Willians Astudillo will walk through the Twins clubhouse with a bat in his hand — because he must hit before every single game — pretending to look for someone to beat up.
Marwin Gonzalez will have his feet propped up on a chair or table. If you catch him on the right day, his French bulldog, Benger, is with him.
Ehire Adrianza often has his motor scooter next to his stall, and after games he will pedal out of the clubhouse and ride out of the ballpark.
But the real action before a Twins game at Target Field is in the back of the clubhouse, where dominoes games are ongoing.
Designated hitter Nelson Cruz is nearby, but only watches.
“I do play dominoes,” Cruz said, “but I don’t like to play here. I don’t play here because I’m getting ready for the game.”
Recently, a checkerboard was added. Sometimes, dominoes and checkers are played side-by-side.
Jonathan Schoop claims to be the best dominoes player on the team, while Miguel Sano is a whiz at checkers.
“It seems like one of Sano’s offensive tactics is to sit there with no shirt on and just sliders on,” Twins General Manager Thad Levine said, referring to heavy duty baseball underwear. “I can imagine that can’t be too comfortable for anybody sitting across the way from him.”
Nearby at a makeshift barbershop, players congregate to get the right look for their hair, beards … and eyebrows.
There’s talking, arguing, laughing. It’s the environment the Twins and manager Rocco Baldelli envisioned having this season, one that has been all the team could have hoped for.
This was the year of the Bomba Squad, a season where the Twins set a major league record for home runs and won 101 games to win the American League Central. They will take their loosey-goosey approach to New York for Friday’s opening game of the best-of-five American League Division Series, with Baldelli saying, “No dress code on the plane. As few changes as possible.”
Starting a long road
Baldelli started spring training with a relaxed, rest-and-recovery atmosphere, but stressed that his players should always be professional — but be themselves.
That provided a stage for the Latin players to impact the atmosphere in the clubhouse, much like they show their love for the game on the field. With strong influences from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela, Spanish is as much a language as English for a multicultural team.
Fifteen players from Latin America and the Caribbean are on the 40-man roster, which will be trimmed to 25 for the playoffs, and other Latin players were part of the team earlier in the season or in spring training.
Looking to upgrade their roster in the offseason, the Twins signed Cruz, from the Dominican Republic, to a one-year deal with an option. They signed pitcher Martin Perez, from Venezuela, to a similar deal. And they also added Schoop, who is fluent in Spanish and from Dutch-speaking Curacao (which is not considered a Latin American country).
As players reported to camp, the Twins signed Gonzalez, also from Venezuela, to a two-year deal.
Holdovers from the previous season included Puerto Ricans Eddie Rosario and Jose Berrios; Dominicans Sano, Michael Pineda, Adalberto Mejia and Jorge Polanco; and Venezuelans Adrianza and Astudillo.
“We knew we would be pretty diverse as a team,” Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said. “So we wanted to be pretty diverse as a coaching staff.”
It led to their adding Spanish-speaking Tony Diaz as third base coach. Diaz has joked that he will need hand surgery at the end of the season after 307 high-fives following home runs.
Falvey and Levine spent a lot of time thinking about the best way of getting the most out of their players.
“How many sports are there in which half the clubhouse doesn’t speak the same language as the other half?” Falvey said.
The Twins not only took the step of hiring Elvis Martinez as a Spanish translator (above, going through a scouting report with pitcher Jose Berrios), but they also made him a constant presence in the dugout. That has strengthened the message from coaches to the Spanish-speaking players while they receive better feedback from players. The Twins are one of two teams in the league (the Yankees are the other) to have a Spanish translator in the dugout during games.
Martinez’s biggest impact has been with pitchers understanding game plans, pitch selections and pitch locations. He will meet with them between innings, sometimes before pitching coach Wes Johnson does. And that’s in addition to translating for players during media sessions.
“He’s involved in a lot of different things,” Baldelli said, “involved in a lot of different conversations and he’s not — I would not label him the Twins translator. That’s not a very accurate representation of what he does. He’s more of a cultural liaison to everything that goes on in this organization.”
The Twins, at Cruz’s request, have installed a nap room so the veteran can take his customary late-afternoon snoozes.
And the Twins even use an auxiliary dressing room at Target Field — it used to be the drug-testing room — as a place where team barber Andy Duran (above, styling up Berrios as Marwin Gonzalez looked on) can make sure players are trimmed up. Any player can take advantage of these amenities, but there are more ways that the Twins’ Latin players can feel comfortable.
Funny, and fun
Early in the season, injuries forced the Twins to promote infielder Luis Arraez, a Venezuelan who had just made the jump to Class AAA. He started hitting from the minute he joined the team, and his quirky sense of humor added to the mix easily.
When the roster expanded to 40 players, the Twins added Dominicans Fernando Romero and Jorge Alcala and Venezuelans Brusdar Graterol and Ronald Torreyes. Mejia was designated for assignment and lost on waivers midseason, and the popular Pineda was hit with a season-ending suspension for using a banned diuretic.
Through it all, consistent winning kept the atmosphere lively ... or did a lively atmosphere keep the team winning?
“When you have Astudillo [right, playing dominoes against Ronald Torreyes] on this team, it is going to be fun,” Schoop said. “I’ve been with some clubs that have been funny. This club has been really fun. From the first day, feel at home right away. So I knew then it was going to be fun.”
“I love my teammates,” Astudillo said, “but if they make fun of me, I will break their face.”
Cruz and Sano (above) might be the best example of the work-play balance. Sano has tried to match Cruz’s attention to detail as he prepares for games, and the two celebrate home runs together by mimicking the Pedro Cerrano character from the movie “Major League.”
“He’s grown up a lot,” Cruz said of Sano.
Are you saying he was a baby?
“Yes,” Cruz laughed as Sano walked by him. “A big baby.”
Sano, under pressure to be the team’s power-hitting leader since he first came to the major leagues as a 22-year-old in 2015, has been a major beneficiary of Cruz’s influence and the clubhouse comfortability. Sano hit a career-high 34 home runs in only 105 games after being limited by injuries.
Cruz probably has been the team’s most valuable player. His steady style and professional approach led to 41 home runs at age 39 despite, like Sano, missing significant time because of injuries.
Rosario drove in 109 runs, Arraez set a team rookie record with a .334 batting average, and Gonzalez played all over the field as a super utility man. Schoop had 23 home runs, and Polanco was an All-Star shortstop. Berrios is likely to be the team’s starting pitcher Friday when the playoffs begin.
They helped the Twins win the Central title for the first time since 2010.
Rosario (above) will continue to take credit for coming up with the name Bomba Squad. Astudillo will continue to pretend he’s mad at everyone. And this Twins team, its personality influenced by a group of hard-working-yet-rollicking Latin players, is about to see how long their dominoes and checkers games will last.
Levine cued up “The Godfather” theme to describe it all.
“Nelson is like the Godfather and Marwin is his consigliere, and Miguel is his protégé,” Levine said. “Astudillo is almost like Sonny [Corleone], the loose cannon. You can’t keep a lid on him.
“It now has permeated our clubhouse in that all of the positives instilled in this clubhouse [in the past] are married up now with this freedom to express yourself. It’s really been a nice combination.”