Don't Let the Dimples Deceive You

I was fortunate enough to be asked by John Bonnes to be the editor of the May, 2008 edition of GameDay (thus my absence here over the last few days).  It's shaped up to be an extraordinary issue, and I'm incredible proud of the content.  Thanks to John, GameDay, and to the contributing authors for making it a fun and easy gig.

Below is my contribution.  Enjoy, and be sure to find your GameDay vendor in front of the Dome!

“Every person puts out a different heat,” says Michael Cuddyer to Denard Span, “and that’s how I find your card.”  Span’s hand is resting on Cuddyer’s, as the center field prospect plays the mark in the latest magic trick perfected by the Minnesota right fielder.  Span is laughing as the trick continues, until in the end Cuddyer finds both the nine of clubs and the king of diamonds, neither being where Denard thought they would be.

 

Therein lies the magic in what Cuddyer does:  he goes about his business, does his job, succeeds.  Yet nobody appears to be any the wiser.  In a lineup with the likes of Justin Morneau, Delmon Young and Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer somehow pulls a vanishing act.

 

On some level, it makes sense.  He hasn’t won a batting title, or an MVP, or a Cy Young award.  He’s not expected to be one of the game’s best young hitters, doesn’t boast the speed of an F-15, and the throne of Future Ace doesn’t rest on his shoulders.  His comments to the press don’t incite water cooler conversation about the etiquette (or lack thereof) of professional athletes in the press.  Even on the day he signed his three-year, $24 million contract, it was seen as a secondary highlight to the 2006 MVP’s new deal.  There’s something old school about the way Cuddyer goes about his business, and in today’s sports and media world this means he often gets overlooked.

 

On another level, however, missing him makes no sense at all.  Michael Cuddyer has been with the Twins longer than any other position player on the major league roster.  Both Juan Rincon and Cuddyer made their debuts way back in 2001, albeit in very limited time.  No other current Twin debuted before 2003.  It’s bizarre to think that Cuddyer, at just 29, is now the elder statesman thanks to all the turnover Minnesota has been witness to these last couple of off-seasons.

 

While some of us in the seats may not think “Cuddyer” when given the words “Minnesota Twins” in a word association test, it’s a given that the Twins organization, from top to bottom, hasn’t forgotten about him.  Of course there’s the brand new, multi-million dollar contract to prove it.  There’s Ron Gardenhire’s placement of Cuddyer right in the middle of the batting order (third in 2008, up to the thumb injury).  Then there’s the role he’s been settling into slowly over the last couple of years:  team leader and sound bite machine.  This is backed up by his new position in the locker room, as he requested and was granted Torii Hunter’s old locker.  It’s near the showers and has an empty locker next to it, leaving plenty of space for the media while keeping the familiar location for where to go to grab a good quote or two.

 

The sound bite is where we, as fans, get to see how leadership takes form.  In the wake of the Hunter and Santana departures, fans were unhappy with how the two players had handled the situation.  Going further back, fans were often split by Hunter’s freedom in front of a microphone.  Whether you bought into that hype or not, one thing is certain:  Cuddyer’s sound bites prove him to be a team player.  He doesn’t flaunt his opinions, and when he does mention them they’re stated in good taste.

When asked about the possibility of playing in center field, he remarked, “I'm in no place to dictate to the manager where I'll play.  At the same time I'm comfortable in right.  I don't think you can argue with the results in right.  I know the baggie, and I know everything that goes on with playing that position. If I had my preference I'd stay in right field."

 

When commenting on his and Justin Morneau’s new contracts, he said, “There [have] been a lot of negatives going around this off-season with losing Torii and Carlos and the whole Johan situation. To have some positive light for the fans is pretty special."

 

Finally, when talking about the “Twins way,” he had this to say:  “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.”

 

Over the course of his career there are quotes just like these.  Cuddyer has a penchant for doing and saying the right things, and as a result both he and the team come off in a much more positive light.  His off-the-field track record helps confirm his status as a team leader.

 

Yet there’s nothing about his game which deserves to be glossed over, either.  In his two full years in right, Cuddyer’s appeared in 91% of the Twins’ regular season games, hitting .280/.359/.469.  Those numbers are good enough to make him 24 OPS points better than the league-average right fielder in that same span.  In that period he’s been hitting in the cleanup position in the batting order more often than any other slot, usually right between Mauer and Morneau.  Still he’s somehow overlooked.  Would you overlook whatever you put in a sandwich?  I submit that you would not.

 

Defensively Cuddyer’s acquired a reputation for being a head-hunter, notching 15 kills (and an American League-leading 19 outfield assists) from right field in 2007.  In fact, in a study done by John Walsh of The Hardball Times in January, it was concluded that Cuddyer saved the Twins about 14.6 runs by holding and killing base runners.  That was good for best in baseball from his position.  As last summer progressed you could actually notice when the base runners started respecting that cannon, because suddenly the better ones weren’t trying to take an extra base on hits to right field.

 

Michael Cuddyer has come a long way since his debut with the Twins seven seasons ago.  His roles have changed and expanded, but he’s growing into his new shoes with aplomb.  He keeps his head down, throws down a new magic trick from time to time, flashes an easy smile, and in spite of being the media’s new go-to guy manages to get overlooked for his solid on-the-field product.  Cuddyer is the walking example of Teddy Roosevelt’s quote:  Speak softly and carry a big stick.

Don't let the dimples deceive you.  He can hit, he can throw, he's a leader and his slight of hand will give your slight of hand the smack down.  He's come a long way since cutting Johan Santana in half.

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