The Twin Cities chapter of baseball writers voted on one team award after the Twins’ first season of 1961. It was for a most valuable player and went to Harmon Killebrew.
The sportswriters added more awards in 1962, including the most outstanding rookie named in honor of Bill Boni, the sports editor at the St. Paul newspapers. Several years later, Boni proved to be both a worthy and wise gentleman by hiring me.
The first recipient of the Twins’ rookie award was second baseman Bernie Allen. The most recent was Caleb Thielbar, the reliever from Randolph, Minn. The winners have included five players who were also American League Rookies of the Year: Tony Oliva (1964), Rod Carew (1967), John Castino (1979), Chuck Knoblauch (1991) and Marty Cordova (1995).
The local writers decided not to honor a rookie in 1997, even though outfielder Brent Brede did manage to bat .274 and drive in 21 runs in 61 games. Oddly, we voted a Bill Boni Award to Joe Mauer in the rookie-shy 2004 season, when Joe played in 35 games because of knee surgery.
There will be no such generosity required after this season. Danny Santana is having the most impressive rookie year for a Twins position player in the 2000s.
The opinion here is the last rookie to spend a healthy season showing such promise was Cristian Guzman in 1999. He batted .226 as an often-overwhelmed 21-year-old, but the skills also could dazzle.
Tom Kelly, then the manager, has said the Twins might have started their turnaround with a division title in 2001 — rather than a second-place finish at 85-77 — if Guzman had not gotten hurt right after appearing in the All-Star Game.
Santana is the same age now, 23, that Guzman was that season. This season opened with Santana playing shortstop in Class AAA Rochester and Pedro Florimon flailing away for the Twins.
The Twins made the switch after a month. Florimon went to Rochester and Santana was in the Twins lineup at shortstop May 5. And then strange things happened with injuries. On May 13, manager Ron Gardenhire was forced to start Santana in center field.
Moving a shortstop around the infield is commonplace. But putting a rookie shortstop in center field on a regular basis?
“We knew he had played some in center a few years ago in the minors, and we were in a situation — with [Sam] Fuld on the DL, with [Aaron] Hicks on the DL — where we had to take a shot,” Gardenhire said.
“We’ve always liked him as an athlete, but to see Danny pick it up like he has, to become what I would call a very good center fielder … that’s close to amazing.”
Santana did take a bad route trying to cut off Alcides Escobar’s drive that put the cap on Kansas City’s five-run fourth inning on Friday night. It should have been a single and one RBI, but Santana let the ball get up the gap right-center and go for a two-run triple.
“Santana kind of misplayed that ball in center and let it roll past him,” Gardenhire said in dissecting Friday’s 6-5 loss in the postgame media session.
Later, Gardenhire said: “We haven’t seen many bad plays like that from Danny in recent weeks. When he first got out there, he was breaking back on every ball. It didn’t take long and he was reading the ball off the bat, and covering ground with his speed.
“We know now he can play center field. I want to start using him at shortstop some in these last few weeks, too … starting this weekend.”
Santana has been even more of a revelation as a hitter than in center field. He was at .325 after going 0-for-4 on Friday night.
“The organization has been high on him, and I liked Danny when he was a kid from minor league camp coming over for an exhibition game,” Gardenhire said. “But to have him get what he’s been doing … I can’t say we expected him to handle it this well so soon.