FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins had a very entertaining team in 1977 that went 84-77, while scoring 867 runs and allowing 776. They were then ravaged with free agent losses, including Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock, who were 2-A and 2-B to MVP Rod Carew in the ’77 lineup.
The Twins were located in Orlando for spring training and the Red Sox were nearby in Winter Haven. They played as frequently in exhibitions then as they do now as Daniels Parkway neighbors in Fort Myers.
The Twins were in Winter Haven for a game in March 1978. Gene Mauch was standing outside the dugout as the Twins were starting batting practice.
Clif Keane was a veteran Boston baseball writer and knew Mauch well from Gene’s days as a backup infielder with the Red Sox. Keane was legendary for his acerbic sparring with managers and players.
On this March afternoon, Mauch took a hit off his cigarette, tossed it aside and said: “Dammit … here comes Clif.’’
Keane still was 50 feet away when he bellowed: “Hey, Mauch, what happened to your team? Who are these guys?’’
Then, he saw Carew and said: “Rod … how did you miss the bus when [owner Calvin Griffith] backed it up?’’
The Twins left Orlando for Fort Myers in 1991. The Red Sox left Winter Haven for Fort Myers and City of Palms Park in 1993. Boston then threatened relocation and wound up getting Lee County to finance JetBlue for $90 million plus. The Red Sox moved to JetBlue in 2012.
The only remaining Grapefruit League team in the Orlando area is Atlanta. The Braves have been located at Disney World since 1998. It’s lonely in Central Florida for spring training opponents these days, and the Braves have been negotiating for a new facility in North Port here on the Gulf Coast.
On Sunday, a squad of Braves made the three-hour bus ride through Florida’s interior jungle to play the Red Sox. It’s a good thing Clif Keane passed from this veil of tears in 2003, or the Atlanta manager could have expected a visit from a Boston sports writer shouting:
“Who are these guys?’’
There’s also a chance that mythical conversation would have started with Clif shouting at the Atlanta manager, “Who are you?’’
Answer: Brian Snitker.
It looked to outsiders that the Braves were hiring a temp when they fired Fredi Gonzalez last May 19 and named Snitker as the manager. Instead, the organization lifer was given a contract for 2017 after last season.
The usual sellout crowd at JetBlue Park paid their hefty exhibition prices on Sunday to see a Snitker lineup that had these lads batting Nos. 3 through 9: Rio Ruiz, Christian Walker, John Camargo, Ronald Acuna, Austin Riley, Braxton Davidson and Travis Demeritte.
Micah Johnson was leading off and playing center field. He was with the White Sox for a while in 2015. That left the hitter in the second hole as the recognizable player in the Braves lineup:
Veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki.
Tyler Flowers and A.J. Pierzynski were the Braves catchers for most of 2016. Finally, after an ironman career dating to his first full season in 2002 in Minnesota, A.J.’s bat became feeble and he played his last game for the Braves on Sept. 12.
Pierzynski turned 40 in December. He doesn’t have a job this spring, and he’s also not announced a retirement.
The Braves did not have a prospect ready to share the job with Flowers. Suzuki, 34, was a free agent after three seasons as the Twins’ No. 1 catcher. He signed with the Braves on Jan. 30 – a $1.5 million salary for 2017, with incentives that could double that.
“Everything about the Braves was positive,’’ Suzuki said. “You could earn a chance to play with a young, talented team that’s moving into a new ballpark.
“The goal is always to be the starter, but Tyler is here, too, so we’ll see how it works out. I’m trying to have a good spring and get to know these pitchers.’’
That’s a reason Suzuki was the lone veteran to take Sunday’s bus ride: to work with Mike Foltyniewicz, a righthander in the Braves rotation.
Suzuki entered the 2013-14 offseason attempting to re-establish himself as a No. 1 catcher. He was in his sixth season with Oakland in 2012 before being trading to Washington on Aug. 3.
He started well for Nationals in 2013, then fell off at the plate and was traded back to Oakland on Aug. 23. He needed a team that really needed a catcher for 2014, and that was the Twins.
Suzuki signed a one-year deal in January 2014, and was so solid, he was signed to a two-year extension in July. That was also the month he joined Glen Perkins in the All-Star Game at Target Field, and they were the battery for a 1-2-3 ninth in an American League victory.
“I think the Minnesota fans really had a good time with that,’’ Suzuki said. “I liked everything about Minnesota – the chance to play, the fans, my teammates, the staff, the guys working in the clubhouse, the front office. Everything was great, except we only had one good season (2015) among the three.’’
Suzuki started 330 games as the catcher in three seasons in Minnesota. A hockey fan of my acquaintance watched Suzuki take the foul balls and other hits behind the plate and said: "He's only guy on the Twins who could be a hockey player.''
Of course, there was that whole “pitch framing’’ issue – the contention of numbers freaks that Suzuki was very poor in this area. And, the Twins’ horrible 2016 season led to a switch to a baseball boss firmly on board with the importance of pitch framing, as verified by Derek Falvey’s decision to bring in the no-hitting, pitch-framing maestro, Jason Castro, as the No. 1 catcher.
So, how about that pitch framing, Kurt? He smiled and said:
“I’m not saying there is nothing to it. Somebody is doing the numbers. But I also know if an umpire is having a bad night and calls eight balls strikes, your stats can look good for a long time. And if he calls eight strikes balls, you can look bad for the same time.
“I’ve caught a lot of games in the big leagues. There’s a reason for that.’’
Last question: Do you have any words for your pal Eduardo Escobar, the Twins infielder?
Suzuki smiled and said: “Only that I love the guy. He’s a great person to be around. And he’s a terrific presence for the young players trying to establish themselves with the Twins.’’.