FORT MYERS, Fla. – Jorge Polanco vividly recalls his first game in the major leagues. He arrived at Angels Stadium in the fourth inning of a game in Anaheim and was sent up as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning. He took four straight balls from Ernesto Frieri, jogged to first base, and soon raced around to score on a bases-loaded double by Joe Mauer.
It's appropriate that it was Mauer, because that day in 2014, Polanco became the first Twins player since Mauer to make his major league debut before his 21st birthday. And now Polanco has another link to Mauer in mind: Emulating No. 7's longevity in Minnesota.
"It makes me feel good to think about. Watching a great player like Joe Mauer playing with the Twins for that long, it makes you proud," Polanco said.
His comfort level is obvious, in his demeanor and in his game. Polanco blossomed into an All-Star shortstop last year, leading the Twins in runs, hits, doubles, triples and walks, and more than repaid the confidence the Twins showed in him by agreeing to a $25.75 million contract last February. He also began to shed his bashfulness, and this spring regularly chats up teammates as he heads to his locker in the far corner, showing off a mastery of English that he resolved last year to acquire.
He hasn't played yet this spring as he recovers from November surgery to relieve a nagging repetitive-stress pain in his right ankle. However, Polanco, who is scheduled to start as designated hitter Sunday, expects this season to be even better than the last.
"He has a lot of belief in himself, and we have a ton of belief in him," manager Rocco Baldelli said. "He's established himself in this league."
Said Polanco: "I do take pride in that. I try to talk to everybody in [the Twins clubhouse]. I don't want anyone to see me as a veteran. I like them to see me as a guy they can talk to."
Yet in a clubhouse with Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson and Sergio Romo, Polanco actually is a veteran, of a sort. Polanco's debut with the Twins came on June 26, 2014 — earlier than any other player on the roster. With Kyle Gibson departed, and Trevor May's arrival coming six weeks later than his, Polanco is now the senior Twin, a distinction that he finds a little ridiculous — but also plenty satisfying.
"I don't know. A lot of guys have more time than me," Polanco notes correctly, given that he played only five games in the majors in 2014, and only four more in 2015. "But I think about [my progress] a lot. Being here, being established, being comfortable, keeping my job and getting better, being an All-Star — I worked hard for it."
Though at 26 he still remains one of the younger players on the roster, Polanco has been in the Twins organization since signing one day after his 16th birthday in 2009, more than a decade ago. If he remains in Minnesota through the end of his contract, which includes option years in 2024 and '25, he will have spent 17 seasons as a Twins employee — or one fewer than Mauer, the longest-tenured Twins player ever.
Yes, that remains a long way off, and there are no guarantees that he will remain productive, not to mention untraded, more than half a decade from now. But Polanco admits the thought of a Mauer-like career, beginning and ending in one place, has occurred to him, too.
"Minnesota feels like home for me, too. I like it. People are nice. I feel comfortable there," Polanco said of his summertime address, where he lives with his wife, Lucero, and their two young sons. "If I stay there, I'd be happy."
Doubt his chances if you like, but unexpectedly staying in one place is the story of Polanco's career. From the moment he signed, Polanco heard that he wasn't a permanent shortstop, that he would be moving to second base once a better option arrived. All these years later, he is still at short.
"There was a lot of talk when I first got here about him playing positions other than shortstop. I remember we said, 'Let's exhaust the potential there first. Let's wait until we know for sure, right?' " said Derek Falvey, the Twins president of baseball operations. "There were times when throwing was a concern, but he made some changes, lowered his arm slot, developed a more natural motion. He's our shortstop. We're happy with him as our shortstop."
That's not to say that a change won't eventually come as Polanco ages. Long-term, Falvey said, "there are always going to be multiple opportunities for a guy that athletic. Who's to say he can't be Marwin [Gonzalez], and move all over the field? I'll bet he could do it."
But there are no such plans at the moment.
"He's always been fighting a narrative about that, but look at the company he's in," Falvey said. "You look across the game, it's a pretty deep position right now. Just in the AL alone, you've got [Cleveland's Francisco] Lindor, you've got [Houston's Carlos] Correa, you've got [Boston's Xander] Bogaerts. Some really accomplished, talented guys at one position. To have been the All-Star starter, it's pretty remarkable."
Maybe to others. Not to Polanco. Not even on that first day, nearly six years ago.
He had been shocked to get a phone call from his Class A Fort Myers manager, Doug Mientkiewicz, around 1 a.m. Danny Santana had injured his ankle, Eduardo Nunez couldn't come off the disabled list for four more days, and then-General Manager Terry Ryan had decided to make Polanco, less than two weeks away from his 21st birthday, an emergency backup since he was already on the 40-man roster. He was the first (and to date only) player to make the jump from Class A to the Twins since Jim Eisenreich in 1982.
"Mientkiewicz told me when he give me the news, he said: 'Jorge, you can play there. Go show them. Give your best effort,' " Polanco said. "I said, 'I'm not afraid to hit.' I was a little bit nervous, but I wasn't afraid at the plate."
He showed it by going 2-for-5 over four games before being sent back, his first big-league hit a two-run triple on an 0-2 breaking ball from Texas closer Joakim Soria. "It was fun," Polanco said. "I feel like I played good."
He still does, and he would like to keep it up for a long time. In fact, maybe longer than Mauer.
"I want to be Nelson Cruz. As a person, as a player," Polanco said of his elder-statesman teammate. "I want to play [when I'm] 40 years old, too."