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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Do the Twins Place Too Much Emphasis on Player Personality?

One of the great things about the Twins' organization is that, if you are a fan and live within driving distance of the Twin Cities, you have many options throughout the year to meet the players. When I was in high school in 1997, Kirby Puckett and Al Newman came as part of the Twins' Caravan. I also remember seeing Chuck Knoblauch at the Twins' Pro Shop in Roseville during what would be his Rookie of the Year season in 1991. Back then, he was a nice, humble guy. In fact, I remember that the people in front of us had a newborn baby, and Knoblauch asked to hold the baby. How times changed for Knobbie. More recently, my wife and I attended the 2011 Justin Morneau Casino Night, which was a fundraiser for juvenile arthritis. Unlike the Pro Shop appearances, this event was not free, but, when all was said and done, it wasn't a whole lot more expensive than good tickets to a game at Target Field, parking, a few beers and some food. And, considering the Twins' 2011 on-the-field product, I probably fared better seeing that crew off-the-field. It seems like almost every player has their own charity stuff going on. There are plenty of opportunities for Twins' fans -- and they are mostly affordable opportunities -- to at least shake Denard Span's hand, or get a Joe Benson autograph on a Saturday morning in Roseville. It's a hallmark of the Twins' organization. And I can tell you firsthand from living in the New York and Boston media markets, that similar opportunities at similar price points are rare for Yankees and Red Sox fans. Good luck meeting David Ortiz, A-Rod or Derek Jeter, unless you are willing to fork over a lot of money.

When I attended last week's New Britain Rock Cats Hot Stove Luncheon, a comment made by Rock Cats' President & CEO Bill Dowling sort of surprised me. Dowling mentioned that when Terry Ryan or Bill Smith telephoned Dowling about players the Twins were thinking of calling up, one of the first questions was always, "what is the player like in the community?" In other words, as Dowling later elaborated, the front office was concerned with whether the player was active with the fans, was easy to deal with, and if he caused any trouble off the field. These are certainly valid inquiries, and it's something that many fans probably like to hear. But it got me thinking.

As long as I have been following the Twins, they have come across as a family-friendly organization. Almost as a rule, the players are always polite, and it's unusual to hear of a Twins player being arrested, or even suspected of illegal conduct. Clearly, along with the requisite baseball skills, the Twins' front office does have a concern that prospects will continue to represent the Twins in a positive light, and will not bring negative publicity to the team. Those are both laudable goals, and I can also understand that negative press would be bad for the bottom line.

But I wonder, over the years, which players the Twins have passed on (mostly via trade, I suppose), citing probable personality issues. Is it possible that, for example, in 2008, the organization could have made a trade for a jerk of a player that would have made the team just one game better, thus avoiding a Game 163 loss? Is it possible that the Twins have passed on a good draft pick because of personality issues? It's tough to imagine that, if it came down to it, the organization would be worried more about clubhouse culture and family friendliness than it would with the bottom line of putting a winning team on the field, but it's at least interesting.

The team is very quick to deal away perceived bad apples, such as Kyle Lohse and Kevin Slowey. Are they equally as quick to avoid dealing for players that are rough around the edges? For my money, anyway, I'd rather have a couple jerks on the team that can hit .300 and play good defense, than I would a team very nice young men who play "Twins style baseball," but can't turn on a major league fastball. Clubhouse culture is certainly important, and there's no denying that. But the Twins take a big risk by perhaps over-relying on a player's personality when it comes to drafting, calling up, and trading players. What do you think? Do the Twins over-emphasize being "nice guys," or can they in fact have it both ways?


  1. Totally agree. Add Delmon and Garza to the list too. And this is somewhat of a late phenomenon. Back in the days of the 2 world championships, they were fine with having "characters" around. Even signed one of the most unfriendly players out there (Jack Morris). I suspect that when their field product was not that great, they started the Minnesota nice thing... Kinda of a shame, if you ask me.

  2. The team's "personality" has seemed "vanilla" to me for a number of years but I really thought of it more in terms of clubhouse peace than in terms of "fan friendliness" -- thanks for putting a little different spin on it for me.

