Winter Ball in Minnesota! 31 Jan 14

 Winter Ball in Minnesota!

Story and Photos by Gordy Jones

Major league ballplayers don’t really have an off-season anymore. Immediately after the season is over, most players rest their bodies for a spell, after playing for nearly nine grinding months. They use this down time to catch up with their families as well — but by the holidays, most are conditioning and working out daily. But keeping their bodies fit is only one part of their winter season. There are many charity events, school visits, banquets – and, of course, the Twins have their Caravan, and Twins Fest, too.    

Joe Mauer at the Highland Friendship event.

Joe Mauer spent most of his off-time with his twin baby girls and his wife, Maddie. But in November, just as he has for the last six years, Joe helped his best pal, Tony Leseman, put on a very special day of bowling. This bowling event raises funds for the Highland Friendship Club, which holds events and activities for young people with disabilities, and it helps them to make friends and learn new skills. The Club was founded by Tony’s family, who felt the need of such an organization themselves. Tony’s brother was born with some disabilities.

Tony was Joe’s teammate at Cretin. While Joe was starting his rise through the Twins’ farm system, Tony played some pretty good ball at the U. Soon they became roommates — until this marriage thing got in their way. But their wives are great friends, and Tony and Joe continue to be best buds as well.

Joe is a natural with kids. He is happy to pose, bowl, answer kids’ questions, and even give hugs to the little ones. Joe is a star at the event, even to the kids who know nothing about baseball.

Paul Molitor bowling for the Highland Friendship Club.

St. Paul native and Cincinnati Red Jack Hannahan is always on hand, along with Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. There are usually some Gopher players of various sports, local media, and few other local celebs.  But it is Joe Mauer who makes this event successful — along with many volunteers, sponsors, and the kids who rely on the Highland Friendship Club.

The Twins’ Caravan hosts a series of events in the Cities. Twin Citians come out for the local events because they love baseball, and because it is a reminder that warmer days are on the way. But it’s the small towns where the Caravan is a special treat. It goes to the most remote areas of Twins Territory — some places where fans would have to drive 10 hours round trip to enjoy a game. For them to have members of the team visiting their Legion clubs and schools is really a thrill. The Twins do an excellent job planning the Caravan, and dispatching the players, coaches, and announcers throughout Twins Territory.   

One of the Caravan stops in the Twin Cities is the Hot Stove Banquet in Oakdale. I love this event because the typical fan can afford it. This year, for only $32 fans had a nice steak dinner, and they heard from Joe Mauer, Tom Kelly, Pedro Florimon, Ricky Nolasco, John Anderson, Terry Ryan, Jim Rantz, Dave St. Peter, and Kris Atteberry.  It is preceded by a social hour called “batting practice” where you can belly up with every baseball enthusiast in town, because they are all there.

Joe Mauer and wife Maddie at the Diamond Awards.

The following night, there was a fundraiser for Concordia St. Paul’s baseball program at Mancini’s Char House. Coach Lunch McKenzie and his assistant Jim Weisner were both clubhouse guys for the Twins at one time, and they have the talent, connections, and clout to make the event successful. Tom Kelly and Kent Hrbek are the two big supporters of this event and are always the special guests. As always, this year’s event was well done!

On Thursday during the final Caravan week, the Diamond Awards gala was held at Target Field. It is probably the classiest dinner associated with baseball in these parts.

Steve Winfield receiving his Friend of the Game Award from mentor, Bill Peterson.

The proceeds from this event go for research at the University of Minnesota, specifically for brain, nerve, and muscle disorders. Ataxia research is a big part of this. The late Twin star of the 60’s, Bob Allison, died from this disease, and his family is always on hand, along with many former and current Twin players there to receive their awards. Joe Mauer won the Most Valuable Twin Award, and Tony Oliva received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Steve Winfield, brother of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, received Friend of the Game Award for his work with youth on the field and in the community.  There were 14 awards in all, but hearing from a father and son who are both victims of a dreadful muscular disease reminded you that your health is the greatest reward of all.

My expectations for Twins Fest were low. I had anticipated a sardine-packed Target Field, with fewer

Jason Bartlett ready to play bean bags.

activities than before. Man, was I wrong! The space was well utilized, with activities on four levels, including the bowels down below — typically sealed off except for media, staff, and players. It is not fancy like the suite level or Legends Club. It’s just a bare cement tunnel, but it was a perfect venue for card and memorabilia dealers to set up and sell. It was almost intimate. Fans would be purchasing a card of a player, and he might be walking past on his way to his next activity. The guys rotated, but while I was there it was baseball-bat bowling with Joe Mauer, phone a friend with Brian Dozier, and bean bag toss with a Mohawked Jason Bartlett. Darin Mastroianni was sporting a beard, long hair, and a ponytail as he signed autographs, and it was great seeing my old buddy Jason Kubel back on board. I had the chance to visit with him, and I asked a foolish question of my Southern California friend. I asked him how he liked the weather…and it was a morning where the thermometer had dipped to 20 below. He shook his head, grimaced, and asked, “What is there to like?”  

Darin Mastroianni brought a new look to the table with his long hair and beard.

Next Stop: Fort Myers!