The spring training from which the Twins were dispersed last weekend bore no resemblance to those that were undertaken in Orlando, and only marginal resemblance to what it was as recently as the mid-2010s in Fort Myers.
Clark Griffith first moved the Washington Senators’ spring training to Orlando in 1936, then a sleepy Central Florida town with sand roads said to be not far from downtown. The Griffiths remained loyal to Orlando through the sale to Carl Pohlad in September 1984, and there were six more springs at Tinker Field before the move to new facilities in The Fort in February 1991.
There were three World War II years – 1943-1945 – when spring training was held in College Park, Md., and in total, the Senators/Twins were in Orlando for 52 years.
The excitement level over getting major league baseball impacted all Minnesota age groups, and the first real news on the 1961 Twins came in dispatches in the Twin Cities dailies from this little-known place called Orlando.
The Minneapolis Morning Tribune and afternoon Star were delivered daily in Fulda, Minn. and we would soak up every paragraph of Twins’ detail offered by the reporters on the scene – including Tribune columnist Sid Hartman when he made his visit to the scene of this drama.
Yes, drama. In 1961, and for years to follow, there was drama for hardcore baseball fans in what was happening in spring training. There were jobs to be won, and searches for spring ‘’phenoms’’ to take place.
The Twins were 70-90 that first season, but we were in the big leagues, and Camilo Pascual would strike out 221 to lead the American League, and Harmon Killebrew (26 in June) would hit 46 home runs, and the expansion of the second deck of Met Stadium would be completed during the season, and that was plenty to celebrate.
Over the next nine years, the Twins were 817-640 (.561), with an AL pennant, the first two AL West titles, seasons of 102, 98 and 97 wins, two more with 91, and the AL’s highest average attendance for that first decade in Minnesota (1961-70).
A pair of those phenoms we heard about in communiques from Orlando proved to be all of that: Tony Oliva, lauded in eariier springs, was the Rookie of the Year and batting champ in 1964 (and 1965), and Rod Carew, out of the low minors, was the Rookie of the Year in 1967.
The hard times started in 1971. Attendance plummeted. My first spring on the beat for the St. Paul newspapers was 1974. There was labor trouble and rumors that Calvin Griffith and the Twins could be headed to Seattle, for a fresh start and to help settle that city’s lawsuit against the American League for its one-and-done stay with the expansion Pilots in 1969.
The Twins were desperate for some good news to emanate from Orlando. It wasn’t easy to offer up Sergio Ferrer, a 5-foot-7 shortstop taken in the Rule 5 draft, as an agent for hope, but the scribes on hand tried.
Mostly, we wound up sending back reports of ineptitude. The Twins were 5-22 in exhibitions.
Wins and losses are so unimportant today that teams happily end games in a tie after nine innings. The Twins had three of those this spring (last time I looked).
That wasn’t the case in 1974. All the gloom of spring helped produce a full-season home attendance of 662,401 – an average of 8,603. And that was for a team that went 82-80.
Rod Carew won the batting title at .364; Bert Blyleven won 17 games, pitched 281 innings and had an ERA of 2.65; Bobby Darwin hit 25 home runs and drove in 94; Joe Decker won 16 games and pitched almost 250 innings; and Soupy Campbell pitched 120 innings as the closer.
That should have been the lesson – way back 46 years ago – that what happens in spring training stays in spring training.
We were slow learners. Plus, we needed copy to send home. The search for spring phenoms, the hot prospect or the born-again veteran who was going to force his way onto the team, remained annual.
In 1985, we turned to Tom Klawitter, a 27-year-old lefthander who had pitched at UW-LaCrosse, and came to spring training as a non-roster invitee. He got out a few hitters, and we started writing about “The Klaw." Manager Billy Gardner brought him into an exhibition one day by making a claw sign with a hand, and Klaw updates became a daily feature.
In one appearance, Klawitter started by getting an easy out, and around the near corner of the dugout, only a Gardner hand in the form of a claw was visible.
I’m not sure what we loved more – The Klaw himself or Gardner’s fun with it – but Klawitter making the Opening Day roster was a triumph for spring training hype. Sadly, he blew out his elbow early in that season, and was soon done in pro baseball.
(Note: Stay tuned. More on The Klaw is anticipated in our baseball-free weeks that lie ahead).
We had another worthy phenom in Pat Mahomes (now known as Pat Sr.) in 1992, when he blazed his way into the season-opening rotation as a 21-year-old for the defending World Series champions.
And who can forget Chris Colabello, as recently as 2014 … failed in a brief trial a year earlier, barging his way into the DH role that spring, and driving in 30 runs in April before reality set in?
Yup, it was that recently important jobs could be won in spring, although admittedly it was during a desultory and desperate period for the Twins. Of course, in the spring of 2017 the Twins were coming off an all-time worst 59-103, and Byung Ho Park had a tremendous Grapefruit League.
The new decisionmakers in the Falvey front office declined to add him to the big-league roster in the final hours in Florida.
That was a shock to gathered media, a shock in the clubhouse, but the big brains were correct: Park didn’t have the bat speed to hit in the big leagues, didn’t hit much in Class AAA, either, and has returned to success in the Korea Baseball Organization.
At long last, the Park case made it clear:
Try as one might to find it, there is little drama to be discovered between the lines in exhibition games, unless it’s an injury. It’s what happens when the iPads get together in meetings. It’s about what is a player's BMI, not his OBP in 35 plate appearances.
The best you're going to get is a Ryne Harper (2019) making the roster as a reliever -- with his curveball, not with hype.
There were a couple of phenoms this spring, by the way:
Alex Kirilloff, 22, and Trevor Larnach, 23, both former No. 1 draft choices, both left-handed hitting outfielders – "wow'' on both, but since neither was going to make the club, we couldn’t go to the hard sell for the upcoming season, as occurred so often in the past.
I mean, David McCarty, dang we wanted him right out of the chute in 1993.