Fort Myers, Fla. – Tommy Watkins made it to the big leagues by dreaming little.
He never thought he’d make it and turned his acceptance that not every minor league ballplayer or coach is bound for the big time into his greatest strength.
This is what makes Watkins unique and endearing. In a game defined by failure, Watkins considers every day in uniform a success.
When the Twins overhauled their field staff, they hired Watkins to be their first base coach.
Watkins spent 12 seasons in the Twins’ minor league system as a player. He was their 38th-round draft pick in 1998. At 38, he’s the same age as Nelson Cruz.
Being a minor league baseball player without a realistic shot at cashing in as a big-leaguer can be as depressing as a Minnesota winter. Minor-leaguers ride buses, play before small crowds and make little money. Blend those factors with the frustration of a stalled career, and a minor league clubhouse can be a tense and whiny place.
Watkins never succumbed to the urge to complain. He spent 12 years in the minors as a player, most of them as a utility player. When your organization makes you a minor league utility player, it is telling you that your future is in coaching.
So, he coached. After re-signing with the Twins to play in Class AAA in 2009, he transitioned that season to coaching and started his long, slow climb through the minors all over again, beginning in the Gulf Coast League, which is designed to break the youngest and rawest of teenagers into professional baseball.
Before becoming the Twins first base coach, he had spent 20 years in their minor league system as a player or a coach, with only one big-league playing stint. In 2007, he appeared in nine games for the Twins, hitting .357 in 28 at-bats while playing shortstop and third base.
He could have felt frustrated by his career. Instead he was realistic. He became a substitute teacher in the offseason to supplement his income.
“I remember, my second year I was playing, I wasn’t very good,” he said. “I thought maybe I would have to go into the military or something. But other than that, I’ve never thought of doing anything else.
“Because we get drafted, we want to be in the big leagues, and we think about making it to the big leagues. But wherever I was, I was always happy to have a uniform. When you get a job like this, it means a lot. I’ve been blessed.”
Not really. He earned the position with expertise and by making himself a beloved figure throughout baseball.
“I did know who Tommy Watkins was,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We didn’t know each other, but everyone knows who Tommy Watkins is. Within the Twins organization when I came over, I’d hear his name from many different people. Not just coaches or people in player development, but people talking about both his baseball ability and knowledge but his history with the organization and also that he does things in a very unique and special way.
“He treats people so well that he’s an extremely memorable person to spend time with. Every guy that’s ever played with him says nothing but the most phenomenal things about him. Everyone who spends time with Tommy loves him, and so do we.”
Watkins was born in Fort Myers, and his father still lives in town. Whenever Tommy Sr. can get away from work you can spot him in the stands at Twins games.
Star Tribune writer La Velle E. Neal III nicknamed Tommy Jr. “the Mayor of Fort Myers.” He’ll preside in Minneapolis this summer.
“I love the game of baseball,” Watkins said. “It’s a lot of fun, man, just to come to the park every day. When I stopped playing I said I would enjoy coaching because I didn’t have to worry about going 0-4 anymore.
“When I made it to Double-A I started thinking, ‘I never thought I’d make it this far.’ When I made it to Triple-A, I was amazed that you have guys who would pack your bags. I said, ‘This is pretty cool.’ ”
He’ll be packing his bags for Minneapolis soon. Dreaming little and living minor brought him to the bigs.