The Minnesota Twins miss their naked teammate.
For five years, whenever the Twins slipped into a deep funk, Mike Redmond(notes), all 200 sloppy pounds of him, would put on batting gloves, socks and shoes – nothing else – and head down to the batting cage for a session of slump-busting nude batting practice. During his 13-year career as a backup catcher, Redmond's ability to send a clubhouse into convulsions of laughter was every bit as valuable as his on-field contributions, which even he'll admit were sparing.
The joy disappeared from the Twins clubhouse in April. And as they head to Chicago hoping to jump-start their season, they do so as the worst team in baseball: 9-18, outscored by a staggering 64 runs, walking too many, striking out too few, porous on defense, punchless on offense and desperate enough that a joke about signing Redmond to a one-day, naked-BP-mandatory contract didn't seem like such a bad idea.
"I did it in Florida originally and we went on to win the World Series," Redmond, now manager for the Class-A Lansing Lugnuts, said by phone Tuesday. "Whenever I look back not only my career but when we were playing the best, we were having the most fun. We were relaxed, joking around, ragging on each other. We never allowed ourselves to take each other too seriously.
"You've got to sit back sometime and say at the end of the day, it's a fun game. In Little League, win lose or draw, all you're concerned about is whether you get to go to McDonald's after the game."
There were no Happy Meals for the Twins in April, and happy meals were few and far between. It marked the worst month for the franchise since a 7-21 September in 1999. Leg weakness sent Joe Mauer(notes) to the disabled list. Shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka(notes) broke his leg trying to turn a double play. Francisco Liriano(notes) looks like a No. 1 starter – for a Triple-A team. Justin Morneau(notes) finished April homerless before hitting one May 1, the same night Kansas City finished a three-game sweep in which it outscored the Twins 25-8.
Most harrowing was the eighth inning of the second game, a never-ending monstrosity that featured eight Kansas City runs with two outs, a bases-loaded walk, an error, a wild pitch, a hit by pitch, a pair of infield singles, a double and a home run. They lost 11-2 thanks to the decidedly un-Twins-like inning, one full of fundamental errors so rare to an organization that prides itself on playing the proper way.
"We haven't deviated from it," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We just haven't gotten it done. We still believe in our system and in what we do."
For years, the Twins abided by the breed-and-pray ethos of other low-revenue franchises. And they did it better than any team. The Oakland A's worship of objective analysis made for a better narrative, but no small-market team succeeded like Minnesota: six division titles over the last nine seasons. Now, with Target Field a veritable ATM, they're no longer among baseball's poor. Their $112.7 million opening day payroll was baseball's ninth highest, more than three times the Royals'.
Have the riches made them soft? Of course not. For a group so used to not losing, however, a month-long stretch of ineptitude does a number on the psyche. On the night of the brutal inning, Gardenhire called a postgame meeting. He hates meetings, so he tried to keep it short and sweet: They were playing like … well, you know. He's not going to take anymore of this … yeah. And that was that. He asked if anyone else had something to say.
Denard Span(notes) stood up. His teammates stared in shock. The 27-year-old took over center field when Torii Hunter(notes), another practitioner of BP in the flesh, left via free agency, and as magnanimous as Hunter was, Span is introverted. Even he was surprised.
"I kind of blacked out," Span said.
He started talking. The rest of the Twins sat rapt. Span's words were inspiring, particularly thanks to his avoidance of curse words. Span doesn't swear, and so his final line to his teammates is likely to find its way onto T-shirts that will circulate the clubhouse if the Twins turn things around.
"I said, 'This is bull … junk,' " Span said. "I came close. I think if we would've lost 15-2, I would've cussed."
That night, Span couldn't sleep. He thought about teams of the past and what these Twins were missing, how a group that didn't lose a single core player could look so different from last year's 94-win team.
"In the past we had those guys that did the silly stuff to keep us loose," Span said. "Guys who make you feel like you're not at work. Sometimes it gets kind of monotonous, just being here every day. Especially when things are going hard."
He meant reliever Matt Guerrier(notes) and utilityman Nick Punto(notes) and second baseman Orlando Hudson(notes) and even Redmond, who left the Twins after the 2009 season. On one hand, Gardenhire said, "they've got to be able to play. You can't have a team full of comedians that can't play. You'd be 9-17."
Because it's so impossible to quantify the value of chemistry, or how a particular player will fit into a clubhouse, or anything trying to make the subjective into objective, striking a balance while putting together a team is among the more difficult aspects of team-building. General managers usually know who can hit for average or power, who can field and run, who can throw hard fastballs and sliders for strikes. Knowing how 25 men will mesh, and who can rescue them from themselves during low times, is infinitely more difficult.
"I think there's a lot more to it when you don't have a guy who can make everyone laugh," said Redmond, who this week has exchanged text messages about Minnesota's strife with Twins veteran Michael Cuddyer(notes). "They're finding that out right now. People underestimate your bench and the guys that like to have fun and the chemistry aspect. That's part of it. Sometimes you take for granted that aspect when you don't have it and you really miss it when you don't."
It's not the minor leagues, where Gardenhire could shake things up by having his players draw the batting order from a hat, and he's not going to turn into Ozzie Guillen and perform a daily standup routine in the clubhouse. The best the Twins can hope is talent and time will prevail.
"When it's all said and done, we're going to be fine. There's too much talent in this clubhouse, even now, for us to continue to play the way we're playing."
In 2006, the Twins started 9-15 and were outscored by 51. On June 7, they were 25-33. Then they won 21 of their next 23 and finished on a 71-33 jag. Sometimes it takes time to coalesce. The Twins aren't dead yet. They just need to awaken from this coma and start running and catching and pitching and hitting.
- Mike Redmond