Eduardo Escobar was unaware when spring training started that he was going to get another opportunity to bail out the Twins.
But he was ready to liven up the clubhouse by going on a science kick.
First he wanted to know what would happen if the Earth stopped spinning. A couple of days later, he asked why it was cold at the Arctic Circle and Antarctica but not in the middle of the planet. Then he challenged teammates to come up with the name of the Mars Exploration Rover launched in 1996.
Stanford-educated catcher Jason Castro knew it was Sojourner. Others wondered why the 29-year-old infielder was asking such strange questions.
But most of the Twins knew it was just his way of keeping everyone loose, which might be the secret to his success.
Last season, he stepped in to replace injured third baseman Miguel Sano down the stretch and finished with a career-high 21 home runs as the Twins earned a wild-card spot.
On Thursday, when the Twins open the 2018 season in Baltimore, Escobar will be the starting shortstop, moving over after Jorge Polanco drew an 80-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.
It doesn’t matter if he’s starting or coming off the bench, the third longest-tenured Twins player behind Joe Mauer and Brian Dozier utilizes his humor and a cheery demeanor to keep a clubhouse relaxed.
Where did those 21 home runs come from? “I eat a lot of Fogo de Chao, man. Mucho Fogo de Chao,” he said. “But I’m surprised — 21 home runs is a lot for me.”
Escobar has a stuffed horse, “Caballo,” in his dressing stall. Last season, he took old workout shoes and put them on Caballo’s hoofs. Then he sat Caballo next to him as if he were a teammate. Soon, everyone was acknowledging Caballo.
“How much does he entertain me? Every day,” outfielder Byron Buxton said. “The way he acts is why everyone attaches to him so much. He likes to have fun. He’s that guy who keeps you even. If you get on a high, he’s gonna let you know. If you get too low, he’s going to be like, ‘Hey, man, let’s go. You’re a good player.’ ”
Teams frequently have T-shirts with motivational slogans printed on them. This year the Twins used the phrase “You’ve changed. Stay humble,” which is what Escobar frequently says to his teammates when they don’t behave the way he’s used to seeing.
Escobar will notice if a player runs to the clubhouse to retrieve something and needle him if he takes too long.
Pitcher Kyle Gibson called him the dugout police.
“If you make an out, he’ll say, ‘Grab your glove,’ ” Gibson said. “He’s his own breed of person, and pretty special.”
Escobar signed with the White Sox out of Venezuela in 2006 and was traded to the Twins with lefthander Pedro Hernandez in 2012 in exchange for lefthander Francisco Liriano. Escobar was considered an all-field, little-hit player, but was loved in the clubhouse. The White Sox didn’t want to see him go.
When Escobar joined the Twins, he saw how much time Mauer and Justin Morneau put into preparation, so he kept working to refine his swing.
The Twins needed him to start for stretches in 2014 and 2015, and Escobar, listed generously at 5-10 and 185 pounds, would show occasional pop, taking vicious cuts at pitches. He was the Opening Day shortstop in 2016 but was injured early in the season. He then watched Eduardo Nunez take over and hit his way into the All-Star Game.
Escobar began last season as a utility player, but was a standout when Sano was sidelined because of a shin injury, hitting 10 home runs over the final 40 games.
In his career, Escobar has played 307 games at short, 180 at third base, 58 at second and 45 in the outfield. He has played every position on the field, including an inning at catcher and one inning on the mound against Houston in 2016.
“It’s unfortunate about Polanco,” Dozier said, “but good teams have depth. Don’t know if there is a better guy to step in and be an everyday player.”
It’s always something
Dozier and Escobar dress in the same area of the clubhouse, and it’s not uncommon to hear the most banter coming from them. The two have become good friends, with Dozier staying at Escobar’s home in Davie, Fla., during a recent off-day.
“This, for me, is family,” Escobar said. “We have seven months here together. Sometimes you have bad days. But the most important thing is that you have good teammates and good guys and be happy. Everyone had problems in their life. Sometimes I have problems but I don’t bring them here. I come here and be happy for everybody.”
And if that means researching facts about the Space Shuttle program or what happens during an earthquake just to raise a few eyebrows in the clubhouse, he will do it.
Dozier’s eyebrows furrowed when asked for Escobar’s funniest moment.
“That’s a loaded question because every day you learn something new and it becomes the funniest thing,” Dozier said. “Like the other day. He’s into science right now, NASA and all that stuff. He just found out that a person has walked on the moon. And he had to look it up, that Neil Armstrong has walked on the moon.
“It was like the scene in ‘Dumb and Dumber.’ He yelled, ‘Wow. Man has really walked on the moon!’ ”