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Minnesota Twins Believe Hot Start Is More Than Smoke (Machine) And Mirrors

Posted by Tom Schreier , 04 June 2015 · 1,568 views

minnesota twins torii hunter terry ryan dance party smoke machine
The Minnesota Twins need to let loose. They need to believe that they can’t be held back by expectations, by the culture of losing created by four straight 90-loss seasons, by the numbers that say that they have outperformed their capabilities up until this point.

For the most part everyone in the locker room appears unhindered by outside speculation, ignorant or at least cleansed of the team’s previous losing ways. They feel that that they are, as a unit, more talented than people give them credit for after a 20-win May — the first time the Twins have reached that number in a month since 1991 — given that they have played everyone in the AL Central, as well as teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox, and taken a series from everyone except the Detroit Tigers.

This is why the dance party was so vital for this team. Veteran presence and leadership get thrown around any time a team brings in an older player, but Torii Hunter’s influence on this team is tangible. It’s hard not to notice something different when the clubhouse is so full of smoke that Mike Pelfrey and Glen Perkins, who occupy the corner lockers next to the entrance, can’t see Joe Mauer and Hunter, who have the lockers by the players-only section of the room, when they are getting changed after games.

Entering the Twins clubhouse is like entering the high heavens, and it’s hard not to laugh when Hunter is running around saying, “It’s all medicinal. I have a card,” or at the notion of Pelfrey, all 6-foot-7, 230 pounds of him, dancing in the middle of a group of his teammates as a laser show takes place in the background. “I actually danced [and got] a lot of cheers, but I think they probably cheer for everything,” says the maligned starter, who is having his best season as a Twin. “I can’t imagine a 6-7 white guy being that good.”

“He doesn’t dance too much,” says Plouffe, beaming.

Why it works is that everyone on the team, except for Hunter of course, is a bad dancer. “It’s a ton of fun,” said Nolasco, another free agent signing who’s had his fair share of struggles, after picking up his 100th win.

“Dance moves are all right,” said Aaron Hicks, smirking. “What I learned in high school.”

“He took his shirt off and waved it in the air,” said Hunter, making fun of Hicks. “We got a lot of guys dancing, and we figured out a lot of guys cannot dance.”

While the post-game celebrations are unlikely to turn anyone into a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, it has allowed everyone to let their guard down. Plouffe, who came up as a shortstop in 2010, was converted to a third baseman that struggled at the hot corner before this season, has been able to joke around with the pitchers about his defense even though it is much improved. “I think I started at about an aluminum glove and then plastic and then I’ve moved my way up,” he says. “I still got a ways to go, but I’m improving, which is good.”

“He’s been unbelievable,” says Pelfrey. “I made a little joke, he might have started off with a plastic glove and every game he keeps moving up — he might even be at bronze right now. We’re working towards that gold glove.”

Plouffe admittedly has had his ups and downs in his major league career, and at times has become upset with criticism he got from fans, media and presumably his fellow players. “I mean, you hear it, but it’s not something I dwell on, because if baseball teaches you anything, it’s that if you fail, don’t give up,” he says. “Did I hear it? Sure. Did it deter me from working hard and believing in myself and being confident? No.”

Players have been outspoken about both their teammate’s strengths and weaknesses this season, something that has been taboo in year’s past. Things have always been congenial in the Twins locker room, but never this loose — at least not when the media are around. In the past, players deflected questions about one another if asked about a shortcoming, resorting to a select few stock answers. Now they are more honest than ever.

That’s the magic of a veteran like Hunter: After all, if a player is able to make a fool of himself in front of all his teammates with music blasting, lasers firing and smoke filling the room (and flowing into the manager’s office and the corridors of Target Field), why should he be embarrassed when he makes a mistake on the field? So what if the fans see it? The players know that they have each other’s backs, and that’s what counts.

It should be noted that Hunter did this on his own, and that new manager Paul Molitor could care less that he didn’t ask permission. “It was a nice surprise, kind of a little something different. I didn’t know that it would pick up steam, if you will,” he said (get it?). “It turned into a ritual as far as winning here was concerned, but I didn’t then, and I don’t have issues with it. It’s kind of them being able to establish their own thing that they do.”

Molitor could have been insecure as a first-year manager and cracked down on the practice, either because he was upset about all the smoke in his office, or because he thought Hunter was trying to undermine him in a power struggle. But Molitor and Hunter played together with the Twins and formed mutual trust. What Hunter is doing is good for the team, and therefore it’s not going to be questioned.

The whole ethos of the Twins is predicated on everyone doing their thing, and it comes from the top. General manager Terry Ryan says he won’t look at the player he’s going to draft with the No. 6 overall pick — he’ll just rely on his scouting reports. “I hate to break your heart. Who do you want me to go look at?” he asked the media. “You gotta pick and choose what you’re gonna see. If I go in there and don’t like him, am I going to go to the 12 scouts that have seen him and say, ‘We’re not taking him’?”

It’s not an uncommon practice for him — he only saw Tommy Milone pitch a few times before trading for him, for example — and it’s something that can easily be criticized: The Twins aren’t winning because their manager doesn’t know who the team is acquiring. But what it means is that he has faith in his scouts and in the protocol that they follow. Even with decisions regarding the 40-man roster, he’ll allow Molitor to have his say before the final decision is made. “I’m not that hard to work with,” he says. “There’s no unilateral moves in this organization, everybody’s gonna have a say. Ultimately it’s gonna land in my chair — somebody’s gotta make a decision.”

That is why he gets upset when national media covers his team. “I don’t particularly like a guy dictating our future that has never seen us play,” he said when informed that Grantland writer Michael Baumann questioned whether the Twins were for real this year. “You base your opinion on visual, plus statistics — that’s fair.”

I reached out to Baumann — whose article not only represents popular sentiment at a national level, but in the Twin Cities as well — to get his take. Baumann is very active on Twitter, and responded right away by saying he relied mostly on statistics, many of which aren’t very complicated, as well as his general knowledge of baseball. He also said Ryan probably wouldn’t say that the team’s start was all luck, while acknowledging that it is a small sample size and difficult to predict a team’s future at this point in the season.

“Well, if he was sitting here, we could talk to him and see what he thinks,” says Ryan, who meets with the media every day, of Baumann, who is quoted above, “but he’s not here and he wrote that, and he hasn’t seen us play, right? That would be like me taking an evaluation that’s never saw a guy play, he just read the stat page. I would call that invalid.”

The bottom line is that the Twins have to keep winning, and perception will change. Plouffe, who came up as a rookie in 2010 that was looking to please everyone around him, has now taken a leadership role with this team and remembers what it was like before the team collapsed, says that he gets the same feeling in this locker room as he had before. “This year we’re a little bit more of a dark horse, I guess you’d call it, which is fine for us,” he says. “But it is similar in that we show up to the field expecting to win every day.”

This post was originally published on the Cold Omaha section of 105TheTicket.com.
Tom Schreier can be heard at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays with Ben Holsen and Mike Morris and co-hosts a morning show 8-10 a.m. on Sundays.
@https://twitter.com/tschreier3

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