FORT MYERS, Fla. – The words were Carlos Quentin’s, offered 10 months ago.
“My injuries have taken too great a physical toll,” he said last May 1, confirming his retirement after an eight-year major league career. “It is the right time for me to walk away.”
Now Quentin, trying to earn a spot on the Twins roster, uses different words to describe his relationship with baseball.
“If you want to make yourself better, challenge yourself,” Quentin says. “I just want to play baseball. That’s my challenge.”
It’s really just that simple, the veteran outfielder said Tuesday, as he prepared for another day of training camp, surrounded by young players who aspire to have the success he already has. He’s not here for the money; he’s earned nearly $45 million already, and is playing for a relative pittance, just $750,000 if he stays all season. He’s not here for fame or reverence; Quentin is one of the quietest and smartest players in the clubhouse, a Stanford graduate with a degree in political science who is reluctant to talk about himself. He’s not here for the baseball lifestyle, or some unfinished business, or any spiritual journey.
“I decided to take on this challenge, because it’s completely different than anything I’ve done,” said Quentin, a former collegiate All-America, first-round draft pick and national team member. “If I can help this team, that’s all I can ask. I’m excited for this experience.”
He doesn’t know where that experience will lead, but he’s got his new team intrigued. Quentin has smashed 173 major league home runs, more than anyone in Minnesota’s clubhouse, owns a Silver Slugger bat as the AL’s top-hitting outfielder and in 2008 finished fifth in AL MVP voting while with the White Sox. He’s a professional hitter, once a very good one, and intends to be again.
“His experience has shown, even with the year off,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor. “He’s made some adjustments during at-bats, and put balls in play, and has driven in some runs. He’s taken some walks. So [the signs] are all encouraging.”
That’s a big change for Quentin, who was so discouraged last spring, he walked away from the game, seemingly for good. He was an All-Star-caliber hitter when healthy, but good health was rare. He missed his first professional season after having elbow surgery, and the injuries kept coming: Shoulder surgery, plantar fasciitis in his foot, a hand broken when he smacked it with his bat in anger. And his knees? “I’ve had lots of surgeries on my knees,” he shrugged. “Both knees.”
He made matters worse, he says, by trying to return too quickly. “Good intentions, but not the smartest thing,” he said. “Knees being weight-bearing, you know, and me being a bigger guy.”
It took its toll. Quentin hit only .177 and four home runs in 50 games for his hometown Padres in 2014, and just before last season started, San Diego included him in a trade with the Braves, who waived him. He signed on with Seattle but played only five games and gave up in frustration. And resignation.
“Last year didn’t go as planned. I was pretty burned out on the game, my body was not great,” Quentin said. “I started transitioning into being an ex-player,” even issuing a statement announcing his retirement. He spent the summer with his wife, Jeane, and their two kids, 2-year-old son Clarke and 1-year-old daughter Cosette.
But as the year went on, the shoulder healed, the knees stopped aching. “My body started feeling good, and my mind felt better. As athletes, you don’t realize how much this game takes from you,” he said. “I was able to get some perspective.”
Quentin wondered whether he could still play. He decided — he resolved — to find out. When his agent spread the word last winter, a few teams called to offer invitations “just based on my track record and past performance. That was kind of them, but I needed to have someone see me and tell me what they thought. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time.”
The Twins, though, sent West Coast scout Ken Compton to San Diego to watch him hit. Tom Brunansky, Twins hitting coach, lived nearby and came over, too. They were impressed with Quentin’s bat speed and ability to drive the ball, and he was impressed with their forthrightness. You can still hit, they said, and we’ll give you that chance.
“They said they’re looking for a veteran presence, someone to come off the bench and give a good at-bat. A guy who can be versatile,” Quentin said. “They were honest, and I appreciate them giving me a fair shake. I said I’ll come and give it my best effort.”
He knows roster spots are scarce, and it’s possible he might have to start in Class AAA to get ready, which he is willing to do. But the Twins have promised to remain honest, too; if he can’t help them, they won’t string him along.
So far, though, the signs are good. He’s roaming the outfield and learning first base, too. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well my body has done this spring. I appreciate how hard the Twins work, and how attentive to detail they are, and I’m proud that I’ve been able to be in every single drill and have not had to back off,” Quentin said. “That’s a victory for myself.”