FORT MYERS, FLA. – The first recollection of Melbourne was as a kid in southwest Minnesota, watching the one available channel out of Sioux Falls, S.D. [KELO] as Abilene Christian’s Bobby Morrow broke to the tape in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints in the Olympics.
These were the Summer Games, although held in late November into December due to that confusing stuff about the equator and the Southern Hemisphere. Wouldn’t this be a simpler place if Kyrie Irving was correct and Earth was flat?
I did get a chance to spend three weeks in Sydney when the Olympics returned to Australia in 2000. Nice city, with the Opera House and all that, but those views from above Melbourne that we get to see during the Australian Open … that puts it at the top of the list of the cities that I would like to have visited.
“You should feel that way,’’ Lewis Thorpe said. “Melbourne has been ranked as the No. 1 city in the world. And I would say that’s true.’’
Thorpe does have some bias on this issue, since Melbourne is his hometown. He was a pitching prodigy there. He was the object of considerable bidding by major league organizations as a 16-year-old on the international signing date in July 2012.
The Twins beat out a dozen other teams to sign the lefthander. A good share of the reason was a $500,000 signing bonus. There was also the Twins’ history of giving opportunity to players from Australia.
I was talking with Thorpe early on Friday afternoon when the noted baseball scribe, LaVelle Neal, sauntered past. He mentioned a conversation with a reporter covering the World Baseball Classic in Tokyo, who had asked LaVelle:
“Why is it that every player on the Australia roster seems to have a Twins’ connection?’’
Thorpe laughed at this and said: “That’s true. The Twins have signed something like 50 of us.’’
The closest the Twins came to hitting an Aussie jackpot was with Grant Balfour, a right-handed reliever with an excellent fastball and mighty slider. Balfour missed the 2005 season with Tommy John surgery, and followed with shoulder surgery that caused him to miss 2006.
So, it took a while and it wasn’t in Minnesota, but Balfour became an excellent late-inning reliever for five years starting in 2008.
Thorpe was 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds when he started in the minor leagues as a 17-year-old in 2013. He pitched in the rookie Gulf Coast League in Fort Myers and had 44 strikeouts in 32 innings.
The Twins of Terry Ryan’s day seldom were into rushing a prospect, but Thorpe was allowed to skip the traditional Elizabethton [Tenn.] stop and start at Class A Cedar Rapids in 2014. He was the youngest player in the Midwest League at 18.
He made 16 starts and had 80 strikeouts in 71 2/3 innings against hitters in their younger 20s. There was a bit of elbow tenderness at the end of the season and Thorpe and the Twins agreed that he should not pitch again in the winter Australian League (as he had previously).
“I threw a sim [simulated game] here in spring training of 2015, felt a little niggle in the elbow but I didn’t tell anyone,’’ Thorpe said. “Next time I pitched, it was in a spring game in Port Charlotte, and I lasted one inning. I felt something in the elbow, and after that I threw two pitches that were 78 [miles per hour] and 80.
“They weren’t changeups. They were fastballs. I knew the elbow was gone.’’
Thorpe underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on April 10, 2015. He spent the next year rehabbing in Fort Myers, other than for a three-week visit to the world’s No. 1 city over the Christmas-New Year’s holidays.
“That’s the last time I was home,’’ Thorpe said. “My parents came here for last Christmas and we went to New York. They wanted a white Christmas, rather than 105 degrees in Melbourne.’’
A beautiful 105, though? “Right,’’ Thorpe said.
I watched Thorpe throw here last year in early February, when most of the pitchers in attendance were minor leaguers going through some form of rehab. Thorpe threw off a mound for the first time on one of those mornings, but with a catcher in front of home plate, making it a 55-foot delivery.
Thorpe looked as smooth as could be. The idea that he would be pitching for a minor ;eague team by May did not seem overly optimistic.
“I felt great, and all of a sudden, I started feeling weak,’’ Thorpe said. “They tested me and I had mono. I lost 25 pounds. I didn’t get over the mono for three months. I didn’t pitch for a second straight season.’’
Thorpe paused and said: “It was my decision not to come back late in the season. When I came back, I wanted to feel good, to have my weight and strength back.’’
He has been a regular at the Twins’ Fort Myers complex for two years. He’s listed at 6-1 and 218 pounds. He’s not undersized anymore, and he has no current problems with his left arm or with his health.
“I feel back to normal,’’ Thorpe said. “Everything is ready to go. This is the season to get back on track.’’
When everything is ready to go, Thorpe’s fastball is 91 to 93 miles per hours, the curveball is low 70s with a big break, there’s a slider for contrast, and the changeup?
“Everyone has said that’s my best pitch,’’ Thorpe said.
He also doesn’t turn 22 until Nov. 23, which means:
Lewis Thorpe, a left-handed starter, still has a chance to be the prize the Twins have sought as they mined Australian baseball.