Reusse: Master at throwing batting practice replaced by machines

FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins once again invited their former catcher and minor league manager, Phil Roof, to put on a uniform and perform a few tasks during spring training.

Sadly, one of those tasks is no longer throwing batting practice, partially because of the fact he's 82, and more so to the manner in which "BP" is conducted these days to get hitters ready for the season ahead.

This is Roof's 63rd spring training, starting with his days as a young catcher from Kentucky signed by the Milwaukee Braves.

He had the privilege as a 23-year-old rookie of getting arrested with Warren Spahn, Hall of Fame pitcher and character, when Houston cops raided a bar and nabbed eight people for consuming liquor after the 1 a.m. curfew.

Bobby Bragan, the Braves manager, proudly stated that no disciplinary action would be taken because his team "had no curfew" and, anyway, it was only 10 minutes after the drinks were supposed to be out of sight.

Also, because Spahn was involved, and having a drink at 1:10 a.m. was far from No. 1 on Wondrous Warren's list of potential high jinks (as legend goes).

What was distressing this month was the absence of an opportunity to see Roof — "Babe," to those of us who covered him with the Twins in the '70s — serve up those delicious lollipops on a back field, resulting in soaring drives that threatened passing automobiles behind left field and office buildings behind right field.

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli was sitting in the home dugout at Hammond Stadium last week, and I asked (in the form of a statement):

"You were playing during the wonderful days of bombs-away batting practice. Now, the exhibitions haven't started yet, and Carlos Correa and friends are out there trying to put a ball in play against Pablo Lopez throwing his best stuff, trying to strike 'em out.

"What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on here?"

Baldelli sensed my pain and offered a sympathetic smile.

"The players work out all winter, most have been hitting at home for a month. And when they want to warm up here, they go in the cages," he said. "Or, for BP, there are machines set up on the mound that throw sliders, fastballs, whatever speeds you want."

Only an hour earlier, what I needed when attempting to monitor BP on a back field was Phil Roof at lollipop speed.

I had talked in the clubhouse with Aaron Sabato, the Twins' first-round draftee in 2020 as a slugger from the University of North Carolina.

He's had a rough time — first no '20 season because of the pandemic, then a couple of broken hands from hit-by-pitches, and low batting averages with numerous strikeouts.

No other team took a flyer on Sabato's power when he was available in the Rule 5 draft last winter. He's here in camp as an invitee, with an uncertain future in the organization.

The Twins' modest level of interest was demonstrated Monday, when Sabato took the 2½-hour bus ride to Tampa and then got only one late-inning at-bat against the Yankees.

Those muscles, though.

"When Sabato gets into one, it has to fly, right?" I asked a group of young pitchers who had been teammates with him along the way.

Pitcher Louie Varland looked up from a word game, nodded and said: "As you can imagine."

I went to the back field for that day's BP session in the hope of seeing such a prodigious blast from this occasional slugger from Rye Brook, N.Y.

And guess what? Sabato's first swings were with an assistant's assistant feeding baseballs into a machine sitting on the mound. And the live portion had pitchers trying to get out the hitters, not trying to help them find a groove … with a week left in February!

This was occurring on the same back field that's a sacred slugging site to me:

Where in mid-February 2015, Roof was feeding those "right-there, hard-enough-to-hit-far" pitches to young and in-excellent-shape Miguel Sanó (arrived that summer with the Twins on July 2 and became the team MVP), and the gigantic switch-hitter, Kennys Vargas.

I had watched pregame batting practice in old Comiskey Park in Chicago, with the late, gone-way-too-young Danny Thompson in the same Twins' group as Craig Kusick.

Thompson was looking at the signs on the left-field roof, which carried the names of the very few (including Harmon Killebrew) who had hit a home run onto or over that roof.

"Soon, there will be a sign up there that reads, 'Mongo,' " he said to Kusick, also gone, but then christened with that nickname by teammates in honor of the Alex Karras character in Mel Brooks' story of the building of the West, "Blazing Saddles."

That was a great BP memory.

So was the manner in which the Red Sox took pregame batting practice for a time in the '70s: No jumping in and out of the cage … a guy in the lineup would hit for five minutes.

Ten minutes of Jim Rice and Fred Lynn when they had arrived together — sign me up.

Yet, I'm thinking the most-memorable batting practice was that late morning in 2015, with Roof finding the sweet spot pitch-after-pitch for Sanó and Vargas.

It was described thusly in the next day's Star Tribune:

"Vargas came here almost a month ago, right after Twins Fest. He's been working out daily, getting swings frequently and you could see the difference early in this BP session. Vargas started launching baseballs immediately; Sano rapped a few into the top of the cage.

"(Behind left field) … there's a wide ditch, then Plantation Road and across the road is South Fort Myers High School.

"There were 25 onlookers when Vargas, batting righthanded, drew the first 'ahh' when he smashed a ball down the left-field line, over the ditch and onto the road.

"'This guy is ridiculous,' said Torii Hunter (back with the Twins for his final big-league season).

"Vargas became more ridiculous batting lefthanded. There are several small, tile-roofed buildings set back 75 to 100 feet from the right-field fence. Vargas hit a soaring fly ball that landed on top of the first building on the right. Two swings later, he hit one more toward right-center that cleared trees and landed in a ditch between two rows of buildings.

"Next came Sanó. He was zeroed in now, maybe even challenged.

"He smacked a ball toward deep left-center that landed on the far side of Plantation Road, took a high bounce off the pavement and was last seen bounding toward the high school. The ball was in the air so long that Sanó was out of the cage and standing behind it by the time the ball landed on the road.

" 'I'll put those blasts on my résumé,' Roof said. 'Those are a couple of strong young men.' "

OK, Vargas has been in the Mexican League for a while now. I actually got him to answer the cell phone there a couple of years ago, lost the connection and haven't gotten through to him since.

And Sanó, after being released by the Twins in 2022, he still was out-of-playing shape during a tryout with teams in January 2023 and didn't get signed.

He flipped the switch over the past several months, claims to have lost 58 pounds, and looks it in Angels' camp in Arizona. He's there as a minor-league signee, but with a solid chance to make that depleted club.

And here in Florida, yeah, I got to see strong-and-young Sabato hit three home runs within a handful of swings, but they were off a machine. You can't get a quote from a machine — not yet anyway.

Maybe next year, when an AI gizmo is throwing BP.