Fort Myers, Fla. – The dominant personalities on the best Twins teams of the past 30 years have been magnetic center fielders whose voices provided the soundtrack for raucous clubhouses.
The leadership of Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter won games. Or did winning games lead people to identify Puckett and Hunter as leaders?
The Twins will hold their first full-squad workout today in Fort Myers. For three seasons, they have lost a grotesque number of games while seeming to lack the kind of visceral, vocal leadership Puckett and Hunter provided. In the early 2000s, the Twins had one of the loosest clubhouses in baseball. Since Hunter left following the 2007 season, the clubhouse has been quiet as a foreclosed house.
Who will be their leader this year? Is leadership even necessary, or pivotal?
The Twins’ front office apparently thinks so, or it wouldn’t have so eagerly pursued catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who decided to sign with Boston. Many in the Twins’ braintrust think the clubhouse requires what one key Twins figure described as “someone who will bite your head off.”
With Justin Morneau gone, Joe Mauer no longer has any competition when it comes to being the franchise’s central figure. He is the Twins’ highest paid and best player. Is he a leader?
“I think that leadership thing kind of gets all blown out of proportion,” Mauer said. “Morney was definitely one of the guys who younger players looked to. I think it’s the veterans who play that role. Yeah, we obviously miss a good player and a good leader, but we have other guys, like Josh Willingham, in here, and other guys we’re getting to know. That shouldn’t be a problem.”
Former Twins All-Star closer Eddie Guardado sees a clubhouse lacking life and personality. Current All-Star closer Glen Perkins said he has tried to be a leader, although that’s difficult for someone who sits in the bullpen and pitches only a few innings a week. Perkins also described Mauer as a leader.
“There are guys in here who lead by example,” Perkins said. “Morneau was kind of our vocal leader. The closer he got last year to free agency and uncertainty as far as trades, the harder it became for him to lead. We had conversations where he would say, ‘Hey, maybe you should handle this,’ and we’d come out and have a meeting and say a few things.
“I believe leadership comes with winning. Nobody on our team the last few years, when you’re 30 games below .500, is going to stand up and say, ‘Jump on my back.’ ”
Puckett said that, famously, before winning Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Of course, Puckett also told teammates to jump on his back dozens of times that season, sometimes before he went 0-for-5.
“I think winning makes leaders,” Perkins said. “You face a big game, somebody is going to come in and say, ‘Let’s kick their butts.’ If you’re losing, nobody’s going to say that. The more struggles you have, the harder it is to become a team and come together. I actually think we’ve held it together the last few years, under the circumstances. There are good, veteran professional players in this clubhouse, guys who want to win. Gardy [manager Ron Gardenhire] has been keeping us together and fighting through it and trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Leadership does matter on good teams. Puckett led by playing every day, running out every ground ball, and serving as the face of the franchise. Hunter emulated him. Marlins manager Mike Redmond, as a backup catcher for the 2006 Twins, urged Nick Punto and other young players to play with pain, and like Puckett and Hunter, helped keep the clubhouse loose.
Paul Molitor possessed every leadership trait a player could want. He played in two World Series, and on a series of losing Twins teams. Puckett, Hunter and Redmond also played on lousy Twins teams.
Tom Kelly and Gardenhire managed winners and losers. If leadership was all-important, it would cause winning rather than just be associated with it.
Then again, the Twins added three charismatic former big-league players, in Molitor, Terry Steinbach and Tom Brunansky, in part to add urgency to the clubhouse and dugout.
“I would like to think I’m a leader, but I also found it very difficult to rally guys when we’re struggling, and I only pitch when we’re winning,” Perkins said.
“I did have a good year. I was at the All-Star Game. That almost makes it harder to stand up and say, “Why don’t you play better?’ Every guy played as hard as he could last year. We just weren’t good enough.
“I don’t think our struggles have anything to do with a lack of leadership. I promise you that. We just need to win games.”
My view: The Twins’ clubhouse has lacked personality since Hunter left, but what is far more important is the lack of quality starting pitching.