Commentary

Twins thrive with team-first philosophy

Despite payroll limitations, the Twins remain consistently competitive

Originally Published: February 27, 2009
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- When Twins manager Ron Gardenhire returned to his office after his team's first exhibition of the season Wednesday, he saw a note on his desk from first baseman Justin Morneau. It read: "Gardy, I forgot to do my sprints after the workout today. So I am fining myself $100.''

Gardenhire laughed. "That's entertaining,'' he said.

Then he stopped laughing. "That's leadership,'' he said.

[+] EnlargeRon Gardenhire, left, and Justin Morneau, center
AP Photo/Steven SenneJustin Morneau, center, has learned a lot from Ron Gardenhire over the years.

That story tells an awful lot about Morneau, who won the American League MVP award in 2006 and finished in the top five in the MVP voting this past season. It also tells a lot about Gardenhire, who is so respected in the Twins' clubhouse that one of the two best players on the team volunteered $100 for forgetting to run sprints. But mostly, it tells a lot about the Twins. They do it the right way, which isn't corny and isn't trite; it's the truth. And it is the biggest reason they came within one victory of making the playoffs last season despite having lost Torii Hunter to free agency, having had to trade the best pitcher in the game, Johan Santana, to the Mets, and not having their best starting pitcher, Francisco Liriano, for half the season.

In this era of self-entitlement among players, the Twins have none of that.

"It is drilled into them the first day they arrive in pro ball,'' Gardenhire said. "Our coaches and instructors make sure of that.''

Last spring, veteran pitcher Livan Hernandez joined the Twins. In his first pitcher fielding practice, he was going through the motions, not doing the drill properly, not bringing his glove to his chest and then throwing straight through to the bases, as the Twins teach it. Instead, he was flipping the ball submarine style to first base. After the workout, Gardenhire called Hernandez into his office and explained that there were a lot of young, impressionable players in camp and that he needed Hernandez to do things properly because that's how the Twins have always done it. He also told Hernandez that he would have to no longer wear big earrings.

The next day, without his earrings, "Livo did the drill better than anyone,'' Gardenhire said.

That story explains how the Twins were able to win 88 games last season. It explains how they finished 29th in the major leagues in home runs but finished fourth in runs scored. (In contrast, the Reds finished seventh in the major leagues in homers and 23rd in runs). The Twins had the highest batting average (.305) with runners in scoring position last season in part because they practice it every day of the season in batting practice. The same thing is done every day on every level of their minor league system.

This is not how it works in other places. We'll leave out the names, but a manager recently said that accumulated fines -- $25 or $50 each -- for his star player reached $900, but the player refused to pay. The second-best player on the team owed $400, but he wouldn't pay because the star hadn't paid. A third player refused to pay his $350 because the best player and the second-best player refused to pay. Morneau reported and paid his fine voluntarily.

We'll also leave the names out of this one, but consider this story from last season. An AL manager asked one of his best pitchers to go to the batting cage to practice bunting since interleague games were fast approaching. The pitcher gave him the throat-cut sign, meaning he wasn't going to do it, and said his hand was bothering him and bunting would make it worse. "Do you think you could get a bunt down if you had to right now?'' the manager asked. The pitcher responded, "Maybe I can, and maybe I can't.''

Gardenhire sighed.

"We would have fought,'' he said, if that give-and-take had happened with him.

Gardenhire takes none of the credit for the discipline of his club. Instead, he credits the organization for all of it. When the young Twins players get to the big leagues, they know what is expected of them.

"It's nice having TK [former Twins manager Tom Kelly] here and Paul Molitor and Rod Carew,'' Gardenhire said. "It makes things work so much better.''

Then Gardenhire smiled.

"I got a call the other day; this voice on the other end said, 'Ron, this is Harmon Killebrew,'" Gardenhire said. "He said, 'I'm coming down soon, just wanted to let you know.' I got a call from Harmon Killebrew! How great is that?''

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 in May. Click here to order a copy.