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."

view larger photos

  

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."

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Philadelphia 12/20/14 3:30 PM
Washington
San Diego 12/20/14 7:25 PM
San Francisco
Minnesota 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Baltimore 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Detroit 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Cleveland 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Atlanta 12/21/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Green Bay 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Kansas City 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
New England 12/21/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 12/21/14 3:05 PM
St. Louis
Buffalo 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Oakland
Indianapolis 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Dallas
Seattle 12/21/14 7:30 PM
Arizona
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
Utah 101 FINAL
Orlando 94
Charlotte 109 FINAL
Philadelphia 91
Brooklyn 91 FINAL
Cleveland 95
Washington 105 FINAL
Miami 103
Minnesota 98 FINAL
Boston 114
Toronto 110 FINAL
Detroit 100
Chicago 103 FINAL
Memphis 97
Portland 129 FINAL
San Antonio 119
LA Clippers 106 FINAL
Denver 109
Oklahoma City 104 FINAL
LA Lakers 103
Tampa Bay 2 FINAL(SO)
New Jersey 3
Anaheim 2 FINAL
Ottawa 6
NY Islanders 2 FINAL
Detroit 1
Boston 1 FINAL
Winnipeg 2
Dallas 2 FINAL
Calgary 1
Wilberforce 71 FINAL
Youngstown St 92
Jackson State 49 FINAL
Tulane 56
Siena 66 FINAL
Radford 76
Stillman 49 FINAL
Alabama 69
Case Western Reserve 65 FINAL
Bucknell 88
Niagara 62 FINAL
Buffalo 88
SD Christian 46 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 69
Concordia (MI) 60 FINAL
Central Mich 97
Northern Ill 55 FINAL
Dartmouth 58
North Florida 83 FINAL
Florida A&M 65
Hiwassee 71 FINAL
Gardner-Webb 91
Tennessee St 54 FINAL
Hampton 66
NC A&T 57 FINAL
Kent State 71
Central Penn College 65 FINAL
Liberty 94
Eastern Ky 72 FINAL
Miami-Florida 44
Northern Ky 83 FINAL
Morehead State 60
Northern Ariz 62 FINAL
Norfolk State 81
MD-Eastern Shore 43 FINAL
Old Dominion 60
St Marys-CA 47 FINAL
St Johns 53
Clemson 45 FINAL
South Carolina 68
Tenn Tech 58 FINAL
Tennessee 61
Washington-MD 46 FINAL
William & Mary 86
Bethune-Cookman 46 FINAL
Mercer 67
Furman 78 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 83
South Dakota St 53 FINAL
CS-Bakersfield 49
Milligan 53 FINAL
Lamar 80
LSU-Alexandria 71 FINAL
ULM 76
Southern Utah 57 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 73
Chattanooga 58 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 68
Seattle 57 FINAL
Minnesota 92
Lipscomb 55 FINAL
Princeton 77
Winthrop 71 FINAL
SE Louisiana 81
Dickinson State 48 FINAL
North Dakota 78
New Orleans 56 FINAL
Southern Ill 52
TX-Pan American 60 FINAL
Creighton 75
Colorado State 85 FINAL
Denver 84
Alabama A&M 49 FINAL
Marquette 83
Ark-Pine Bluff 51 FINAL
Texas Tech 72
Eastern Wash 67 FINAL
California 78
Idaho State 56 FINAL
Utah State 69
Arizona 60 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 55
Hawaii 85 2nd Half 3:53
Chaminade 56
Nevada 12/20/14 10:00 AM
Louisiana
Utah State 12/20/14 1:20 PM
Texas-El Paso
(23) Utah 12/20/14 2:30 PM
Colorado State
Western Mich 12/20/14 4:45 PM
Air Force
South Alabama 12/20/14 8:15 PM
Bowling Green
BYU 12/22/14 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Illinois 12/26/14 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Rutgers 12/26/14 3:30 PM
North Carolina
NC State 12/26/14 7:00 PM
UCF
Ohio Valley 33 FINAL
Youngstown St 84
East Tenn St 48 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 61
Cal-Irvine 44 FINAL
Purdue 69
Campbell 63 FINAL
Stetson 76
Jacksonville St 70 FINAL
Charleston Southern 43
Louisiana 64 FINAL
Alcorn State 57
Denver 63 FINAL
Wright State 72
Blue Mountain 30 FINAL
Central Arkansas 71
Texas State 51 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 40
Albany 62 FINAL
Pepperdine 36
TX-San Antonio 53 FINAL
Houston 56
Yale 66 FINAL
Bucknell 73
Northern Colorado 56 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 69
Belmont 86 FINAL
Mercer 83
Massachusetts 66 FINAL
Georgia State 71
George Mason 69 FINAL
Winthrop 57
Portland State 33 FINAL
Princeton 104
UCLA 71 FINAL
Samford 52
Mobile 30 FINAL
Alabama State 66
Nicholls 49 FINAL
Texas Tech 76
Toledo 65 FINAL
Nevada 56
UMass Lowell 48 FINAL
(13) Duke 95
St Marys-CA 49 FINAL
Virginia 62
McNeese State 55 FINAL
Rice 57
McMurry 49 FINAL
Houston Baptist 69
NJIT 62 FINAL
Seton Hall 74
(6) North Carolina 65 FINAL
Maine 36
Lafayette 58 FINAL
Stony Brook 60
Siena 62 FINAL
Binghamton 53
Longwood 56 FINAL
Clemson 72
Savannah State 51 FINAL
Florida State 97
(19) Syracuse 72 FINAL
(9) Baylor 74
Buffalo 68 FINAL
Manhattan 58
Canisius 43 FINAL
Michigan 79
Davidson 66 FINAL
NC State 82
Northern Ky 63 FINAL
Delaware 58
Saint Louis 81 FINAL
Austin Peay 86
(25) DePaul 64 FINAL
(2) Connecticut 98
Ohio U 74 FINAL
La Salle 63
Florida Atlantic 60 FINAL
Long Beach St 85
Miami-Florida 65 FINAL
Tulane 70
Miss Valley St 39 FINAL
Memphis 62
Ark-Pine Bluff 56 FINAL
UAB 65
Bowling Green 58 FINAL
Illinois State 54
Arkansas State 78 FINAL
Missouri State 62
ULM 42 FINAL
Wichita State 57
(16) Oregon State 71 FINAL
Southern Ill 55
Pacific 67 FINAL
New Mexico St 62
No Dakota State 79 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 86
Utah State 92 FINAL
Sacramento St 102
Bethesda (CA) 61 FINAL
Fresno State 83
Utah Valley U 44 FINAL
Montana 68
LSU 78 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 45
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Do you like the Ervin Santana signing by the Twins?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close