Martin Perez had decided to sign with the Twins as a free agent when he had a conversation with General Manager Thad Levine. The two knew each other from their time together with the Texas Rangers.
Perez asked Levine a question: What do you want from me? The answer surprised him.
“I want you to be comfortable,” Levine said.
Fair to say that condition — comfortable — best describes the vibe inside the Twins clubhouse these days.
Winning makes everyone happy and owning the best record in Major League Baseball creates a fun work environment. Behind the scenes, the Twins are a loose, confident group with a chemistry that reflects their on-field success.
The clubhouse is a stress-free zone.
“The more relaxed you are in theory, the more comfortable you play,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “You don’t have to be worried about making mistakes. You don’t have to worry about anything. The less that’s on their minds, the better it is we’ll play.”
Quantifying clubhouse dynamics is a tricky discussion. Does winning improve chemistry, or does strong chemistry help create success? It’s impossible to know for sure, but the Twins certainly seem to have the right mix of personalities and leadership fueling their remarkable start.
“We’ve added some veteran presence, but we’ve also added personalities that mesh well,” starter Kyle Gibson said.
Derek Falvey and Levine did a better job this offseason of identifying veteran free agents who are positive influences on the field and in the clubhouse after a failed experiment last season. Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, Marwin Gonzalez, C.J. Cron and Perez have galvanized the clubhouse with leadership that is beneficial for young players.
Baldelli’s managerial style is the antithesis of rigid. He doesn’t stand at the clubhouse door looking at his watch to see when players arrive every day. I’m not sure he even cares what time players get to the stadium, as long as they are focused and prepared at first pitch.
Baldelli is not big on rules. He only asks that players compete hard, respect each other and be accountable.
“We’re letting a bunch of adults be themselves,” bench coach Derek Shelton said. “When you get that, you get a good culture.”
Knowing his team has a large group of Latin American players, Baldelli asked the team’s translator Elvis Martinez to sit in the dugout to make sure his Spanish-speaking players understand instructions completely from the coaching staff. Every decision, Baldelli said, is intended to make players comfortable.
“That’s why we’re winning and why we have a good team — we don’t have any pressure,” Perez said. “We are a family and if you feel like you want to do something [in the clubhouse], do it. If you want to sleep in front of everybody, sleep. Who cares?”
The relievers have a daily contest tied to the team’s home run derby. Relievers predict when a Twins hitter will smash a home run by throwing their hat on the ground. If the hitter comes through, the reliever gets the pot. [Entry fee is $100 per reliever].
“It keeps us involved in the game whenever we are sitting out there for nine innings with nothing to do,” closer Blake Parker said. “It keeps our head in the game and it’s fun, too, to keep a tally and see who is doing the best.”
Relievers get one hat toss per game. Witnesses are required. Relievers sitting in the bullpen win tiebreaker over guys watching from the clubhouse if they pick the same player in the same at-bat.
Parker said reliever Mike Morin has won four times, mostly by picking Cron.
“Cron’s been lighting it up for him,” Parker said. “Him and Cron are boys so he’s been throwing on Cron all day.”
Think this team is loose? Baldelli said he’s trying to create the “lowest stress environment possible.” This is Gibson’s seventh season with the organization at the major-league level and he believes the clubhouse chemistry is “probably about as good as I’ve seen it.”
“Winning seems to solve everything,” he said.