FORT MYERS, FLA.
Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson walked through the clubhouse on Friday morning and smiled when he found righthander Sidney Ponson's stall.
Ponson's stall at the Twins' spring training facility is located next to those of Carlos Silva and Johan Santana -- two hard-working pitchers who manage to have fun on the job.
It's exactly where Anderson wanted Ponson's locker situated. It's a little thing, but part of his plan to turn around the wayward pitcher, who has been arrested in separate incidents for drunk driving and shoving an Aruban official. Anderson, 50, is also eager to see righthander Ramon Ortiz, who is coming off a disappointing season.
Trying to reverse the fortunes of Ponson and Ortiz -- and piecing together a rotation behind Santana -- makes Anderson one of the most important figures in this year's spring camp. On paper, he might be facing his biggest challenge since becoming Twins pitching coach in 2002. He's being asked not only to fix what's wrong with Ortiz and Ponson but to speed up the development of several top prospects.
Anderson's track record offers reason for optimism. The Twins pitching staff has consistently been among the best in the American League since he arrived.
Ask Anderson the secret to his success, and he will point to lessons learned as a Mets prospect and a member of the organization's 1986 World Series-winning team.
"It's like when you are in school and there are some classes you can't wait to get to because the professor is fun and makes it interesting," Anderson said. "They are the ones who relate with you and talk to you on your level."
Anderson's major league pitching career was brief. He threw four pitches, including a nice slider. He appeared in 15 games for the 1986 Mets, going 2-1 with a 2.72 ERA.
"He could locate the ball with the best of them," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, Anderson's minor league roommate. "He threw 86 [miles per hour] to 90. He came up with the Mets at the wrong time. They had a bunch of power pitchers and he wasn't one of them, and that ended up knocking him back. He got stuck at Triple-A more than he should have."
Anderson appeared in only 13 games with Kansas City over the next two seasons. His career was over in 1988, and he turned to coaching.
Gardenhire saw the future as far back as 1984.
"I have an article from when I was in Triple-A and had just been sent back from the majors," Gardenhire said. "The reporter asked me, 'How long are you going to play? What are you going to do after baseball?'
"I said, 'Someday, I'm going to be managing in the major leagues and Rick Anderson is going to be my pitching coach.' "
The early years
Anderson started out as a pitching coach for the Twins' rookie league team in Sarasota, Fla., in 1989. The short season began with a six-man pitching staff (it increased as the season advanced), including eventual major leaguer Carlos Pulido.
"I guess it was a learning process for both of us," said Joel Lepel, the Twins minor league field coordinator who was a first-year manager then. "I'm not saying we had different ideas and opinions. We worked together.
"With Andy, his biggest attribute is that he knows how to get the most out of a pitcher. His personality brings it out. He knows when to pat them on the back and knows when to jump 'em."
Anderson was able to watch Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre as he worked with New York pitchers. Anderson noticed they had similar personalities and took that approach through the Twins organization.
"He was low-key like I was," Anderson said of Stottlemyre. "He didn't push anything on anyone, and it was just the way he approached people. He approached me the same way he approached Dwight Gooden. I respected him for what he did. We worked with what we had and didn't try to change things."
By 1992, Anderson was coaching at Class A Kenosha when a prospect was struggling with his changeup. Anderson messed around with a few grips while playing catch and found one he liked.
"Try this," Anderson said -- to Brad Radke.
By moving his index and middle fingers over on the ball, Radke settled on a changeup that helped him pitch 12 years in the majors with the Twins before retiring in December.
Anderson continued to move up the Twins' ladder. He spent seven seasons at Class AAA Salt Lake before being named Twins pitching coach before the 2002 season, rejoining Gardenhire, his old minor league roommate who was taking over for the retiring Tom Kelly as manager.
Numbers tell story
The Twins had the second-best team ERA in the AL in 2006, were fifth in 2005 and first in 2004. The staff has led the AL in fewest walks the past three seasons.
The individual success stories are as impressive: The erratic LaTroy Hawkins had his best two seasons as a setup man under Anderson. Radke was encouraged to pitch inside more to keep hitters off the changeup away. Santana has won two Cy Young Awards. Anderson had Dennys Reyes throw a little nearly every day last season to help him maintain his control. Joe Nathan has become one of the best closers in the game, anchoring a bullpen that had a major league-best 2.91 ERA last season.
"When I had some issues with my mechanics, the other guy [former pitching coach Dick Such] wasn't able to tell me anything," reliever Juan Rincon said. "Andy picked it up right there. He's very good. And I can tell how he's helped the other guys. The younger guys especially. If I'm tipping [my pitches] or jumping out [on my delivery], he's able to tell me right away."
All of which is why the Twins like their chances to turn Ortiz and Ponson around.
Ortiz, 33, was 11-16 with Washington last season with a 5.57 ERA. Opponents hit .297 against him. Anderson remembers Ortiz having a good slider and wonders if he just needs to come up with an off-speed pitch.
"I think you've to have him slow it down a little bit and work the change up in to keep the hitters off a little more," Anderson said.
Anderson has spoken on the phone with Ponson, who was 4-5 with a 6.25 ERA in stints with the Cardinals and Yankees last season. Anderson wants to work on Ponson's confidence and hopefully thrive off his new teammates.
The pitching staff has been known to go on training runs out of the ballpark and through local supermarkets for fun. Will Ponson join in?
"I'm anxious for Monday to come so I can sit down and talk to him a little bit and find out what he's all about," Anderson said.
The Twins do have a few highly regarded prospects to try out on the mound, but all eyes will be on Anderson and whether he can get Ortiz and Ponson to pitch as if it's 2003. Ortiz won 16 games with the Angels that summer, and Ponson won 17 games with Baltimore and San Francisco.
"I just hope it all works out," Anderson said. "If Ponson and Ortiz come in and do a good job, that means we're having a good year."