In a major league clubhouse, where you dress often means more than how you dress.
That Michael Cuddyer asked for and inherited Torii Hunter’s old locker in the Minnesota Twins clubhouse, midway down the righthand wall, is hardly happenstance, though Cuddyer tried to joke his way out of the significance.
“It’s just bigger, this one and Joe Nathan’s,” Cuddyer said. With apologies to Frank Lloyd Cuddyer, they don’t appear any larger than the other cubicles. But the lockers flank the entrance to the showers, and with an empty locker to Cuddyer’s left, that area isn’t as crowded as other sections of the room.
If you’ve watched, read or listened to any media this winter, you can surmise that Cuddyer didn’t luck into this locker because he knows card tricks and overtips the clubhouse staff.
With Hunter gone, Cuddyer gets the ‘sound bite’ spotlight
With Hunter gone, the Twins need the smart, well-spoken Cuddyer to be the voice and face of the franchise, even more so than Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Mauer is too soft-spoken for the role, and Morneau too much of a goofball. Cuddyer has a quick smile, handles himself well in interviews, and — most importantly for the Twins — never criticizes management for cheapness or stupidity. Not yet, anyway.
The Twins like Cuddyer so much they included him in their first TV commercial this winter, the one where he and Mauer and Morneau take batting practice at the new stadium construction site, even though at the time of filming Cuddyer wasn’t guaranteed to be a Twin when the joint opened in 2010.
Until agreeing to a three-year deal in January, Cuddyer was on track for free agency after the 2009 season. But the Twins knew Cuddyer liked it here and appeared signable, with Hunter, Carlos Silva and eventually Johan Santana off the payroll.
Expect Cuddyer to become the media’s go-to guy, the one who stands at his locker after bad days or tough losses to speak for the team while everyone else hides in the lunchroom. But Cuddyer needs to be more than that, whether he admits to it or not.
Among everyday players, Cuddyer is the last link to the 2002 team that won the first of the four division titles in five seasons. (Recalled that July, he was the starting right fielder by October.) Cuddyer, who first came up in 2001, and Juan Rincon are the only current Twins who played for the irascible Tom Kelly, a sticker for fundamentals who coddled no one.
“Everybody quotes The Twins’ Way, but it’s really simple,” Cuddyer said. “Try to play the game as it was meant to be played, stick up for your teammates, and don’t show anybody up. That’s the way.”
But some never figure it out, like Alexi Casilla, who went from primo prospect to stiff in the time it took to get thrown out going from second to third on a ground ball to shortstop.
To compete, team must return to solid fundamentals
Kelly’s Twins excelled at things that more-recent Twins teams repeatedly botched — bunting, hitting behind the runner, taking extra bases, all attempts to manufacture runs. And with so many new players from other organizations, the teaching is ongoing.
“We talk about it. We preach it. These are things we have to do,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We misfired a lot last year.”
Last September, Hunter called Cuddyer the last hard-nosed player produced by the Twins farm system in the mold of the 2002 group. Cuddyer’s defensive fundamentals are sound; he keeps his throws low and rarely, if ever, misses a cutoff man despite owning one of the best arms in the American League.
Because the Twins lag behind the AL Central Division contenders offensively, manufacturing runs will be vital. That’s where Cuddyer can show leadership.
In Monday night’s season opener, amid the splash of Carlos Gomez’s debut, the Twins twice manufactured runs to snatch a 3-2 victory from the Angels. Delmon Young’s steal of second led to a run in the fourth inning. And in the fifth, Mauer advanced Gomez from second to third with a ground ball for the second time in the game, setting up Cuddyer’s punched RBI single through a drawn-in infield. Cuddyer owed the Twins one. Two innings earlier, he failed to drive in Gomez from third with one out and the middle infield playing back, instead watching a called third strike.
“I wish I could have gotten the job done the first time,” Cuddyer said.
He’ll have more chances, especially batting third between Mauer and Morneau. Cuddyer and Young, who batted fifth on Monday, may eventually switch spots. But for the Twins to get back to their old style, they’ll need the guy in Hunter’s old locker to show the kids and the newbies how to do it, just as Kirby Puckett showed Hunter.