4:09 PM CST, March 3, 2012
Before they went upscale at Target Field, the word that best described the Twins varied according to whether they made the playoffs. They were efficient in the good years, cheap in the other ones.
The cost of everything has soared post-Metrodome, however, so now we recognize Minnesota baseball by its stability. But here's a thought: Is this about to turn into just another franchise instead of the lovable mom-and-pop operation the late Carl Pohlad took over from Calvin Griffith?
The Twins have had two managers in 26 seasons and only five general managers since 1950. Ron Gardenhire, who took over when Tom Kelly decided he'd rather hit fungos on the back fields, has outlasted Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa to become second to Mike Scioscia in tenure among major league managers. But will his 11th season be his last in the sterile, cinder-block manager's office at the Lee County Sports Complex?
The Twins are only five miles from the Red Sox's sparkling JetBlue Park complex that opened last month. But the smell of fresh leather and air of expectations found on one side of Fort Myers is in stark contrast to a staleness and sense of apprehension on the other.
"I'm glad I got a new chair,'' Gardenhire said. "Boston must have been selling the old stuff. Not much remodeling here.''
Gardenhire, who is signed through 2013 in an extension he signed after a 94-win season in 2010, couldn't break the Twins' fall during a nightmarish 2011. Injuries to former MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau set the tone for a $113 million team that saw its win total slide all the way to 63, the second-lowest total in the majors.
Things got so bad that general manager Terry Ryan agreed to come out of retirement to replace Bill Smith, whose baseball savvy was found lacking a tenure that will be remembered for Mauer receiving an eight-year, $184 million contract. As Ryan tries to put the pieces back together again, he faces life without Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan and Jason Kubel, who left because the Twins lacked the financial flexibility to outbid other teams for them.
"We only had three players play 100 games last year, and one of those (Cuddyer) is gone,'' Ryan said. "That's not good.''
Cuddyer, important for his reliable bat and ability to play anywhere on the field, was the last holdover from 2002, when Gardenhire took over for Kelly. "He's been here an awful long time,'' Gardenhire said. "He's the kind of guy we thought would be here forever. … You miss him. We're going to miss Joe Nathan too. … We have some good guys who are still here, and they need to step up. We have two MVPs out there. They are leaders when they are on the field.''
Mauer and Morneau combined to play only 151 games last year. While Morneau's future seems dicey because of concussion issues dating to 2010, Mauer's fragile lower body is holding up during the early stages of camp. He looked great on Tuesday, hitting a homer off Francisco Liriano in live batting practice and drawing a crowd to catch the likes of Sam Deduno and Casey Fien on a back field.
Gardenhire knows public sentiment could turn on him if the Twins don't turn things around. His teams haven't gotten past the first round of the playoffs since 2002, compiling a 3-19 record in losing their last six series.
He hopes Ryan won't throw him to the wolves.
"Terry gave me my chance,'' he said. "He was the one who hired me … If Billy was going to be gone, I was really happy Terry was the (replacement). I've been with him. He knows what to expect from me.''
The trouble is we've all come to expect a lot from Minnesota.
Reverse karma: A visit to Yankees camp provided a fresh impression of A.J. Burnett, one that makes what happened to him last week even more unfortunate. The orbital fracture he suffered during bunting drills could make him miss April, complicating the fast start he hoped to get off to with the Pirates.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Burnett's old teammates have raved about Burnett since his salary was dumped to create room to add Raul Ibanez and keep Eric Chavez. He may have seemed lost on the mound too much of the time, but teammates say he handled his difficult situation in New York extremely well and haven't forgotten him beating Pedro Martinez in Game 2 of the 2009 World Series or Rick Porcello in Game 4 of the '11 division series.
He left carrying the all-important Derek Jeter endorsement. "A.J. pitched some big games for us,'' Jeter said. "Regardless of his ups and downs, he always took the ball, didn't back away from anything he was dealing with.''
The Natural: Some things come easy for Joe Benson — for instance, football. He didn't play nearly as much other teenagers until he got to Joliet Catholic, but he still emerged as one of the top running backs in the country during his senior year, rushing for 2,183 yards. "I was better at football than I thought,'' Benson said last week. "But baseball was my first love.''
Benson turned down a scholarship from Purdue after the Twins took him with a second-round pick in the 2006 draft, and he's on the threshold of a big-league career. A potential five-tool player, he could force his way into the Twins' outfield with a strong spring.
"It's up to him,'' Ryan said. "That's about as simple as I can put it. … He would have to do an awful lot to make the club, but we've been down that road before.''
Benson, 24, will go to Triple-A Rochester if he doesn't claim a starting spot. His task is to make himself appear more valuable than Denard Span, whose OPS has declined in each of the last three years, or the 5-foot-9 Ben Revere, currently slotted into the No. 9 spot.
The last word: "It's hard to watch a grown man cry. I just can't say enough about the guy and what he meant to all of us.'' — Josh Beckett on former Red Sox teammate Jason Varitek, who announced his retirement.
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