DETROIT – The Twins are off to their best start in seven years. They’re in first place in the American League Central, own the best record in the entire American League, and have the second-largest run differential in the game.
And Rudy Hernandez has witnessed none of it.
That’s weird, since Hernandez is a member of Paul Molitor’s coaching staff, and has been for all three seasons of Molitor’s tenure. But the Twins decided to expand their coaching staff to eight members last winter, despite a major league rule that limits teams to seven coaches in the dugout during games.
After much discussion, Molitor and the front office decided that meant Hernandez, the assistant hitting coach who has been a member of the organization for 17 seasons, would work from the clubhouse or batting cages once the first pitch is thrown.
“It’s strange. I don’t know why one more coach [matters], but I live with it,” said Hernandez, a former Appalachian League Manager of the Year with the Twins’ rookie-level team in Elizabethton, Tenn. “Rules are rules.”
That’s Molitor’s position, too, and he speaks from experience. While serving as a roving minor league instructor for the Twins, he once met the major league team on a road trip and sat, in uniform, in the dugout as a game began. “And we got a phone call — during the game — that I couldn’t watch from the dugout. So somebody’s watching somewhere,” Molitor said. “A guard came up [from the clubhouse] and said they got a call about it.”
Hernandez has been in the dugout the past two seasons and got used to having regular consultations with players during games. So it wasn’t easy, Molitor said, to tell him that his post was changing, though not his job.
“We had conversations about how to best utilize our spots in the dugout,” Molitor said. “Rudy’s a very high-valued guy here. The conversation I had with him was about how, systemically, it was going to change, but basically he’s in the same position.”
That position entails working during early batting practice on refining mechanics and game-planning for the opposing pitchers — tasks that haven’t changed. But the Twins have discovered that having a coach in the clubhouse isn’t exile; increasingly, it’s an advantage.
“He’s priceless. He’s up here watching the game on video, so he’s got a good idea about how guys are being pitched, whether pitchers are hitting their locations, where guys are missing,” said hitting coach James Rowson. “I see things from the dugout angle, low and from the side, but he’s got the best view, on video. So between innings, I often come back to the clubhouse and we talk about what we’re seeing. He’s got notes on pitch sequences, things like that. It’s good information.”
The players utilize it, too. In the modern game, video is always available to see previous at-bats, but now there’s a coach stationed at the monitor, charting pitches and ready to offer advice.
“It’s different that he’s not [in the dubout], but it’s a blessing for me to be able to come in here and talk to him during the game,” said Robbie Grossman, who is slowly adjusting to all the free time that his new role as designated hitter allows him. “I like to come see my at-bats, and it’s great to have Rudy there to bounce things off of.”
After the fifth inning, Hernandez often meets the Twins’ bench players by the batting cage — directly behind the dugout at Target Field, or sometimes in more distant locations in other ballparks — to throw them some pitches so they’re loose in case they’re called upon to pinch-hit or enter the game defensively.
“I’m getting used to it. I was always outside, but I’m learning to focus on this,” said Hernandez, whose 51st birthday was observed Sunday, complete with a birthday candle stuck in a bagel and an off-key version of “Happy Birthday,” by fellow Venezuelan Eduardo Escobar. “I’m still helping the hitters. And when they come to you, you know they want your help.”