By Gordy Jones
FORT MYERS, Fla. — Ahhh, there is nothing better than a March day at the ballpark in Fort Myers, Florida. There is a certain ambiance in the air — people are filled with optimism. Many of the Twins’ fans in Florida are from Minnesota, enjoying the mild climate, and they know that once they return home, it won’t be long until Mother Nature bestows similar weather on Minnesota. They are also optimistic about their favorite team, the Minnesota Twins. They know that after a dismal season in 2016, the team will begin the season tied for first. There is always a lot of hope and excitement at the park this time of year. It is a happy place, where the fans sometimes can get close and personal with their favorite players.
During the 2017 spring training games, the team has been displaying some explosive offense, and respectable defense. The pitching is a little weak, though. If they can get that straightened out, they’ll have a fun and competitive team.
The loss of Trevor May to Tommy John surgery was an unexpected blow to the pitching staff. I had talked to Trevor not long before he threw the fateful pitch when something snapped — a snap that ended his season. He said he was feeling better than ever, and was optimistic about fulfilling his dream of becoming a major league starter. After the bad news he tweeted: “Sometimes you work and work, and life roundhouse kicks you in the face anyways. Good thing my jaw is made of Titanium.”
Ervin Santana looks good and has been throwing strong. Now I’m waiting for Kyle Gibson and Phil Hughes to get back into their rhythm, and maybe for a few of these young guys to seize the opportunity of being a major league pitcher. I saw a somewhat impressive outing by 23-year-old lefty Adalberto Mejia the other day. He’s a big kid who has pitched only in one major league game for the Twins last August. He struggled in that game, but the entire team was struggling then. If he can build up his confidence, and just go out there and throw, he’ll be all right. He was striking out batters with ease the other day, but then he got into a 3-0 situation, and you could tell he’s an overthinker. He began to struggle at that point. But I think with a little seasoning down here, he’ll mature and get over that worrying. There’s talk he could be the number five starter if he does.
Some other things that happen this time of year:
St. Paul native Dave Winfield visits each camp representing the players’ union, encouraging young players, giving tips, and letting the guys know about their rights.
Minnesota Day, a tailgate celebration in the parking lot, is one of the most fun days for the fans who come down. Many of them stake out their tailgate camp by posting a sign of the Minnesota town where they live, or did at one time. Folks of all ages partake, and everyone’s very friendly and giving. Will Carlson of St. Paul brings hundreds of hot dogs and sets up a free buffet with foot-longs and all of the trimmings. He joked, “I’m from the ghetto, inner city of St. Paul…Rice Street. But I’ve been blessed, so the last six years I’ve done this for my fellow Minnesotans.” I asked him how many hot dogs he gave away this year. He said, “504…no, I dropped one on the ground. 503.”
Another fellow was giving out free beer, and a family from Willmar set up a free Bloody Mary bar. The sponsor of this event is Mauer Chevrolet, and they handed out 1,000 free t-shirts.
Occasionally players drive through on golf carts and will observe the action as they sign a few autographs, but a staple at this event is Tony Oliva being chauffeured by the retired director of the Twins’ Minor Leagues System, Jim Rantz. This year they had former Twins Hall of Fame announcer John Gordon riding on the back of their cart as he munched on a few dogs and visited with fans.
Another familiar sight are the bat salesmen who are visiting the camps trying to sign on young players and convert veterans. I ran into such a salesman; he is from Minneapolis, where he started his company, Max Bats, in his basement. His name is Jim Anderson. In the year 2000, Jim and his wife were expecting their first child, whom they had already named Max. He explains: “I wanted to commemorate his birth by hand-turning a bat that I could hang in my office and have his birth statistics on it.” At the time, Jim was playing amateur ball, and his bat for Max had turned out so nice, he decided to make his own bats as kind of a hobby. On 9/11, the company that he was working for went out of business, so he found that was the perfect time to take a chance and start his own bat business. He has expanded to the point where he has taken what he made in the basement to a high-tech factory in Brooten, Minnesota, west of Minneapolis. Doug Mientkiewicz was his first major league customer, and now he has about 65 big leaguers using the Max. He now has a factory, partners, and employees. In spring he hits every Florida camp, while his employees cover Arizona.
After my observations so far, I think the Twins will be slightly over .500 this year. Yesterday I saw a good omen. It was Peter Gammons hanging out at the Twins’ park for most of the day. He is a baseball observer of the highest level, and he wouldn’t be wasting his time watching if he didn’t see something special — unless it might have been the Twins’ opponents, the St. Louis Cardinals.