FORT MYERS, FLA. - It's no wonder the Twins were so intent upon winning last December's bidding war for Tim Wood. He has got so many qualities the Twins lack: great hands, a fearlessness about going across the middle and the ability to take a hit, and the speed to outrun most linebackers and safeties.
Yeah, Wood thinks it's a little strange he's playing baseball, too.
"I thought I was a pretty damn good football player. I could fly," the 30-year-old slot receiver/righthanded reliever said. "I was just little back then [in high school], like 160 pounds, but not afraid to put my nose in there. I could play."
Northern Arizona thought so, too, and offered Wood a full scholarship. But before he could enroll, a baseball scout discovered almost by accident that he can throw, too -- which is how Wood ended up in Twins camp a decade later with a more-than-plausible shot at winning a bullpen job next month.
"He's got two good pitches, he throws them both very hard, and he's showed the durability to be used frequently," assistant general manager Rob Anthony said of the sinker/slider specialist. "He was a closer, and our scouts thought he would be a great fit," so much so that the Twins were willing to guarantee Wood $675,000 for the 2013 season, nearly $200,000 beyond the major league minimum, when they signed him as a free agent in November.
Which is great, Wood said. But the money wasn't the point.
"Last year was probably one of the best years I've ever had in my life, but unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to do it in the big leagues," said Wood, named International League Reliever of the Year by Baseball America after striking out 67 hitters in 70 innings for Class AAA Indianapolis. "It's frustrating because you want to save those bullets for the big leagues. So the most important thing is getting an opportunity, and [General Manager] Terry Ryan said I would get one here."
Ryan backed it up by adding Wood, whose fastball can reach 96 miles per hour, to the 40-man roster in order to prevent the Twins' new hard-throwing reliever from being poached in the Rule 5 draft.
He's had chances before, having played professionally for a decade now, but believes his mindset -- his football mindset -- got in the way. Wood appeared in 57 games for the Marlins and Pirates from 2009 to '11, and each time, a stretch of good pitching was marred by a rash of walks, 33 in 58 career innings.
"Football gets a little emotional, but you can't sell out 100 percent emotionally [in baseball] or you'll be out of control. In football, that's how you play. That's the best way to play," explained Wood, whose faux-hawk haircut and large tattoos reinforce that image. "It took me awhile to translate that to baseball. Calm down. I don't need to go a million miles an hour."
It took awhile to learn that, since baseball was never really Wood's sport. Growing up in Tucson, Ariz., he never played the game. But when he got to high school, Wood's close friend on the Sabino High baseball team -- a hot prospect named J.J. Hardy -- convinced him to give it a try, just for fun.
"I didn't really take it serious," Wood said, "but he convinced me to come and play center field."
Sabino's games always drew a crowd of major league scouts to see Hardy, a former Twin who is now Baltimore's shortstop, so there were plenty of witnesses when Wood once threw a runner out from deep center. Marlins scout Scott Stanley told him after the game that he might have the arm of a major league pitcher, that he could even get drafted.
Suddenly, Wood's plans changed. He had no illusions about an NFL career, but getting paid to play baseball?
"I didn't have much, and they flashed a little bit of money in my face, so I figured I'd try to take this opportunity and see what happens," Wood said.
He turned down the NAU scholarship, enrolled in Pima Community College in Tucson to learn how to pitch, and signed a contract with the Marlins after being drafted in 2002 in the 44th round.
A decade later, he's still pitching and, after saving 45 games in Indianapolis the past two seasons, he's determined to earn a permanent job this year. He's been knocked down enough.
"The thing that really got me to play football was contact. There was something about it, running people over, getting knocked to the ground -- I loved it," Wood said. "Baseball can be like that -- you're going to get bashed sometimes, you're going to get hit. But you get up and get the outs. Get the zero on the scoreboard."