Fort Myers, Fla. – Paul Molitor, a Hall of Fame player from St. Paul, took the field Saturday for the first time as the manager of the Minnesota Twins, his hometown team, during an official full-squad spring training practice. No fireworks or rock anthems punctuated his arrival.
It was not “huge.”
It was not “epic.”
In the modern sports vernacular, every football game is the former and every interesting moment the latter. What occurred Saturday at the CenturyLink Sports Complex was neither. Molitor supervised drills, and then everyone showered and went home.
On a day devoid of drama, there was a tapestry of small moments.
For the past few years, the loudest voice at spring training was that of former manager Ron Gardenhire, who hollered instructions, needled players, chatted up fans and occasionally pulled a prank. Saturday, as Molitor spoke quietly, the loudest voice belonged to prodigal Twin Torii Hunter, who spent the early morning in his constant tutorial of center field prospects Byron Buxton and Aaron Hicks, and at the end of the workout gathered all of the position players on a side field for a group cheer.
“I’m just having fun,” Hunter said. “I want to do that every morning.”
In Hammond Stadium, Joe Mauer took his first batting practice in a ballpark this year, dropping two perfect bunts before lining a single to left off bullpen coach Eddie Guaradado.
On one of the back fields, Jose Berrios, the Twins’ fastest-rising pitching prospect, threw to Buxton, the consensus top prospect in baseball. “That looked like it was coming in at 150 [miles per hour],” Buxton said.
Watching Buxton was former Twins manager and spring training instructor Tom Kelly, who suffered a stroke this winter. Last year, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan didn’t work at spring training while recovering from cancer.
Kelly is helping Molitor adapt to managing. He also threw point-blank ground balls to infielders during the Twins’ traditional Day 1 infield drill entitled “Good Morning America.”
The last time Kelly didn’t attend some sort of spring training? “Oh, my,” he said. “That would be before 1969.”
The Seattle Pilots drafted Kelly in 1968. He reported to spring training in Arizona in ’69 to find himself lockering near Ray Oyler and Don Mincher. Jim Bouton, the author of “Ball Four,” would play chess on the other side of the clubhouse. For many of his teammates, post-workout recovery featured beer and cigarettes.
While Saturday marked the Twins’ first official full-squad workout, most of the players reported to camp early. Kennys Vargas and Miguel Sano argued over which of them would hit 40 home runs first. Earlier in the week, Vargas, on one of the minor league fields, hit a home run over the outfield fence, and the second fence erected to keep souvenir hunters from stealing baseballs, and a man in a blue shirt began chasing it across the parking lot. Eventually, he disappeared from view.
Hunter began daily sessions with younger outfielders by his corner locker. Guardado frequently pulled up a chair to tutor younger pitchers. New pitching coach Neil Allen instituted what Molitor called “speed dating” between catchers and pitchers, wherein each catcher and pitcher meets briefly to explain his approach.
Last year, Gardenhire emphasized the importance of fundamentals, after a couple of years of embarrassing gaffes in the field and on the bases. Molitor has preached awareness of the importance of every pitch in every game, and of studying the opponent … and the game situation … and even the handiwork of enemy lawn mowers.
“When we’re on the road, Paul would tell us to check how the grass was cut, and which way it was cut, and how much room there was between the grass and the foul line,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “He notices everything.”
Perhaps for the first time in Twins history, the prevalent language on the fields seemed to be Spanish. The Twins’ biggest free-agent signing was Ervin Santana, of the Dominican Republic. By some time this season, the Twins could be using Latin American players at shortstop (Danny Santana or Eduardo Escobar), third base (Escobar or Sano), left field (Oswaldo Arcia), center field (Santana) and catcher (Josmil Pinto).
Sano and Vargas are the Twins’ top two power-hitting prospects, and both might be in the lineup on Wednesday, when the Twins begin their spring schedule with an exhibition against the University of Minnesota.
Molitor had a 2015 Twins media guide on his desk after the workout. It features Molitor, in his Twins uniform, standing in the dugout at Target Field, appearing to look skyward toward images of himself playing for Cretin High School, the Gophers and the Twins.
Has he felt any nerves? “I wouldn’t call them bad nerves,” he said. “I’ve had a little anxiousness at times.”
Molitor, at 58, says he’s experiencing a series of “firsts” as a manager, including all of the meetings and spring training mileposts of the past week. “Every little thing that’s ‘first,’ you know it’s something different and new,” he said. “But, overall, each day, I’m actually getting a little more comfortable. Which is good.”