FORT MYERS, FLA. – They’re always right there, in the same spots, like Supreme Court justices taking their assigned seats. Take a look at the Twins’ dugout during a spring game, from first pitch to last, and you’ll see Paul Molitor next to the stairs, on the side nearest the plate. Pitching coach Garvin Alston is beside him on the right, and coaches Jeff Pickler and Derek Shelton are on the other side of the stairs, within earshot.
And between them? If he’s not on the field, Ryan LaMarre is usually standing there, too.
“He loves to talk the game. I have to push him away once in awhile in the dugout,” Molitor said with a laugh about the journeyman outfielder. “He’s always got something.”
It’s a habit he can’t control, LaMarre said, bred into him from the first time he swung a bat.
“Noticing little stuff with pitchers has helped me at times. Certain guys tip pitches, certain guys always go to certain pitches on certain counts,” LaMarre said. “Honestly, I don’t even think about it anymore. I just find myself noticing things, little tidbits.”
Molitor knows the breed. It’s the sort of hyper-attentiveness, the brand of curiosity, that helped a certain St. Paul infielder find enough small advantages to fuel a brilliant Hall of Fame career, and eventually become the Twins’ manager. But that kind of analytical mind can be a hindrance on the field, too — or so LaMarre has found.
“I can overthink things, big time,” he said. “When it came to my swing, I’d try anything. I was always questioning stuff, trying to pick people’s brains.”
He’d join a new team — the Twins are the fifth organization for the 29-year-old Michigan native — and immediately focus on his most successful teammate.
“I’d see what he does and try to incorporate those things. And maybe it doesn’t work for you,” said LaMarre, Cincinnati’s second-round pick in 2010. “And then you’ve given those at-bats away and you might not get another opportunity.”
That’s not going to happen this time, LaMarre vowed last winter after signing with the Twins. He’s simplified his approach, simplified his swing, and even if he can’t help but habitually scrutinize opposing pitchers like a detective on the case, he’s given himself a chance to compete for a job as a spare outfielder, perhaps even in the majors.
All the tips, all the changes, all the leg kicks and swing planes and timing mechanisms — he junked them all. He took a career’s worth of tinkering and tossed it in the trash.
“I’ve simplified everything a lot,” said LaMarre, who has reached the majors, however briefly, three times in three years with three different teams. “It came down to realizing the opportunities I’ve had. They’ve always been like, pinch hit here and then sit for three days. Start a game, sit a couple more. You can’t have a lot of moving pieces in your swing if that’s your role. I realized you’ve got to trim the fat off. I try to make it as simple as I can right now. Set up good angles, take a good pass at the ball, and that’s it. It sounds funny, but I’m almost back to a Little League and high school [approach]: See ball, hit ball.”
It’s worked better than even the Twins imagined. LaMarre crushed a pitch from Boston righthander Teddy Stankiewicz into the right field stands Wednesday, his second home run of the spring. He now leads the Twins in homers, RBI (eight) and is 9-for-18 at the plate.
LaMarre came to the Twins upon the recommendation of Jeremy Zoll, the Twins’ new minor league director, who tried to sign him for the Dodgers last summer. Should he make it to Minneapolis this season, he’ll have plenty of fans in the stands. His wife, Whitney Taney, is an Edina native and a former associate head coach of the Gophers women’s tennis team.
Taney was also a legendary high school tennis player, going 166-0 and winning five state championships at Edina a decade ago.
“She’s a lot more famous than I am,” LaMarre said of his wife, whom he met while they both were athletes at the University of Michigan. “She didn’t even tell me that until we’d been dating a year. But her family is all [in Minnesota], so that’s even more inspiration to make an impact with this team.”
Is that possible? Could LaMarre beat out the likes of Robbie Grossman or Zack Granite for an outfield spot? Molitor said he’s impressed that LaMarre, though he is only 2-for-37 as a big leaguer, can play all three outfield spots, and he’s stolen 165 bases in the minors. “He’s gotten our attention,” said Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer.
Molitor likes his enthusiasm — and yes, his questions and observations, too. “He’s a get-dirty kind of player,” the manager said.
Maybe that’s the opening LaMarre is looking for. “If he loves it,” LaMarre joked, “I’ll dive before the national anthem.”