Alex Kirilloff doesn't like to show off, always seems to deflect attention for his supernatural hitting ability. But he couldn't pass up this chance.
It came at Orioles FanFest one January in Baltimore, where Kirilloff and his dad happened across a batting cage where fans could take a few cuts against a pitching machine lobbing civilian fastballs, lower velocity but still with some zip. David Kirilloff didn't want to stop, but Alex begged him.
"Finally I said OK. He grabbed a bat and just started hitting. Contact after contact," the proud father recalled. "People were stopping to watch. 'What? Come look at this.' "
Sounds fishy, doesn't it? Kirilloff is the Twins' top hitting prospect, a professional who routinely sprays hits all over the field on a daily basis. What was the big deal?
"Alex was 3 years old," his father said with a laugh. "Helmet didn't fit, bat was too big. And he's just hitting."
He hasn't stopped. Twenty years after that precocious batting performance, the legend of Alex Kirilloff has only grown, almost to the point where it's hard to separate the lore from the legit. He was the star player for a high school that he didn't attend, he once harnessed a 92-mile-per-hour fastball to throw a prep no-hitter despite having only mild interest in pitching, and he is the first and only player in major league history to collect a postseason base hit before ever playing a regular-season game.
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Some of it sounds like tall tales, like he's a combination of Mike Trout and Paul Bunyan. Rumors were flying last summer, for instance, about what Kirilloff was doing to baseballs behind the closed and locked doors of CHS Field in St. Paul, where the Twins conducted private daily workouts and intrasquad games for their spare players.
Crazy numbers, outlandish stories. And they're all …
"Ha, they're true," spills Toby Gardenhire, the Twins' Class AAA coach who conducted the workouts. "He was really ripping it up. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but he was basically hitting .500 all summer, and with some long home runs. No kidding."
Kirilloff, known for his modest and unemotional manner, downplays the breathtaking number, shrugs at the eyewitness account. "Well, I was seeing a lot of the same [pitchers], so that kind of gives you an edge," he said. "For me, the big thing was that I was able to stay healthy the entire time. The [bothersome right] wrist was healthy, my body was healthy. I just felt really good at the plate."
That will make some pitchers feel really bad on the mound, or so the Twins expect. Kirilloff, the Twins' first-round pick in the 2016 draft, the last conducted by Terry Ryan and his scouting staff, will step into the batter's box when full-squad training camp formally opens Tuesday as the early favorite to succeed Eddie Rosario as the starting left fielder.
"Obviously I'd like to make the team out of camp. But I would have liked to make it last year," Kirilloff said in a rare burst of near emotion. "I'm better off just focusing on my day-to-day tasks. I'll stick with my routine and my approach, and whatever happens on April 1, that's not up to me."
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If that sounds like a typical rookie cliché, though, it's not. Kirilloff believes that much of his life and his baseball career is not up to him, that a higher power has guided him to this moment and this opportunity. His hitting ability is a gift, not a fluke, he said, and it's not to be squandered.
"I'm a believer in Christ, a Christian who just happens to play baseball. From age 11 or 12, I just felt from my gut that I was supposed to play professional baseball, that God wanted me to do this," Kirilloff said. "So it's cool to go down this path with him. It's one thing to have talents, but if you don't put your talent to work, you're wasting what you've been blessed with. It made me work really hard growing up. And it still does."
Being born to his parents, to a father whose life's work is operating a hitting academy and coaching young players, confirms to Kirilloff his belief that he was meant to do this. He spent much of his childhood at ballparks or in batting cages, with the most devoted coach imaginable. The combination has produced a hitter with uncommon confidence, an understanding of his craft and a contentment with his course.
Even a season lost to Tommy John surgery — the price he paid for pitching, albeit impressively, at Plum High outside Pittsburgh, the school he played for though he was home-schooled — and another spent in pandemic isolation hasn't shaken that spirit.
Gardenhire, who managed Kirilloff at Class A Cedar Rapids in 2018 and might again with the AAA Saints this summer, said an unusual off night, not all the successes, proved to him how well-suited his young prospect was to this frustrating sport. In the midst of a .999 OPS, 13-homer, two-month stint in Iowa, Kirilloff went 0-for-3 and hit into a double play, Gardenhire said, and the manager was prepared to console him.
"At the last out, I picked up his helmet as we walked off the field. I looked at him and said, 'Hey, it's OK, you'll be all right. You'll go back and get them tomorrow,' " Gardenhire said. "And he had this little grin on his face and just said, 'Yeah, I know.' I could tell it didn't bother him one bit. A lot of guys, that gnaws at them, but he knew what he could do and he knew he'd hit. That's when I learned he was special."
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Kirilloff's stoic demeanor is as special and legendary as his hitting ability. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli was astonished last September that Kirilloff's response to the news that he was being added to the Twins' playoff roster was basically, "OK, great." Gardenhire experienced that, too, when he informed his best hitter that he was being promoted to high Class A.
"Most guys get really excited. Some of the guys, we basically throw a little party for them, and guys are jumping up and down in the clubhouse," Gardenhire said. "Alex, I think his exact words were like, 'Sounds good.' "
His teammates sometimes tease him about his unemotional mien, Gardenhire said, but he is among the most popular players in the clubhouse. "He's funny, he keeps guys loose. He loves the game," Gardenhire said. "He's just … I don't know, he's even-keeled. He's on a mission, and he's focused."
Lately, his focus has been splintered, considering he is married and on Saturday celebrated the first birthday of his and wife Jordan's daughter, Penelope. Or maybe that has intensified his focus.
"It gives you a little different perspective on life in general, not just baseball. I can't describe how much of a blessing it is to be a dad. Whatever happens at the field, it feels less significant when you have a family to come home to," Kirilloff said. "That's always been my personality; I just don't show much emotion. When you get married and have a kid, it mellows you out a little bit. But the seriousness, the down-to-business attitude, it's one I've always had."
And perhaps it fits the moment, now that he's finally arrived on the doorstep of a big-league career. Things may be about to get very serious for Alex Kirilloff.
"Very humbly, I say this: I just think Alex is ready. He's ready," David Kirilloff says. "I really believe he's ready to contribute to Twins championships."