Dorr: Minnesota Nice shows itself at spring training

Editor’s note: Veteran sportswriter Luther Dorr is on his annual visit to Florida, where once again he’s following baseball’s spring training and the Minnesota Twins. This is the first of his reports from The Sunshine State.

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I know, I know, this is supposed to be a baseball column.

Times photo by Luther Dorr Twins catcher Joe Mauer shows umpire Jeff Kellogg the ball after tagging out the Yankees’ Brett Gardner following a relay throw from Alexi Casilla in Sunday’s 5-1 win over the Yankees in Fort Myers. On-deck hitter Nick Swisher (33) gave Gardner the sign to slide. (Photo by Luther Dorr)

But first, a comment about the “Minnesota Nice” we all hear about regularly.

I’m never sure if “Minnesota Nice” is a real thing but today, on a Monday afternoon at Charlotte County Sports Park in Florida, it appeared to be for real.

There was freshly-mowed grass in front of the Tampa Bay Rays spring training facility, where the Rays were to play the Minnesota Twins in about a half hour.

Most of the fans dressed in Rays’ regalia tramped across that grass that had the appearance of a green on a golf course.

Meanwhile – and I am not making this up – fans dressed in Minnesota caps and jerseys detoured AROUND that grass, took the sidewalk, and walked to the stadium.

I stood there dumbfounded, too out of sorts to record it on film (well, on a digital camera). Some gave me a curious look because I was laughing out loud.

 

Twins win 2 close games

And then, taking the Minnesota Nice thing an extra step, the Minnesota Twins waited until the 10th inning before knocking off the Rays, 2-1.

A long, long home run into the wind by roster hopeful Luke Hughes provided the winning margin.

That blast followed three homers the day before against the Bombers from New York, the Twins winning that one 5-1 as they doubled their homer output for the spring’s previous nine games.

Do these games I have watched (including a 3-2 loss to St. Louis three days earlier) mean the Twins have taken on a new personality?

Definitely not. The homers have come against pitchers that likely won’t make Opening Day rosters.

But the fans in Fort Myers Sunday at the Yankee game, and those who made the trip up to Port Charlotte Monday for the Rays game, went home happy after their heroes came away with wins.

The best thing about the three games, from this corner, was the performance of the starting pitchers.

Newcomer Jason Marquis, Nick Blackburn and Carl Pavano all did well in the three games I saw in four days. And most of the relievers were OK.

Matt Capps, however, gave up a blast to light-hitting Rafael Furcal. But we’ll give him a chance to regain his 2010 form. Actually, there is no choice – he’s the closer.

Who cared that the Twins, with no improvements to their bare-bones parking lot, upped the charge from $7 to $10? (It’s $3 for games at the same field played by their farm team, the Fort Myers Miracle, and I pay less than that in downtown Minneapolis.)

Danny Valencia homered Thursday in a win over Pittsburgh and then homered Sunday against the Yanks, as did September 2011 call-up Joe Benson and Mike Holliman (I don’t know him, either.)

And then Hughes, who hit 7 homers last season in 287 at-bats, hit his blast Monday into the tiki bar area.

A few bests (or worsts) so far:

Best throws: Center fielder Benson and second baseman Alexi Casilla combining to throw out the speedy Brett Gardner at the plate in the Yankee game.

Worst play: Ben Revere, playing left field against the Cards, cutting in front of strong-armed Benson on a fly to center to try to throw a runner out at the plate. It was Benson’s ball all the way and Revere’s throw was short, as usual, and 40 feet up the line. It was a terrible, terrible play.

Best rookie so far: Shortstop Brian Dozier, the team’s minor league player of the year in 2011, hit a triple and single Monday against the Rays and left the bag at second to gobble up a bad throw from the catcher and then made a nice tag to get a would-be base stealer.

Shortest Gardenhire argument: It looked for all the world from 400 feet away like Dozier’s triple cleared the wall in left. Manager Ron Gardenhire, knowing there was no replay camera, came out, argued mildly, smiled and returned to the dugout It was a spring training moment for the often-gruff manager.

Most improved, so far: Benson, with his long homer, a line single, the good throw and a good catch in the outfield in the Yankee game. He has to cut down on his strikeouts (21 in 71 at-bats last season.)

Play most remindful of 2011: Valencia, nonchalanting a ball at third that should never have left the infield but became a double.

Good signs, so far: Joe Mauer going 0-for-5 in two games but hitting three bullets, and Justin Morneau hitting a screamer for a hit.

Unluckiest day: A friend from Minnesota leaving his cell phone in with the sheets as he did the wash, thus disabling forever a four-year-old cell phone and leaving him out of contact with the outside world. We still hooked up to go to the Yankee game  and discussed the cell phone caper afterwards over a Heineken’s. He also got badly sunburned the day before while fishing for tarpon in the Caloosahatchee River.

It’s only four weeks until the home opener with Albert Pujols and the Angels and by then a lot of these things will have worked themselves out.

But, for now, we’ll revel in surprising performances, hope the old vets can regain their form, and wish for a much better season for the Twins.

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