It was either 2004 or 2005 (the years are beginning to blur) when I was having lunch during spring training. Matthew LeCroy walked in and sat down next me.
While picking sushi rolls up with his hands and stuffing them into his mouth, he talked about Michael Cuddyer.
``He's unbelievable,'' LeCroy said. ``When he arrived at New Britain (2000) he walked into the office and said, `Anything you need to have done in the community, let me know. I want to help.'
When I asked him about it, he said he wanted to be that guy to give back.''
Until the end of his time with the Twins, Cuddyer was that guy. When Twins officials this summer talked about trying to sign him to one more contract, they spoke of how Cuddyer has done everything they've asked of him through the years. Hosting `Baseball Unplugged' during off-days. Interviewing players during the Diamond Awards dinner. Cuddyer stepped up for them. One more contract, they felt, would make him a lock for the Twins' Hall of Fame.
He was a pretty good player too. He never had a really, really big season. He reached 30 homers once. He drove in 100 runs once. He didn't make an All-Star team until last season. But, once the Twins figured out where to play him, he was reliable, he could carry a team for a little while and made baserunners pay when they tried to stretch for two.
But it was the whole package, on and off the field, that made covering him a pleasure.
I've known Cuddyer since 1999. I remember buying rounds for him and Michael Restovich at a watering hole during their first major league training camp a couple years later and getting to know them. (I also remember getting crushed at the pool table that night). He treats people the way he wants to be treated. He's funny. He's loyal. He married a teacher. He's creative. Good grief, the guy once thought about opening a bar in which people swiped their credit cards at taps designed like gasoline pumps and pour their own beer. He was an impressive young man in 1999 and really never changed.
Luke Hughes is in awe of the guy. Hughes is trying to get Australian baseball moving forward and has gone to Cuddyer for advice on what to say and what to do to motivate players in his homeland. To Hughes, Cuddyer's professionalism is one trait every player should have.
When the Twins were in the process of getting waxed by the Yankees in the 2010 playoffs, it was Cuddyer who came out and faced the media while other players remained in the restricted area of the clubhouse.
This past season drained Cuddyer and factored into his decision to leave. In September, he told me during a casual conversation that it probably was his toughest season, based on failed expectations and how things played out in the clubhouse.
Fellow clubhouse leader Justin Morneau struggled with injuries and recurring concussion symptoms. When and where Joe Mauer was playing was a daily mystery. Young players needed to be straightened out. Cuddyer tried to play with a sore neck late in the season to send a message to everyone, but it became pointless as the losses mounted and the Rochester roster migrated West.
``I feel like I'm fighting a one-man battle,'' Cuddyer told someone in the clubhouse.
It's a great deal, $31.5 million over three years. Clearly more than the Twins were willing to go. Good for Cuddyer, one of my favorite players to cover since I started writing ball in 1994. The Twins get two draft picks and might have $8-9 million to spend (starting pitching?). Good for the Twins.
Cuddyer is off to the Rockies. The Twins will try to recover from rock-bottom baseball.