FORT MYERS, FLA. – Tom Kelly was entering his first full season as manager for the Twins in 1987 and he had a vision of what he wanted in a backup infielder. He was looking for someone who could run and make the plays at all three positions.
The Twins had a star at third in Gary Gaetti, a marvelous fielder in Greg Gagne at shortstop and a solid fielder coming off a bad year at the plate in second baseman Steve Lombardozzi.
Roy Smalley was on the club, but basically as a designated hitter and pinch hitter. As spring training started, there were five candidates to be the backup infielder: Ron Washington, Ron Gardenhire, Chris Pittaro, Alvaro Espinoza and Julius McDougal.
Kelly wanted another option. Assistant general manager Bob Gebhard had been with Montreal and had a recommendation:
Al Newman, a 5-9, slap-hitting, switch-hitting, 26-year-old who was adept at second base and shortstop.
How about third?
“I had never played third,” Newman said.
The Twins traded Mike Shade, a fringe pitching prospect, to Montreal for Newman on Feb. 20. Newman soon was walking into the cramped clubhouse at Tinker Field in Orlando.
“Kelly greeted me and said, ‘I want you taking ground balls at all three positions every day,’ ’’ Newman said. “That’s when we started T.K.’s famous ‘Good Morning America’ drill on that chopped-up little field behind Tinker.”
The manager hit firm ground balls at a rapid-fire pace intended to require maximum concentration from infielders. In other words: “Wake up, gentlemen, and have a productive day at the ballpark.”
Newman still does that drill when working with young players, including the collegiate team he now manages in Alexandria, Minn. — the Blue Anchors — in the Northwoods League.
He was at Hammond Stadium on Thursday, to watch the Twins’ exhibition with Miami and to visit his pal Dan Gladden in the broadcast booth. He also had an observation on Eduardo Escobar, who appears destined to replicate the Newman scenario as the main backup at three infield positions.
“Escobar’s situation is different than mine,” Newman said. “It was a great break for me to be traded to the Twins, because I probably wasn’t going to make the club in Montreal. Escobar was the regular shortstop last season and had, what, almost 40 doubles?”
Almost. Escobar had 35 doubles in 433 at-bats. He also had six home runs and two triples — 43 extra-base hits among his total of 119 hits. That’s spectacular for a 5-10 infielder who also offers speed.
Escobar’s opportunity to play regularly at shortstop (86 starts) came when desperation led the Twins to put Danny Santana in center field.
Now, new manager Paul Molitor has put Santana, 24, back at shortstop full-time, the pre-Byron Buxton void in center field remains, and if Escobar is going to be in the lineup regularly, it’s likely to be as a designated hitter.
The DH role was anticipated to go to Kennys Vargas, but those nine home runs and 38 RBI in the last two months of 2014 don’t come with a guarantee. There’s much less certainty of Vargas reclaiming the DH role this month than with Santana at shortstop, Brian Dozier at second or Trevor Plouffe at third.
The 180-degree contrast between Escobar and a backup infielder such as Newman is this: Escobar’s flaws are as a fielder; Newman’s were as a hitter.
“I got to play because T.K. knew if the ball was hit to me — at second, short or third — I was going to make the play,” Newman said. “He was willing to put up with less hitting for reliable fielding. I’m not sure how Mollie looks at it.”
Molitor looks at it the only way he can: Somehow, he’s going to have to try to get Escobar in the lineup often enough for 350 at-bats, at a minimum.
“One thing that helped me was being a switch-hitter,” Newman said. “So, on those getaway days or Sundays, when T.K. wanted to use his bench, the starting pitcher wasn’t an issue.
“Escobar has that going for him, too. He’s a switch-hitter, so Mollie doesn’t have to look for a pitching matchup. He can use him any day, any time.”
Escobar always is ready to play a ballgame. After his regular duty with the Twins, he once again spent November and December playing in the Venezuelan Winter League.
“I love to play baseball,” Escobar said. “And playing every day … that makes you a better hitter.”
To go back to a famous cliché, Eduardo Escobar is a good problem to have for the Twins’ new manager.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org