FORT MYERS, FLA.Joe Mauer was all business, ready to confront a workload complicated by a WBC detour. Cole De Vries was reminding himself to be himself, to make the day enjoyable but not overwhelming. Infield instructor Joe Vavra was apprehensive about every little detail of teaching every little detail. ¶ And for Rich Harden, Wednesday's opening practice for pitchers and catchers was all about the simple joy of being a baseball player again. ¶ "I was a little excited," Harden said of his first day in a big-league uniform in 17 months. "It was fun to get back out there -- just to be pitching on a mound."
Everyone approaches the first workout of spring training a little differently; heck, there's no general agreement whether it means the baseball season is practically upon us, or still a six-week eternity off. But all of the 50-plus Twins players who practiced in front of small but curious crowds in 80-degree weather Wednesday would agree: It's a blast to be back at work.
"This is what it's all about, getting back on the field," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "This is good stuff."
None better than Harden's. The 31-year-old righthander was the first Twins pitcher to take the mound, eager to test a shoulder that was surgically repaired 13 months ago, after years of periodic flareups that landed him on the disabled list virtually every year. He's been throwing at a Tempe, Ariz., rehab center for several months, but his seven-minute, 30-pitch session on Wednesday was the first time it's felt real to him again.
"I feel really good. Most of [my pitches] go where I want them to," said Harden, who has struck out 949 hitters in 928 1/3 career innings and has posted only one losing record in his nine-year career. "At this point, it's just about retraining my body to throw the way I should, and building up that arm strength. Getting that feel back."
Harden is a low-cost, low-risk gamble for the Twins, who hope he can reclaim his once-dominating form, stay healthy and shore up the pitching staff, possibly out of the bullpen. Mauer, on the other hand, is the most expensive player the Twins have ever employed, and this season, in addition to learning the repertoire of an overhauled pitching staff, he has extra duties. Mauer will report to Team USA in March and miss as much as three weeks while playing in the World Baseball Classic. That leaves the Twins catcher little time to accomplish a lot.
"I've got a lot of work to do," Mauer said. "I'll try to catch a different guy every day. And when I come back from [the WBC], we'll still have some time to get ready. And by then we'll have a better idea of who it might be [on the staff], which guys I've got to get familiar with. I'm excited for it."
Better to be early
De Vries wants to be one of those guys, and he's already familiar, thanks to the 16 starts he made as a rookie last season. That comfort level helps a lot this spring, the Eden Prairie High School product said, though there is no denying the thrill of opening camp three weeks before the minor leaguers show up across the complex.
"This is a lot better than being over on that other side," said De Vries, who joined Harden, closer Glen Perkins and newcomer Vance Worley in the first workout group. "This day is a lot of fun, but I try not to think too much about what I have to do."
De Vries' 4.11 ERA in 87 2/3 innings as a rookie earned him this chance to stay in the big leagues. "But I try to enjoy it and not put more pressure on myself," he said. "If you think you have to do something you're not capable of, you're asking for disaster."
To Vavra, disaster would be players standing around with nothing to do, or coaches unsure about what drill to run. Or, heaven forbid, someone not learning about proper footwork or the pitchout sign. "The organization has historically been really good at teaching the fundamentals, and not overlooking anything," said Vavra, who after a shakeup of Gardenhire's staff in October was assigned the task of planning and organizing spring training workouts. "I want to pay attention to every detail, because we're all accountable. What we do here is important, and we want the players to know we're serious about it."
He produces a complicated schedule designed to maximize players' time, to keep them from standing around too long after warming up, to make sure each lesson is presented, then reinforced with repeat sessions as camp goes on. Turn as you tag the bag so you don't run into the baserunner. Don't pull the ball out of your glove until after you record an out. Take a relay throw behind the base, so it can protect you from a sliding runner. The Twins lost some of their grasp of fundamentals last year, Gardenhire said, and he wants it cleaned up this spring.
"We've got a rotation for each drill, we've added some, and we make sure we take our time so they really learn it," Vavra said. "This is the first day, but we want what we do now to matter six months from now."