He spends so much time deflecting credit and downplaying his own impact, it feels jarringly out of character to hear Rocco Baldelli describe accepting the American League Manager of the Year Award at a New York banquet last month as his greatest moment of triumph this offseason.
Well, until he explains why.
“I made Jerry Seinfeld laugh, just a little bit,” Baldelli said of the night he shared a dais with the renowned TV comedian. “I don’t know how I could ever top that.”
The Twins manager, a reluctant and self-effacing honoree despite leading his team to 101 victories and an AL Central championship in his debut season, opened his remarks to a crowd of tuxedoed baseball celebrities by noting Seinfeld’s presence on the stage and asking, “How many of us scrapped our jokes tonight when we saw Seinfeld was speaking?”
The crowd laughed. And Seinfeld? “He, let’s say, slightly more than smirked,” Baldelli said. “It was a victory. I could have taken a victory lap.”
He will get his chance soon enough. Baldelli will supervise the Twins’ first workout of the spring on Wednesday, opening his second season as a big-league manager with most of the same players, many of the same intentions, and one large burden that instantly raises the degree of difficulty: expectations.
He claims to welcome the challenge.
“I like that people expect us to win. I do, too,” Baldelli said. “I don’t know what the year will bring, but that part hasn’t changed. We have a large number of extremely talented people, and our expectations are that we will display that talent again.”
Yet Baldelli goes out of his way to decouple last year’s Twins, who hit more home runs than any team in baseball history and scored more frequently than any previous Twins squad, from the version that reports to Fort Myers this week. Maybe they will be better, maybe worse, Baldelli said, but they will definitely be different.
“Our goal is not to re-create what we did last year. It’s a different team. We want to have our own personality,” he said. “We have a lot of returning faces, but some things have changed, too. We’ll have a different identity, and we have to create that. If you try to be the 2019 Twins, that’s not going to work for the 2020 Twins.”
Maybe not. After all, the Twins’ powerhouse lineup included several hitters enjoying the best seasons of their careers thus far, such bust-out performers as Mitch Garver, Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler. In July, Nelson Cruz will turn 40, well beyond the normal expiration date for a brawny slugger. Miguel Sano will be learning a new position, Luis Arraez trying to follow up a rookie season that ranks with Tony Oliva’s for hitting prowess as a Twin.
Then again, the Twins in the offseason gave the most expensive free-agent contract in their history to a former MVP, Josh Donaldson. And they plan to have Byron Buxton and Arraez for more than a partial season.
“There’s not a team in baseball that doesn’t improve when you add Josh Donaldson to a lineup. He’s a tremendous hitter and a good teammate, too,” Baldelli said. “I’m the lucky manager who gets to write his name on the [lineup] card.”
The Twins feel lucky they have Baldelli doing the writing, said Derek Falvey, president of baseball operations. The 38-year-old former major league outfielder was a great fit when he was hired to guide a rising team, Falvey said, an ex-player who never saw himself as a ruler as much as a facilitator.
“The best part of Rocco is, from Day 1, his view was ‘I know about 5 percent of what I need to know to do this job well.’ And maybe by the end of the year, he might say he knew 6 percent,” Falvey said of the easygoing manager. “That’s all I ask of him, and all we ask of anybody — we don’t know all the answers, so let’s ask a lot of questions and see what we can learn.”
What was the best question he asked last year? Baldelli, fresh off a relaxing offseason — he supervised construction of his new home in the southern Rhode Island woods, just a short stroll from the beach, and reconnected with Phish, the rock band that has entertained him for years — is ready with an unpredictable answer.
“I got engaged!” Baldelli said of his November proposal to longtime girlfriend Allie Genoa, a question he posed after hiking 2 miles to the top of Mono Meadow trail in Yosemite National Park. “She was clearly surprised” by his timing, and the couple is planning a wedding next winter.
Surprise was a big part of managing, too, Baldelli said. The most valuable lesson he learned in the dugout, he said, was that he must prepare to be unprepared.
“One of the biggest things is that you really, truly never know what’s ahead. It’s funny, you spend so much of your time in this job trying to think ahead, even though there’s no way to know what’s coming next,” he said, referencing the daily cascade of injuries, roster moves and attention-grabbers. “That was an important thing, maybe not the easiest thing to understand at first — be flexible, take each situation as it comes and just do your best to make things work, sometimes on the fly.”
Baldelli will have to learn how to operate under some new rules this year, such as having a 26-player roster, or a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. He will lean on his coaching staff to help him navigate those innovations — but the staff itself has been altered, too.
Derek Shelton, Baldelli’s bench coach and longtime friend, was hired away to be the Pirates manager, while batting coach James Rowson, a light-up-the-room personality, went to the Marlins for a promotion to bench coach. Assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, the only staff member younger than Baldelli, now is in charge of the Mets pitching staff.
In their places, the Twins hired Mike Bell, promoted Edgar Varela and Rudy Hernandez as co-hitting coaches and coaxed Bob McClure out of his advisory role. They replace some of the most outgoing coaches on Baldelli’s staff, and the manager himself is curious about how that will reshape the working environment.
“It will be different, but again, we’re not trying to live last year over again. And when you have really talented baseball guys who are also good communicators, who treat the players and each other like people, treat them with honesty, that’s a good start,” Baldelli said of his coaches. “I’m interested in seeing what this group [of coaches] turns into because there’s no denying the talent.”
He had never met his new bench coach, the brother of Reds manager David Bell, so he invited Mike Bell to Rhode Island shortly after New Year’s for a get-to-know-me weekend. “We had a great time. We talked about everything — recovery, rest, nutrition, strategy, pitching, hitting, everything,” said Bell, who has been in baseball administration, not the dugout, for the past decade. “We just connected. Rocco is a great host, and he’ll be a great boss.”
So the players say, too.
“He understands us. He trusts us,” said Garver, who responded with a 31-homer season. “That’s the most important thing a manager can do.”
Baldelli agrees. In fact, the reigning AL Manager of the Year would have you believe a more appropriate award for his work would be Bystander of the Year.
“Really, I and the staff just tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. The goal was just to allow the players to let their ability come out,” Baldelli said earnestly. “We try to help, try to prepare our guys, and that takes many different forms, but ultimately, my job is just to step aside and let them go play their game.”
Nothing to do with him? Hey, Seinfeld was right — this guy is funny.