Relearning game, nuturing talent in Tennessee

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 6, 2012 - 10:21 AM

Elizabethton, Tenn., is where big-league dreams begin, fundamentals are stressed and townsfolk adopt players as their "kids."

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ELIZABETHTON, TENN.

A mural on a concrete wall greets visitors upon entrance to Joe O'Brien Field.

"Welcome to the Show."

Well, sort of. It's not the Show, but this is the first stop for many Twins prospects in the pursuit of that dream. This is home to the Twins' advanced rookie ball team, E-town as it's known inside the organization, a Smalltown USA community of 14,000 nestled in a valley of the Appalachian Mountains.

Many draft picks and first-year players launch their professional careers in a tiny ballpark on the banks of the Watauga River, down the hill from a fast-food joint on the town's main drag, a long way from the bright lights of major league baseball.

Their stay is short -- roughly two months -- but prospects see reminders everywhere of where this possibly could lead. Names and faces of famous E-town alumni adorn banners sprinkled throughout the stadium: Hrbek, Puckett, Mauer, Morneau.

The back of the main grandstand is plastered with posters of others who successfully climbed the organizational ladder from this starting point: Nick Blackburn (2002), Denard Span ('03), Glen Perkins ('04), Trevor Plouffe ('04), Brian Duensing ('05), Danny Valencia ('06).

"It's good to see this was their starting point as well," said hard-throwing lefthander Mason Melotakis, the team's second-round pick in the June draft. "[But] the final destination is Minneapolis."

Most won't make it that far. On average, only a couple E-town prospects each year will get to experience big-league baseball at some point in their career. The rest shuffle around the minors until forced into the next phase of life. But they all start with the same singular goal.

Joe Mauer's career arc seemed predetermined when he arrived in 2001, but few, if any, Elizabethton staffers predicted in 2004 that Matt Tolbert also would reach the highest level.

"We try to emphasize to them that they have been blessed with tremendous ability and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play professional baseball," E-town manager Ray Smith said. "Take full advantage of it. Give yourself every opportunity to develop your skills."

First impressions are important here, and prospects don't have time to waste. Elizabethton plays 68 games in 71 days in the Appalachian League's short season. Players learn the daily rhythm and routine of professional baseball.

"You have to feel like every day is a tryout for the major league team," third baseman Travis Harrison said.

Harrison, the 50th overall pick last year, chose this path instead of accepting a scholarship to Southern California, a decision made easier by a $1.05 million signing bonus. He grew up near Laguna Beach, Calif., five minutes from the Pacific Ocean. His temporary home this summer, he noted, is "definitely a change of pace," but any culture shock doesn't cause him to second-guess his decision to forgo the sand, surf and college lifestyle.

"I've always wanted to be a professional baseball player," he said. "It was a tough decision, but if I didn't get a shot to do this, I would probably regret it."

Small operation

Mike Mains' work day typically begins at 8 a.m. and doesn't stop until around 11 p.m. He's not only the Elizabethton Twins general manager, but Mains also serves as the town's director of parks and recreation.

The minor league affiliate is operated by the parks and rec department, meaning Mains and his staff of two are responsible for all day-to-day duties, including advertising sales and promotion, stadium preparations, coordinating English classes for Latin players and resolving every mini-crisis that arises. On a recent day, Mains' to-do list included fixing an Internet problem in the press box and handling the dizzy bat race and musical chairs promotion between innings.

"The fun part of my job is the relationships that are built over time," said Mains, the general manager since 1999.

His office is located in an old armory one block from the ballpark and filled with autographed pictures of former players who made a positive impression on the team and community during their stay.

Mains loved Span's personality, Miguel Sano's raw power and Brian Dozier's determination. A.J. Pierzynski routinely asked him to play catch in the armory during lunch because the catcher wanted extra work on his throwing mechanics. Mains smiled as he recalled a conversation with Valencia during a visit to the Twin Cities two years ago.

"He said, 'I want to tell you how much I enjoyed the time I spent in Elizabethton,'" Mains said. "That's great to hear, because Danny was from such a different place."

Elizabethton never will be confused with Miami. The town occupies approximately nine square miles, and nightlife in the summer revolves around baseball. Residents open their homes to players as host families each summer, often referring to prospects are their "kids." Alcohol is prohibited in the stadium, games feature wacky promotions such as "Hunk of Burning Love Night," and fans leave folding chairs in their favorite spot in the bleachers overnight.

"It's a social event," said Tom McNeil, who organizes the host family program. "This is our summer hobby. Get to hang out at the ballpark."

The ballpark even hosted a unique memorial several years ago for Larry "Moe" Riddle, a longtime fan who used to run the bases during the seventh-inning stretch. Elizabethton's coaches escorted Riddle's casket around the bases as fans stood and watched. A team employee called Riddle "safe" as his casket crossed home plate.

"Beginning here in Elizabethton and being taken in by the people of this town really goes a long way in ratcheting up the comfort level of our players so that they can really focus on the development of their skills at the ballpark," Smith said.

Attention to detail

Rookie ball is all about individual development. The coaching staff corrects flaws in swings and pitching mechanics, and preaches fundamentals during daily infield practice. Habits are formed here -- good and bad -- so Smith is a stickler about doing things the right way all the time.

"We try to help them to learn to play like a pro," Smith said.

He played in Elizabethton in 1977 and took over as manager in 1987. He values this stage in a player's career and looks forward every summer to that new batch of prospects who arrive with "wide-eyed enthusiasm."

Most prospects make only one stop in Elizabethton, but the current team has seven holdovers, including outfielder Max Kepler, a Germany native who began his pro career at age 17. Kepler admits he was disappointed that he didn't advance to the next level, but he believes another summer in Elizabethton will be beneficial.

"Mentally, I've changed a lot," he said. "I had slumps in my first and second year where I just couldn't get out of them and would be depressed. Now, when you're in a slump, you just have to simplify. See the ball and hit it."

Pitcher Hudson Boyd, the 55th overall pick last year, overpowered hitters in high school with a low- to mid-90s fastball. Now, he's learning how to pitch. He's tweaked his mechanics and mixes in more sinkers and off-speed pitches.

"You can't blow it by everybody now," he said. "I'm trying to be a pitcher more than a thrower."

Every player on the roster is searching for that personal growth and skill development. They find themselves practically at the bottom of the organizational food chain. Only a few of them will advance to the major leagues, but it's too early to predict which ones with any degree of certainty.

"It's really fun to watch and see them grow," Mains said. "They go from young men to full-blown, physical men in three or four years. It's interesting. You really pull for them."

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