fort Myers pitching coach Gary Lucas was with Buxton at low-Class A Cedar Rapids last year before joining the Miracle this year.
“This is frustrating for all of us, because as far as being good for the game, Byron Buxton would be a poster boy,” Lucas said. “He makes fans want to buy tickets. He’s like Mike Trout, or Torii Hunter, one of those people who have that extra energy and spunk that attracts people to the game.
“I remember all of the guys wanting to hang around him in Cedar Rapids. He brought energy every night. He made guys better, and that was indicated by some of the stats we put up there last year. Everybody was looking forward to his big test this year, and he hasn’t been able to take that test. But he will be really good for our sport.”
Mientkiewicz has managed for a season and a half in the minors, and he has managed Buxton and Sano. Sano even became close to his son, Steel.
“Yes, they will miss a year, but this will also add a year onto the back end of their careers because there’s no wear and tear from this year,” Mientkiewicz said. “There’s no reason these kids can’t come back better than they were before, after working on their legs and their core strength, and after realizing how much they miss the game.
“They both have the ability to be team leaders. Sano is more boisterous. Buck is getting there. He leads more by example. There were numerous times last year I was about to get on the team, and Sano beat me to it. Buck is more likely to give everyone hard high-fives and make sure all of his teammates are doing OK.
“I don’t miss the 30 homers and 100 RBI as much as I miss Sano holding his teammates accountable, and Buck does that, too. That’s great to see from two guys who — let’s be real — our organization is relying on. They’re both deserving of their reputations. Hopefully, they will become the players we believe they will be.”
The view from the stands
They sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the stands at Hammond Stadium, watching as the Miracle plays the Tampa Yankees.
Buxton, as long and lean as an NBA shooting guard, eats a hot dog. Sano, built like a young John Randle, the Hall of Fame Vikings defensive tackle, carries the conversation. They clap politely, and cautiously. “I’m not going to yell or anything,” Buxton said.
Sano does. He’ll walk up to the dugout and needle Mientkiewicz.
Both feel drawn to the games, but frustrated by their inactivity. Eventually, they wander through the gates, headed for PlayStation, where they can be the players they expect to be.
“We’ve become pretty close the last month,” Buxton said. “We go out to eat, watch a movie, go fishing, stuff that helps us relax and waste time.”
On an afternoon in early June, Buxton’s work is done. He’s planning to head home and watch his favorite show, “CSI.” Saying he has “no interest in that party life,” he usually goes to bed early.
He’s sitting on a deserted practice field. When asked to do an interview on camera, he insists on running to his locker so he could wear his Twins cap. A photojournalist asks him to say a few words, to test his microphone.
“Happy to play baseball,” he says.
Mientkiewicz thinks their injuries may have set each back one year. Sano and Buxton, not surprisingly, hope they can fast-forward through their rehabs and cut that prediction in half.
“I want to play winter ball in the Dominican, and be ready to play on Opening Day for the Twins next year,” Sano said. “I want to be an impact player. I want to be the guy who drives in the runs.”
“At this point, I just want to get out there and play, and help my team win games,” Buxton said.
During the longest summer of their young lives, Buxton and Sano have buoyed one another and bonded.
“If you are positive, anything is possible,” Sano said. “If you are negative, nothing is possible. We have to stay positive.”
“It’s been hard,” Buxton said. “I just have to stick to the program. I miss being out there.”
For now they’ll keep working out and hanging out together, anticipating the day they’ll jog onto a diamond needing more than one glove.