Commentary

Twins built on high-character players

Doing things the right way has, for a very long time, been a staple in Minnesota

Originally Published: May 9, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

There is a legendary story, parts of which perhaps are apocryphal, about former major league closer Billy Koch, who found out during a class at Clemson University that he had been taken in the first round of the June 1996 draft. He didn't finish the test; he flipped the exam on the professor's desk and, as he exited the room, said "See you in the big leagues, dude."

And then there's Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer. Eleven years ago, as he was taking a pre-calculus exam in his senior year at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, Va., he was informed that he had been drafted in the first round (ninth overall) by the Twins. He finished the exam; he went to the rest of his classes that day then celebrated later that night.

Michael Cuddyer
Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty ImagesMichael Cuddyer has been a member of the Twins for his entire professional career.

"It was a pre-calculus exam," Cuddyer said with a smile as he prepared for last Wednesday night's game against the Orioles. "There was no draft on TV back then, we knew the call was coming, so the principal came to my class, took me out of class to tell me that my mom was on the phone. And she told me I was taken by the Twins. After the call, I just figured I should go back to class. The class was required. I guess I could have taken it two days later, but I figured I'd make the most of it. That was a pretty big day at our school. We had another guy from our high school [John Curtice] who was drafted in the first round. He didn't go to school that day. He held a draft party at his house."

That story tells you all you need to know about Michael Cuddyer. He is the consummate professional, the ultimate character guy, the leader that teammates follow because he always does things the right way. In an era in which teams are constantly looking for quality guys, Cuddyer is one of the symbols of the Twins, who almost always do things the right way. Their players who don't -- such as second baseman Alexi Casilla, who loafed more than once recently, and didn't play smart, inspired baseball -- are sent to the minor leagues, or worse. The Twins have more high-character guys than any team in baseball, and it's no coincidence they're in contention every year despite being a small-market team.

"Michael comes from a long line of guys who had been here before, guys who knew what had to be given out there," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "Torii Hunter had that. Kirby [Puckett] had that. Kent Hrbek had that. It's about accountability. They all have that."

Twins catcher Joe Mauer has that.

"He's so gifted, but he's so humble," Gardenhire said. "Joe still likes to run with the guys he used to run with in high school. He has never lost his roots. He hasn't changed one bit from the first day I ever met him. He was the hometown hero, the No. 1 football and No. 1 baseball guy in the whole state, but he never changed who he is. That's hard to do."

Outfielder Denard Span has that. So does star closer Joe Nathan. So does star first baseman Justin Morneau. This spring, he forgot to run sprints after the first exhibition game. The next day, when Gardenhire went to his desk in his office in spring training, he found $100 and a note from Morneau that said: "I forgot to run sprints. So I'm fining myself."

When asked about the inciden two months later, Morneau had a sheepish look on his face. "I had a little help on that one," he said. "I forgot to run sprints. I was sitting in the [whirlpool] tub and [Cuddyer] came by and said, 'If you forgot to run your sprints, we'll run them for you.' So I fined myself. You can't expect other guys to do the right thing unless you do it also."

So it was Cuddyer who reminded Morneau about his memory loss. That comes as no surprise. Last season, it was Cuddyer who was charged with teaching the conduct of the Twins to new outfielder Delmon Young, who had had attitude issues with the then-Devil Rays. And it's Cuddyer who, after every Twins victory, presents a game ball to the star of the game. The star isn't always the guy who drove in five runs or threw seven shutout innings, but he did something -- maybe something small -- to help the team win that night. After Cuddyer's presentation, all the Twins players applaud.

"Cuddy is the nicest guy in the world," infielder Nick Punto said, "but he will try to kill you to break up the double play. He is an old-school guy. He's going to do the right thing all the time."

"For me, it all goes back to that day I was drafted," Cuddyer said. "I didn't know much about the Twins, but you know with this organization, it teaches and preaches playing the game the right way. They make a point here to run out every ground ball: a one-hopper to the pitcher, and you're running hard. Break up a double play to extend an inning, you do it."

With [the Twins] organization, it teaches and preaches playing the game the right way.

-- Michael Cuddyer

Cuddyer has other skills beyond hitting, playing right field and leading a team. He is a magician, a master of card tricks.

"The other day, he just blew my mind," said Twins broadcaster John Gordon. "I brought him two decks of cards. My cards. They had never been opened. I opened them and asked him to do a trick. I shuffled the cards five times. He laid out the cards and said, 'Pick a card.' I picked the eight of hearts. Then I put it back in the deck and shuffled six times. Then he said, 'Put your hand on top of mine.' In his hand he had the eight of hearts. 'This is your card,' he said. Amazing. It just blew my mind."

Cuddyer said he has been practicing magic since he was 10 years old "because I was always fascinated by tricks and pranks. I started doing it at summer basketball camps. Guys would teach me techniques. It has really helped me in baseball, too. I was 19 years old in my first big league camp [in 1999]. I was too afraid to talk to anyone. We had a lot of veteran players: [Terry] Steinbach, Puck [Puckett], [Ron] Coomer, [Paul] Molitor [were all] there. They were all playing cards one day and I walked past their table and said, 'Let me show you something.' I gathered their cards and did a couple of tricks. It was an icebreaker. It was a conversation starter. After that, they'd yell, 'Hey kid, show us a trick.'"

Said Punto: "[Cuddyer is] so good. He keeps coming up with new tricks if we've seen the other ones."

Cuddyer said he mainly does card tricks "because they don't involve props. That gets complicated. I used to have a trick where I would make knives stick through my feet."

That wouldn't have been as painful as one of the three injuries he suffered last year. On a head-first slide, he broke his right index finger to the point where it was pointing upward. "The worst part," he said, "was they had to go inside the finger and clean out all the dirt that was in there from the slide I'd made. That really hurt." But Cuddyer was back playing a few weeks later because, as always, it was the right thing to do.

So by the way, how did he do on that pre-calculus test the day he was drafted?

"I think the teacher threw it out; he didn't count it," Cuddyer said. "But I'm glad I stayed."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback last May. Click here to order a copy.