    I have longed to see a few "bad boys" on the team. Not felons but a little more controversial. When Danny Valencia is the "edgiest" personality on the team, it all seems pretty blah.

    I understand creating a team that presents a Minnesota nice personality but frankly, I don't believe that fan-friendliness should be a job requirement. Not everyone is -- or should have to be -- comfortable pressing the flesh. There are 25 roster spots. Surely 15-20 vanilla types should be enough leaving room for 5-10 diverse personalities.

    And yes, I do believe that recent Twins teams have lacked leaders with a burning desire to win.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys. Morris, Garza and Young are perfect examples. There were plenty of other gritty players back in the 80s and 90s, too. Forget what you think of Dan Gladden as a broadcaster, but he wasn't a pushover as a player by any means.

  4. Where is it written that a guy with good character can't play ball with an edge? They are two totally different issues and you don't need to sacrifice one to get the other.

    I think the Twins get too much criticism for this. Of course character matters. It's also been stressed from the moment a player is signed/drafted and shows up in Ft. Myers for the first time. Given that it's explained as being a factor in their evaluation right up front, any player that ignores that aspect and is a pain in the ass to deal with off the field in AA shouldn't be shocked when other players get promoted ahead of him.

    You can't just say, "well we have 15-20 guys who will do the community work, so these other 5-10 don't have to." How long do you think the 15-20 will continue if they see others getting away without it? Sure there are exceptions for practical reasons. You can't have your stars at every event so you have to prioritize and you can't put young players who don't speak English well at all out there alone. But everyone has to do a share or you've got clubhouse and community problems. That may not matter in some markets, but if you think it doesn't or wouldn't matter in Minnesota, you're kidding yourself.

    That doesn't mean you overemphasize it on a one-year rental of an established veteran player (which is essentially what Morris was), but when you're evaluating who you want to develop in to a long-term part of your organization, yes it matters.

    You make a not-so-positive reference to Knaublach and the way he changed. But if fans and the team shouldn't care about character, why should he have been sent packing and why should fans still hold a grudge? It certainly shouldn't be because of his contribution on the field. I suspect the experience with Knaublach may actually be an example of why the organization DOES emphasize character now.

    I think anyone who doesn't think "chemistry" or "character" should matter has never had to spend 8 months/year in close quarters with people who lack in that area. If there's a jerk in my office who doesn't have to carry his part of the load, I just have to work with him/her well enough to get through my 8-9 hour day. It's not the same thing for a ballclub. You don't have to love everyone. There can be people you aren't crazy about. But a couple of people who think the rules/expectations don't apply to them WILL end up having an effect on the field and I think the Twins are smart to take personality in to account.

  5. Good points, JC, and thanks for the comment. I do think the Twins are smart to take personality into account -- I don't think anyone who reads this blog and is a baseball fan thinks that you can have a team entirely composed of selfish jerks, and that they can get along and be productive through 162 games and a playoff run. Life, and baseball, don't work that way.

    I believe that you can have it both ways, and if being active in the community is part of the work the Twins create for their minor leaguers (just like working out at the gym and running to strengthen their legs), it's fair to evaluate in part based on that. I'm curious whether that's something the Twins really try to "mold" into their prospects' minds? Do they draft some guys who are complete jerks, and figure that they can turn them around? I suspect the answer is "yes," and that many guys in rookie ball might fall into that category. I just hope that the Twins are not too averse to signing a prospect that is a jerk, or making a trade for a guy that could really help the team on the field, solely because the organization is worried about potential chemistry problems.

    I don't hold a grudge on Knoblauch. Admittedly, I was 16 when he left the Twins and was probably pretty harsh on him then. Now, as I've aged, I definitely think he should be up for election in the Twins Hall of Fame for his on-the-field contributions. He left a sinking ship, some people can't get over that, and he left it in a not great way when he publicly asked to be traded. I wouldn't say that he was "sent packing," though. I would say that he had packed his bags and asked the Twins for a ticket elsewhere. I guess that is an example of what can come with players like that