When John Wooldridge asks his middle-school students what they did over their summer vacation, his story may top all of theirs.
He tried out for the Minnesota Twins -- and held his own after being away from the game for more than 40 years.
"I ain't embarrassed," the 55-year-old teacher said about his "bucket list" endeavor. "What did I do? Something I should have done 20 or 30 years ago."
About 150 players showed up for the Twins' annual tryout at the Metrodome on Monday. Of those, 43 were invited back the next day to play in games against one another and undergo a closer examination by Twins scouts and coaches.
Other hopefuls included a 36-year-old who had tried out every summer for 18 years, three teenage softball buddies from Wisconsin and a flotilla of players who travel around the country from one tryout to the next, hoping to catch the eye of an organization. Most were experienced ballplayers, fresh out of college, recent high school graduates or stars of small-time baseball leagues in their hometowns.
Their wardrobes said it all. From basketball shorts to baseball pants, well-worn sneakers to brand-new spikes, cotton T-shirts to licensed college practice jerseys, the amalgamation of players ran the gamut from a cannon-armed college shortstop to a lackadaisical leftfielder.
Like many of the players who were in over their heads, Wooldridge harbored no illusions about being invited back for the second day of tryouts. But even if they aren't signed, the players' contact information and scouting reports are kept by teams that could, conceivably, sign them later if injuries deplete their farm system.
"Part of the experience is also playing, just one time, in a big-league ballpark," said Jim Rantz, senior director of player development for the Twins. "Even though we're not here [at the Metrodome] anymore, a lot of people would spend a lot of money just to come in here and have that experience. Obviously, it's a PR thing, too. It's building fans for the future fan base of the Twins."
A definite long shot
The camp, which has been held every year since 1961, has produced a few major leaguers. A pair of pitchers are the most notable signings the Twins have had. Charley Walters tried out in 1966 before appearing in the majors in 1969, and Gary Serum was at the 1975 tryout but made it to the big leagues in 1977.
Even players who showed potential weren't guaranteed a contract. The tryouts are mainly a way for the Twins to find young men to fill gaps in their minor league system, but in most cases, there just isn't room for an extra man in the system. Mark Hamburger, a right-handed reliever who tried out in 2007 and has since been traded, was the last player to be signed from the camp.
"A lot of it depends on how many players we sign in the draft, because we're committed to those players first of all," said Rantz. "Then it depends on how many spots we've got available on the club's rosters. So we might have some guys we'd like to sign, but we don't have a spot for them, roster-wise."
Put through the paces
Pitchers were put through the motions on one side of the field as position players went through drills on the other side. Every position player was timed in the 60-yard dash against the major-league average of 6.9 seconds. (Wooldridge ran a respectable 9.86.) Outfielders and infielders fielded five balls each, as outfielders were scouted on their throws to third and home, and infielders were graded on their footwork, fielding, arm strength and accuracy. Every position player was then given five strikes in the batting practice cage.
Wooldridge, representing his roots as a college tennis player by sporting an Old Dominion tennis T-shirt and white headband, tried out at second base, concerned his diminished arm strength would be exposed anywhere else. He hadn't played baseball since his parents made him give it up in the seventh grade to focus on schoolwork, and was using the same glove he wore when he played Little League 45 years ago.
"[His glove] looked like it belonged to Babe Ruth," said one player who was likely less than half as old as the mitt Wooldridge was sporting.
A switch-hitter, Wooldridge fouled off the first pitch he saw in batting practice before whiffing on the next four. But he considered that an accomplishment for someone who hadn't swung a bat in nearly 45 years.
'At least I tried'
Wooldridge traveled to Minnesota from his home in Norfolk, Va., after writing 21 major-league clubs to inquire about their tryout camps. The Twins were among the first to respond.
He'd always wanted to try out for a major-league team, but fate had always intervened. Once, a tryout was canceled because of rain. Another time, he had a conflict: standing as best man in a friend's wedding.
"I've always wanted to do it; I just didn't know if I'd ever get the chance," he said. "When this came up, I figured I might as well try it. ... There's a lot of guys that talk about it but never do it. I know them. They're a lot of talk and no show, so at least I tried."
He said he'd consider trying out again next year, but might practice a bit the next time around.
"I guess the best thing for me to do now is just sing the national anthem," he said. "Because I sure didn't hit much."
Ben Jones • 612-673-4426