Ryan's first year back a return to Twins normalcy

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 7, 2012 - 9:01 AM

The Twins brought back Terry Ryan as GM one year ago. With the front-office reshuffling complete, he's the lead architect for improvement on the field.

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Twins General Manager Terry Ryan watched the Twins warm up during spring training.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune file

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PEORIA, ARIZ. - Peoria Stadium was mostly empty Tuesday, except for the throng of scouts studying elite prospects in the Arizona Fall League. Twins General Manager Terry Ryan sat behind home plate, his gaze fixed on the pitcher's mound.

Meanwhile, 2,300 miles east in Fort Myers, Fla., former Twins GM Bill Smith watched three years of work come to fruition as the Lee County Commissioners approved a $42.5 million renovation plan for the team's spring training headquarters.

Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of a rare Twins shakeup, the day the organization fired Smith and replaced him with Ryan, whose first tenure as GM lasted from 1994 to 2007. A year later, the shakeup looks more like a return to normalcy.

Smith has disappeared from the spotlight but not from relevance. He returned to the team as an assistant to Ryan and team President Dave St. Peter.

"One is the guy that fired me, and one is the guy that took my job," Smith said, jokingly. "If I didn't have tremendous respect for both of them, I wouldn't have done it. That's the highest compliment I can give them."

When Ryan and his top lieutenants -- Mike Radcliff, vice president of player personnel, and assistant GM Rob Antony --reflect on the changes of the past year, they start with the painful memory of Smith's dismissal.

"We let Bill down; we let the organization down," said Ryan, who served as a key adviser to Smith for four years. "We had three good years with Bill running this operation, and all of a sudden [in 2011], it got away from us badly. It's tough to fathom, but it happened, and we've got to move forward."

Smith was an assistant GM under Ryan before taking over the GM duties himself for four years. Now, Smith handles many of the administrative tasks, allowing Ryan to focus on baseball.

"How many places could that happen?" Radcliff said. "I'm not just talking baseball. I'm talking any corporate realm. The leader gets shoved off, and he gets put into the right role with his resources and all of a sudden it's an extreme impact."

Added Antony: "He's so good at that [stadium] stuff; he's invaluable to us. And Terry -- he was born to do this [GM's job]. He's the best baseball guy I've been around."

Ryan, 59, a two-time Sporting News Executive of the Year, cited burnout when he stepped aside as GM in 2007. His first year back in the job was no joyride, as the Twins finished with the American League's worst record again at 66-96.

"I don't think he was beat down by [the record]," Antony said. "I think he came in determined, and he hasn't lost any of that fire."

No shortcut to improvement

Scouting the Arizona Fall League is an annual ritual for Ryan. The league is known as a finishing school for baseball's best prospects. Last year, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout were there, playing for the same team. This year's trip for Ryan came en route to baseball's general managers meetings, which begin Wednesday in Indian Wells, Calif.

Nine years ago at the GM meetings, the Twins and Giants negotiated the A.J. Pierzynski trade, which eventually brought Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser to Minnesota.

The pitching-starved Twins could sure use a trade like that now. It won't come easy in an era when most teams cling to young prospects, especially pitchers, but Ryan's determination hasn't wavered. His associates find him just as focused, if not more, than he was during his first tenure.

To Radcliff, it's as if Ryan "went out and had GM Tommy John surgery and came back stronger than ever. The reality of that job is, it doesn't matter who you are, it wears you completely out. It just drains you.

"I think you've seen it in a number of cases. Guys like [Hall of Fame GM Pat] Gillick, they take a little time. They go off and consult and do something other than the daily impact of that job, and they get refreshed again."

Antony, who was promoted to assistant GM under Smith in 2007, said he's learned a lot in the past year. An example came midseason, when Ryan and a team doctor were trying to decide how to proceed with one of the players.

"Terry said, 'Just tell me, if you were talking about your son, what would you recommend?'" Antony said. "If you always just look at it as how you would handle it with your son, then you can't go wrong. ... Just do the right thing for the player. If you follow common sense like that, you can make decisions and move on."

In some ways, the Twins seem to have the best of all worlds now, with Ryan making the biggest baseball decisions and Smith still on board, focused on facilities and other projects. Wayne Krivsky, the former Reds GM, is back with the Twins as a special assistant as he was during Ryan's first tenure, and Ryan mentioned the addition of professional scout Billy Harford as another positive move.

"There are good things that happened [the past year]," Ryan said. "Unfortunately, none of it matters until we start to get that major league team's record straightened out."

Can that happen by ext season?

"There aren't going to be any shortcuts to turning this around," Ryan said. "We'll end up going through the same process, seeing if we can make better baseball decisions."

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