This column was supposed to be about, among other things, Josh Willingham and the large shoes he has to fill (Delmon Young, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer) for the Minnesota Twins in 2012Instead, to begin with, we’ll have the real story of how Jim Eisenreich made it back to the Major Leagues a story that was uncovered during a chance conversation Sunday afternoon at a dusty parking lot in Fort Myers, Fla.
(Eisenreich is a St. Cloud native who made it to the Major Leagues with Minnesota, was released because of a medical disorder, and made it back as a successful player with Kansas City and then with the Phillies and the Marlins, including being on a World Series winner.)
It was the annual Minnesota Day in Fort Myers on Sunday as the Twins and Pirates got together for a game. Minnesotans cook up lavish feeds, put up signs that tell what town or city they come from, tailgate in record numbers, and congregate for at least four hours before the game begins. (Four hours is a lot for those senior citizens.)
I was walking through the parking lot, stopping to say hello to fellow Minnesotans, hoping to run into someone I knew. Last year it took one minute to find someone I knew, the year before a few minutes, and this year 10 minutes.
Someone called out my name Sunday and it turned out to be Gary Halek, formerly the baseball coach at Sauk Rapids High School.
We caught up on old times, Halek mentioning – as he does every time I see him – that he coached a Princeton High School player in the high school all-star game in 1984.
We talked about Eisenreich and I told the story about how, in 1982, I wrote a story for a new sports publication based in St. Cloud, after an exclusive interview with Twins manager Billy Gardner, that predicted Eisenreich would start in center field for the Twins.
That was a scoop at the time but the owner of the new publication decided to hold off a week with the story and then Minneapolis columnist Sid Hartman ended up with the scoop.
Eisenreich, who ended up becoming the poster boy for Tourette’s Syndrome, was booed off the field by Boston fans who didn’t understand his medical problems and was released by the Twin in 1984. He was hitting .303 in about 100 at-bats that first year..
He played town team baseball for a St. Cloud team, in a league with Princeton in 1985 and 1986, and then was signed by Kansas City.
I’ve always told the story that Bob Hegman, a former Sauk Rapids High School player who had played in the Kansas City organization and was working for its minor league program, signed Eisenreich for a dollar, figuring he had nothing to lose.
Eisenreich tore up the Class AA Southern League, made it to Kansas City, and ended up with a 15-year career during which he hit .290.
But, I found out Sunday, it was Halek – the former Sauk Rapids coach – who called Hegman, his ex-player, and told him to take a chance on Eisenreich.
“I saw him hit that summer in town team ball,” Halek told me. (Eisenreich hit .625 his first year in town team ball.)
So there you have it: Halek was responsible for getting Eisenreich, a wonderful guy who I played against those two years in Princeton and St. Cloud, back to the Major Leagues. Or, at least, partly.
Can Willingham make
up for loss of Kubel,
Cuddyer? And, oh
I’ve seen Josh Willingham, the new Minnesota left fielder, play three times this spring and he’s had only one hit. In fact, he has only one home run, and only one extra-base hit, in 25 at-bats.
Of course, no one else on the team has done much with the bat either. And it’s likely Willingham is pressing as he tries to impress his new teammates.
What kind of credentials does this 33-year-old have as he seeks to add some power to a team that, WITH Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, was 14th (last) in homers in the American League in 2011, and 13th (next to last) in runs?
He had a career high 29 homers and 98 RBIs for Oakland last year and hit .246 while striking out once every 3.3 at-bats. He also had 26 doubles but his slugging percentage was only .477.
He has 132 career homers, hitting more than 20 four times in six years while striking out once every four times at the plate. He played three years with Florida and two with Washington before going to Oakland.
With Kubel off to Arizona and Cuddyer off to Colorado, where right-handed hitters get a 21-percent boost in homers, Willingham will come to Target Field where, in its short history, right-handed hitters have seen their home run production go down by 17 percent compared to the league average.
And let’s not forget that either the Twins panicked, or listened to fans too much, and traded away Delmon Young last year. Young, who led the team with 21 homers and 112 RBIs while hitting .298 the year before, then hit 8 homers in 40 games with Detroit and hit 5 – yes, 5 – post-season home runs for the Tigers. In return the Twins got minor league pitcher Lester Oliveros who was sent down to the minors last week. In other words, the Twins got nothing for one of the few power hitters the team had.
Maybe Joe Mauer (not a power hitter) and Justin Morneau (3-for-30 this spring) will return to form in 2012. And Danny Valencia may hit a few homers and so might a few others Or, maybe the Twins will be last in the league in homers again, no matter what Willingham does.
Here’s hoping Willingham will hit at least 20 homers and here’s hoping he doesn’t feel too much pressure.
Lots of maybes and lots of hopes there, huh?