"I liked him. He snapped the ball out in left field, a rocket. Really quick feet over there, quick action. A live body, for sure. Took some good rips up there.” Twins Manager Ron Gardenhireon his one-game fill-in Eduardo Nunez. Nunez is normally an infielder, and was purchased from the New York Yankees because of his greater proficiency as a hitter over the incumbent Twins SS, Pedro Florimon. Time is likely ticking on the Florimon Era as the starter.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Phenoms of Minnesota Twins Springs Past: Part I

Luke Hughes.  Kyle Gibson.  Scott Diamond. Just a few new names we Twins fans have heard bandied about this spring of 2011. This post and the ones to follow highlight some past Twins who either performed admirably in spring training, or caught on with the club early in the season.

Some "kicked up the dust," and flourished...while some wilted like daisies in the hot summer sun, from the pressures of big league ball.

Jimmie Hall, 1963: Southern Fried Slugger 
He was the fleet center fielder with a sweet, whiplash swing from the left side. He was the first, real "tools" player (speed, power) to come up in the Twins' system in the early 1960's. He was sort of a Mickey Mantle character, Minnesota version, with his skill set and southern drawl.

1964 Topps Card
Jimmie Hall was 25 when he impressed the Twins in the '63 camp.  He'd been in the minors for parts of 7 seasons, and had finished his stint in the reserves in '62. Lenny Green had been the veteran in center field for the club, and knew by the middle of June that the fleet Hall would be taking his spot. He was just a country kid, really, from Mount Holly, SC. You can imagine it was a kind of a place with Sheriffs like Andy Taylor and greasy spoon restaurants, a place where you couldn't swing a Louisville Slugger without hitting an Aunt Bee or drunk Otis Campbell character. He disliked big cities, a la, Hibbing, Minnesota native Roger Maris. That he played at Metropolitan Stadium must have been O.K. with him, as it was basically located in what had been a cornfield.

When Green went down with an injury in June, Hall was inserted into the starting lineup, and began knocking the cover off the ball. He hit .322 that month with 5 jacks, then only .233 but 7 HR's in July, caught fire with 13 bombs, 27 RBI and .333 in August, and finished off the year in September with another 6 homers. Not bad stuff -31 homers, .273 batting average, with 77 ribbies, .354 OBP & slugged .556.

Here's a wonderful clip of Jimmie batting against Don Drysdale in the 1965 World Series:


While he had three more fine seasons with Minnesota, it was always claimed that his May, 1964 beaning (link: Mar. 23, 1967 Milwaukee Sentinel) made him tentative against lefty throwers.   Actually, his line against them wasn't impressive previously, having only hit 1 homer pre-injury, and four lifetime (see Jason Kubel (10, through 2010) and Jacque Jones (21) lifetime for comparison). Just as crucial, perhaps, was his collision with Bob Allison that made him less aggressive going back to the wall for deep drives. He called it a career in 1970 with the Braves.

Sergio Ferrer, 1974: not ready for primetime...
Custom Made 1974 Ferrer Topps
Twins Cards Autographs section
Sergio Ferrer was basically the clubhouse janitor who masqueraded his way onto the major league stage. That is to say, he was a sham of a major league player for most of his time in the show. He was Chico Esquala, the fictional, comedic, Latin middle infielder popularized by Garret Morris on Saturday Night Live, before anybody had ever heard the name. He impressed the Twins brass during spring training competition, where his AA background looked to be more than adequate against the usual collection of green prospects and rusty veterans.

The Twins had selected him as a Rule 5 draftee on Dec. 3, 1973, from the Dodgers farm system.  Essentially, Calvin Griffith and company had grown dissatisfied with incumbent shortstop Danny Thompson. Thompson had produced a .225/.259/.282 line (batting, on base, slugging) line in '73, and it had to give the Twins pause, especially with his leukemia woes factored in. The Twins, with Ferrar's minor league stat sheet in front of them, saw this: a .297 BA, and a .397 OBP, with 44 steals in two seasons. I remember hearing the spring training games carried by WCCO radio out of Minneapolis, feeling thrilled whenever the little Puerto Rican reached base, anticipating he'd use his speed to swipe another bag.  And when he started the season as Manager Frank Quilici's lead off man, he batted .281 in 20 games, showing that speed alright...

Problem was, the Twins had neglected to scan the defensive side of his rap sheet: 70 errors in two seasons previous in A and AA ball.  Sure enough, when he had to field the ball, Ferrer didn't disappoint: at the start of '74, he committed 9 errors in 62 chances, a span of 125 innings. That's an .855 fielding percentage in 20 games (14 where he was the starter), while the league shortstops average was .969. Things had not "been berry, berry good..."


That's just plain loco, amigo!

By May 12, the "Sergio Ferrer Era" was mercifully over, as it marked the last time that year he would start at shortstop for the Twins. By the end of May, he was at AAA Tacoma, probably sent over in a spare bat bag to save cheap Calvin Griffith some air fare. There, he continued his pattern of savage butchery (a mere 29 errors in 79 games, .924 Fld%). The Twins tried their luck afterward with a revolving door of infield candidates, including Thompson, Luis Gomez, Jerry Terrell and Eric Soderholm. Dick Nixon could only wish he was given as quiet a burial in that stormy summer of '74. Sergio resurfaced with the hapless, late '70's New York Mets, where he found a home as Ed Kranepool's designated pinch runner.

Eric Milton, 1998: Centerpiece of Yankee trade for Chuck whats-his-name?
In the six seasons since the 1991 Championship, 2B Chuck Knoblauch had gone from an image of being the finest all-American overachiever who ever had his cheeks pinched by adoring grandmothers, to being a trade-demanding megalomaniac.  The Twins found suckers takers for his services in the New York Yankees [cue evil dictator laugh here].

The ransom they had to pay for his services turned into the most celebrated trade and transaction for the Twins in the decade of the 1990's: Brian Buchanan, Cristian Guzman, Eric Milton, Danny Mota and $3M came Minnesota's way on Feb. 6, 1998.

1999 Topps Rookie card
It was with no small joy for Twins fans that Milton was given a spot on the roster after his first spring fling with the Twins - he had discernible talent, which gave the fan base instant hope- a commodity that had become non-existent in a relatively short span of time. Pitchers like Rich Robertson, Scott Klingenbeck, and players like Scott Stahoviak and David McCarty had come to symbolize the decay and general malaise of a franchise (or like that same, inebriated Otis stumbling upon and flipping off the happy birthday kids party with his coarseness and rude flatulence). They were part of the slow building steam of resurgence for the Twins of the early 2000's that would blow the lid off the sham and lie that was contraction between the seasons of 2001 and 2002.

With that in mind, it's probably not too much of an exaggeration to claim Milton and his cohorts, specifically Guzman, were part of the most important trade in franchise history. The franchise's fate may have tipped another way if not for that. Of course, we'll never know.  Milton's 15-25 won-loss record over his first two seasons then became secondary, what with the legitimacy and talent (like the young Frank Viola) he brought to the pitching staff. A point of contention: Milton's Sept.11, 1999 no-hitter against the Anaheim Angels is downgraded for the low grade lineup he faced while Johnny Vander Meer's 1938 no-hitter (the second of two consecutive gems) against a very undistinguished Brooklyn Dodger lineup is given no such scrutiny or back-handed praise. With his career seemingly over at this point we owe him - and the Knobber - a salute in gratitude (uh, not that salute - the classy, respectful one).

We'll return later with more Twins phenoms.
Until then, as Herb used to say: "...and the count rides along."
TT

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