FORT MYERS, FLA. – Phil Roof has been a longtime presence in the Twins organization, dating to his days as a backup catcher from 1971 to 1976. Even then, he was known for his ability to throw delicious batting practice to hitters, and he still was exhibiting that talent on the back fields of the team’s Florida complex a week before the actual start of spring training in 2016.
Roof was waiting his turn to throw and watching long fly balls off the bats of big-swinging early arrivers. Then, a lefty hitter moved into the box and started hitting imaginary singles and doubles from left- to right-center.
“That’s the kid we drafted from Maryland,’’ Roof said. “I really like his swing. He’s more of an old-fashioned hitter. Stays on the ball, hits line drives in the gaps.’’
The hitter was LaMonte Wade, an outfielder and standout for a Maryland team that had made an upset run through an NCAA regional in 2015. Wade missed four weeks of his junior season because of a cracked hamate bone in his wrist, then came back to be the star of Maryland’s postseason charge — starting with a second-place finish in the Terrapins’ first Big Ten tournament at Target Field.
“We went to Los Angeles to play the No. 1-seeded team in the tournament, UCLA,’’ Wade said. “Their stadium is named for Jackie Robinson. It’s a great place. And we knocked out UCLA, beat ’em two of three.’’
Wade was named the outstanding player of the regional. He had six hits in four games, including two home runs. And then there were three notable plays in center field, right?
“I went above the fence and took a home run away from Ole Miss in our first game,’’ Wade said. “Against UCLA, I threw out a runner — he was Reggie Miller’s nephew or something, because Reggie was there — and I also made a diving catch.’’
Then, Maryland went to Virginia and lost a super regional, just as the Terps had done a year earlier after winning a regional at South Carolina.
Wade made considerable progress as a hitter between his sophomore and junior seasons. He moved from first base to the outfield, and his average went from .260 to .335.
“Rob Vaughn was the hitting coach then, and he’s now the head coach,’’ Wade said. “He put in a lot of work with me: a better plan, a better path to the ball. I give him a lot of credit for my improvement.’’
Wade figured to be drafted in the later rounds when that season started, and wound up being selected in the ninth round by the Twins and signing for the slot figure of $163,800.
This will be his fourth spring training in the Twins organization, and always he has arrived early in January, and started daily workouts weeks ahead of many minor leaguers.
Last year, Wade was given an invitation to big-league spring training and stayed until mid-March. This time, with four years of minor league service, he was placed on the 40-player roster. He’s a corner outfielder, and if there are numbers as a pro to notice, it’s more walks than strikeouts (241 to 211) and an on-base percentage of .391.
Wade had hit his way through the minors, until last season, when he was promoted to Class AAA Rochester on June 9 and wound up batting .229.
That was two points higher than the team batting average, by the way, so there are a lot of Red Wings hitters who would like to blot out their numbers from last summer.
“You have to learn from it,’’ Wade said. “You can’t let a bad summer knock you down.’’
Wade comes from Owings Mills, Md., in suburban Baltimore. He was a baseball and basketball standout at St. Paul’s, a small all-boys private school.
His brother Jamal was two years behind him in high school and also at Maryland. When LaMonte missed that month with the wrist injury in 2015, Jamal replaced him in the Terps lineup.
Jamal made a switch to pitching as a junior and was signed as a 17th-rounder by Seattle in 2017. “He’s a big dude and throws hard,’’ LaMonte said.
The athletic rivalry between the Wade brothers — as well as parents LaMonte Sr. and Emily — was on the pingpong table in the basement.
“Our parents used to clobber us, but I wound up becoming the pingpong king of the family,’’ LaMonte said. “I have a pingpong robot my mom gave me: Load it up and it hits 200 balls at you.’’
Brian Maloney ran the Twins’ minor league operations in Fort Myers and was the undisputed champ of the pingpong table located in the dormitory/academy building.
One fall evening at instructional camp, players and staff assembled for a Maloney-Wade showdown, two of three games to 11 points, with these stakes: If Maloney won, there would be a long morning workout the next day; if Wade won, there would be no morning workout.
“There was no third game,’’ Wade said. “And there was no workout.’’