Reusse: Buxton is back in center field. If he stays there, watch out

FORT MYERS, FLA. – Followers of sports teams have a tendency to heap criticism on an athlete missing substantial action with injuries, and those critics have been known to include members of traditional media.

Evidence of that surfaced again when Joe Mauer, with a blue-collar upbringing in St. Paul and a career spent fully with the Twins organization, became a first-ballot Hall of Famer on Jan. 23.

There were still those ornery Minnesotans who chose to remember the unfortunate description offered to manager Ron Gardenhire in mid-April 2011 in Tampa, Fla. — Joe was out with "bilateral leg weakness" — rather than Mauer's greatness as a catcher.

If a St. Paul kid getting baseball's ultimate honor can be derided years later for games missed, it's not a surprise there are Minnesotans of a mind to send barbs toward Byron Buxton, a son of the South and missing much more often than not from center field in recent times.

I'm sure a few one-liners on Buxton's absences can be found on my résumé, but the true question is this:

Do we really think an athlete such as Byron Buxton, a big-time college recruit as a running back if he had chosen to take that route, doesn't want to be out there as the most wide-ranging center fielder in baseball?

Do you really think the injuries not involving fractures have been overplayed by the former Platinum Glove winner as the best defender playing any position in the American League?

He's 30 now, and he's trying to convince himself, the Twins and everyone else that his baseball story has not yet been written in full — that with this last knee surgery and the rehab he is 100% to go in center, and he will show that during the month that remains for his ballclub in Florida.

The Pirate from Appling County High in Georgia started that campaign by returning as the center fielder Tuesday afternoon for a home exhibition vs. Philadelphia, the first time in 554 days he had been out there in a Twins uniform.

Byron Buxton career statistics

The pregame announcement of the Twins lineup, with Buxton batting second and playing center field, did not draw much of a reaction from a crowd announced at 7,133.

This should not be taken as an indication that Twins followers have a ho-hum attitude over the possibility Buxton could be back in the lineup, where he has mattered greatly when at full speed.

There's a big chance that the customers' indifference was based on what appeared to be 60% of them wearing garb in honor of the visitors, the Phillies.

It wasn't until the third when there was a ball hit in Buxton's direction — a rope to right-center hit by Trea Turner (the big name in this Phillies' exhibition lineup).

There was a moment when it appeared that Buxton might take on that drive with an attempt at a spectacular catch. Instead, it went to the fence for a double.

Buxton was asked later in the clubhouse if there was a chance at that ball?

"I got a chance at all of them," he said, with a short pause, followed by: "I'm not going to dive in spring training."

Later, he said a dive would have given the Twins "fits." Those fits would've been unanimous among the front-office brain trust and everyone in uniform, starting with manager Rocco Baldelli.

What happened Tuesday is Buxton played four innings in center field, left after a second at-bat, went through a cool-off and met with reporters a little after 3 p.m. (Eastern) in the clubhouse, as a collection of Twins minor leaguers were rallying for a 3-3 tie.

Asked if the Twins had detailed a plan of action for the days ahead, he said: "I ain't asked. If I'm in there, I'll be happy. If not, I'll be on the back fields taking BP."

Buxton couldn't have been more calm over this return to center, or more certain this was how he planned for it to turn out: problem-free.

This will be the most important drama in the Twins camp over the next month. If Buxton can be back in center field for two-thirds of the games, the regular 2024 lineup will go from better than 2023 to way better.

Tuesday was an OK first step, even if those stuck-up Phillies fans didn't bother to notice.