The sun descended, leaving the Florida sky awash in pastels. The ballpark lights began to glow and fans strolled through the turnstiles, toward the smell of char-grilled meat.
While most spectators found their seats, others spread blankets on the grass berm down the rightfield line as the light faded. The Twins' new spring training scoreboard lit up, and the casual portion of the baseball season began with a Minnesota kid on the mound.
Glen Perkins, an alum of Stillwater High and the University of Minnesota who now winters in the balmy climes of Lakeville, Wednesday night threw the first pitch of a season that will span at least nine months. Perkins pitched two shutout innings in the Twins' 5-2 victory over Boston at Hammond Stadium.
A Minnesota kid throwing the first pitch of spring is quaint; how the Minnesota kid performs over the next nine months could prove decisive. Now that Francisco Liriano is well past his elbow surgery and looking healthy and confident, Perkins is the member of the Twins' young rotation who may present the widest range of possibilities.
He possesses the stuff and guts to give the Twins a second dynamic lefthanded starter, to provide the rotation with depth and balance. He also features a long, wraparound deliver that makes scouts speculate about future surgery, and a résumé blending high achievements and low moments.
The Twins took him in the first round of the 2004 draft. He rose quickly, earning a call-up in 2006 and a spot on the playoff roster, even though he earned a reputation in the minors for being headstrong and lackadaisical.
"He was just a young guy who really didn't have a plan yet," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He had a great arm, but he had to learn work habits ... He was lazy in his fundamentals, and sloppy ... but it was his mannerisms that made you want to say, 'hey, put a little more into it.'
"I think he's improved all of that, his movements, the way he fields. I think he pays attention to details more than he used to. We had him over here and we talked about that all the time. It looked like it was, 'La, la, la, la, la, oh, well.' He's changed the way he goes about his business."
Perkins strained a muscle in his left shoulder early in the 2007 season, and pitched a total of 48 innings. "I learned you can't take it for granted," he said. "Had I been a little stronger and in a little better shape, maybe it wouldn't have happened. ... I think that was kind of the big eye-opener for me, realizing that in one pitch, I was done for the season.
"That was the year they wanted me to go to winter ball, and I said no, I wanted to work out and get stronger, and come into camp stronger, and it probably ended up getting me sent down to Triple-A in the long run because I didn't do maybe what they wanted me to do, but it's going to work out better in the end."
It worked well for most of last season. Perkins got called to the majors on May 10 and made his first big-league start. He would win five decisions in a row from June 19 to July 18. He would finish his rookie season 12-4 with a 4.41 ERA despite going 0-1 with a 7.45 ERA in September.
That was the month that the lost 2007 season, the Twins' experimentation with him as a reliever, and the new experience of navigating a six-month season dragged him down sure as an undertow. "I was in a weird position last year," he said. "I didn't make any starts in 2007, so it was like learning a whole new thing, again."
He spent this winter throwing at the U, and working out at the Lakeville Lifetime Fitness, often with teammate and fellow Lakeville resident Jesse Crain.
Shouldn't a ballplayer move south for the winter? "Why?" he said. "I like the cornfields. I'm a Minnesotan. Stupid question."
Perkins can pitch. Over the next eight months we'll find out whether he can last.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. email@example.com