Scoggins: The place no player wants to be: Joining the club 'over there'

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2012 - 6:01 AM

The walk from Hammond Stadium, the Twins' spring training site, to the team's minor league complex takes less than four minutes. But for Twins players forced to take that walk, the distance feels like a world apart.

FORT MYERS, FLA. - The walk from Hammond Stadium, the Twins' spring training site, to the team's minor league complex takes less than four minutes.

Actually, for those counting (hand raised), it's 356 paces, give or take, depending on your stride and exact path. For Twins players forced to take that walk, the distance feels more like 356 miles.

Or longer.

"It is a bit of a trek over there," infielder Luke Hughes said.

The Twins brought 67 players to major league camp this spring, an unusually large number. That means an unusually large number of them will begin to make the long walk across the parking lot to the other side -- the dark side, if you will -- in the coming days.

Most of them know it's coming. Most are long shots and just happy to get the opportunity to spend time in the nice clubhouse with the major leaguers and getting first-class treatment.

Some think they have a shot at staying, but if they look around and do the math, reality provides a different picture. And some -- Hughes and Denard Span in recent years, for example -- come so close they can almost taste it (the majors and made-to-order catering), only to have their hopes dashed in a private conversation in manager Ron Gardenhire's office.

"I can remember it like it was yesterday," Span said. "It's a feeling that I'll never forget."

So close, yet so far

It was 2008 spring training and Span thought he had performed well enough to earn a spot on the team. Instead, the center field job went to Carlos Gomez. Span fought back tears as he talked to reporters after getting the news.

"That was the longest walk," he said this week.

Players don't literally pack their bags and walk across the parking lot after getting sent down. The team gives them a day -- technically they're allowed 72 hours -- to clear their head and regroup mentally before reporting to the minor league side.

Span, a Tampa resident, drove home and spent the day there collecting his thoughts.

"I just needed to get away from baseball and from seeing anybody in a Twins uniform," he said with a smile. "It was a tough pill to swallow, getting sent down and having to go over there. [You] pick the pieces up and try to move forward and find a way to get back up here."

That's how players refer to the two sides of the parking lot: "over here" and "over there." It doesn't take long to distinguish the difference. In short: Over here is good, over there is bad.

"Nobody wants to get the news that you're going across the street," said General Manager Terry Ryan, who delivers the news with Gardenhire that a player is getting sent "over there."

Conversely, the walk the other way is quite pleasant. Aaron Hicks, a talented outfield prospect, was summoned to play in three games for the big-league team last spring training.

"Usually we can get a ride over there [in a golf cart]," Hicks joked.

The minor league facility consists of 3 1/2 fields, a few batting cages, a weight room and a cramped clubhouse. Usually only a small cluster of fans walk over each day to check out the young prospects before moving on to the main attraction.

It's like trading in a Mercedes for a Geo Metro. It's still a car, but you can't help but feel a letdown.

"You go over the first couple of days and you definitely don't want to be over there," Span said. "You're not in the right frame of mind."

Playing next door to their dreams

Hughes, a utility man, got sent down late in camp last season despite leading the team with six home runs and 15 RBI in spring training. His first game on the minor league side took place on Field 5, which is right next to Hammond Stadium and used for practices by the major league team.

"It was a bit weird being over here and nobody watching," he said. "You come back down to reality a little."

Span remembers sitting in the outfield at the minor league complex and watching cars pull into the parking lot before games. He could hear the crowd noise and the public address announcer introducing players before at-bats at Hammond Stadium.

"It definitely makes you a stronger person," he said. "Makes you realize that nothing is guaranteed. If you want something, you've got to be mentally strong and you've got to go and take it."

'Over there' better than being released

Span made the Opening Day roster the following season and hasn't been on that bubble since.

Hughes' journey to the other side was short-lived last season, too. He got recalled after Tsuyoshi Nishioka suffered a broken leg the first week of the season.

"Obviously you've got to be mentally strong in this game," Hughes said. "You have to have a short-term memory with it and get back to business and force your way back onto the team."

That's the message Ryan delivers in those conversations. Some are easier than others.

"You never like to send a guy across the street," he said. "Worse, you never like to release a guy. It's better to go across the street than be released."

At some point in the next few weeks, players who thought they did enough to make the team will be told to clean out their locker, take a day to digest it and show up at the facility across the street the next day.

They can see the building from here. Sometimes it just feels like they need a telescope.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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