FORT MYERS, FLA. – Retired Twins farm director Jim Rantz was walking around Hammond Stadium when someone asked how much spring training has changed in his lifetime.
“When we were over in Melbourne for 25 years, we had one batting cage,” he said. “Now I think we’ve got seven on the minor league side and five on the major league. In Melbourne, the netting on the cage didn’t even reach the ground.
“Lots of great players came through there — the Hrbeks, Pucketts, Gaettis. I guess it was so bad they wanted to get out and never come back.”
Former Twins catcher and minor league manager Phil Roof helps with camp every year.
“Know what we fed the players when I was managing in the minors?” he said. “Blimpies, Pizza Hut, Chick-fil-A. That was our rotation. Today, we have a nutritionist for our minor leaguers, and we have a beautiful place for them to stay!”
Before the Twins moved into Hammond Stadium and what is now known as the CenturyLink Sports Complex in 1991, Twins minor leaguers trained in Melbourne, Fla., and the big-leaguers trained at Tinker Field in Orlando.
Rantz and Roof described facilities that would embarrass a modern high school. I’ve been covering spring trainings in Fort Myers for a quarter-century, and I have no horror stories to tell. The Twins complex here was picturesque from the start and recently has been improved to picturesque and impressive.
The Twins have upgraded Hammond Stadium, adding grass berms, outfield seats, bars and dining options. They have built the Player Development Center — quality dorms for minor league and foreign-born players, complete with classrooms and a cafeteria geared toward healthy eating.
Once quaint and antiquated, spring training has become highly professionalized, befitting a billion-dollar industry populated by millionaire employees. In the old days of the Wild West (Coast of Florida), things were a little … goofier?
In no apparent order, here are a few of my favorite memories of spring training in Fort Myers:
• Kirby Puckett would be the first player into the clubhouse, often arriving at 6 a.m. He’d bring bagels for the clubhouse workers, many of whom slept on site, and sit in his corner locker telling stories.
• In 1993, Puckett ensured that a first-round draft pick would locker between him and Dave Winfield. Torii Hunter’s introduction to big-league baseball was sitting between two future Hall of Famers. Puckett also told Hunter to take as much money from his wallet as he needed.
• That was a wise allocation of Puckett’s cash. Rookies called him “Payday,” because Puckett loved to gamble but never mastered poker. They loved playing cards with him on bus rides around the state.
Puckett was so competitive he would organize a March Madness pool, then buy all of his favorite teams from other entrants, ensuring he would lose money even if one of his teams won the title.
• Paul Molitor arrived in the spring of 1996, listened to Puckett in the clubhouse for a day, then said: “I appreciated the quality of what Kirby has to say. I underestimated the quantity.”
• Where there now is an office park beyond the left field fence, there once was a pasture. Kent Hrbek would tell his teammates before batting practice, “Let’s go hit a cow.”
• Longtime manager Tom Kelly hated to release veteran players who had helped him win championships. In the spring of 1994, the Twins cut Gene Larkin to make way for top prospect and Stanford alum David McCarty, prompting Kelly to derisively say, “Stanford, boola, boola, boola.”
• Hunter eventually adopted Puckett’s role in the clubhouse. He and the players who transformed the franchise in the early 2000s turned the clubhouse into sportswriting nirvana. They were funny, quotable, inviting and passionate about the game.
One day, Corey Koskie filled David Ortiz’s jean pockets with ice … to distract him from the peanut butter in his underwear.
• Ron Gardenhire bet David Ortiz he couldn’t hit a golf ball from the big-league field onto the far practice field. Of course, it was an exploding ball.
• Before the concussions and other injuries, Joe Mauer was one of the great young players in baseball history. An outfielder named Brian Buchanan watched Mauer take his first round of batting practice in big-league camp, walked into the clubhouse and said, “Everything I’ve tried to do with my swing my entire life he’s already doing, and making it look easy.”
• On March 27, 1996, Puckett played in his last baseball game. He faced Atlanta ace Greg Maddux, who had won four consecutive Cy Young Awards. In the first inning, Puckett lined a single, then hollered toward the mound.
Puckett, the hitting artist, called Maddux “Picasso.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.