A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a morning with Elizabethton Twins second baseman A. J. Pettersen. Our conversation was helpful when I did my review of the Elizabethton season. Today I want to talk about A. J., the player and the person.
When Bonnie and I moved to the Twins Cities from Madison twenty-five years ago, we joined the local lutheran church in Excelsior. One of the pastors was Paul Pettersen. Anyone who has had the pleasure of knowing Paul knows that he is a gifted speaker. He is also a person who has made a lasting impression on this writer. It was always evident that baseball was important to Paul. From his bending the rules so that my son could miss a required confirmation session for that big game to a serman several years ago when he appeared with a Twins cap, bat and ball as he tied the Twins in the playoffs to his weekly message. Because of Paul's love of the game, it is special to see his son striving to make baseball his career.
Pastor Paul is no longer at our church, however, he gladly helped me arrange a meeting with A. J. so that we could talk baseball. My report of our conversation follows the jump.
When the Twins draft fifty players every June, we know little about the top few and nothing about the others except their birthdate, position played and their last school. Yet, the foundation that they bring to the field after signing will help determine whether or not they will be successful in their goal of overcoming the long odds of someday becoming a Minnesota Twin. That foundation includes their family, physical attributes, personality, experience and track record playing at the many levels of baseball they all have played. Today I want to give you a glimpse of who A. J. Pettersen is and a few reasons why he may overcome those odds.
A. J. began playing baseball at Bennett Family Park (Little League through 15 year old Babe Ruth) in Minnetonka, Minnesota. The Bennett program has a long list of youth teams who have won State Championships with the occassional team that made it to the national championships. From Bennett Park, A. J. moved on to Minnetonka High School and Excelsior Legion. The Legion program is one of the most highly respected programs in the nation. While some young players struggle with the grind of games every day, A. J. can reach back on experiences from a Legion program that plays nearly 60 games each summer from early June until late July. Excelsior travels America playing some of the best competition a 17 or 18 year old player can find. That level of competition has enabled Excelsior to make several appearances in the American Legion World Series over the past fifteen years, although none during the time A. J. was with the team. Several Excelsior players have achieved the dream of every young player with solid big league careers with a dozen or more playing college ball at any given time.
This is the foundation that A. J. took with him to the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2007. At 5'9" tall, A. J. is a player who often is overlooked when coaches and scouts watch a team for a first time. A. J. was redshirted his freshman year, then inserted as the Gopher shortstop as a sophomore. His winning the shortstop job caused the Gophers to move Twins 2009 fourth round pick Derek McCallum to second base. A. J. proceded to have a great rookie season with the Gophers, hitting for a .353 average, .445 OBP, scoring 65 runs with 28 walks and only 21 strikeouts in 224 at bats. His numbers were down a bit his junior year when he hit .297 average with a .378 OBP in 256 at bats. He matched his sophomore numbers this past spring when he led the Gophers in several hitting categories including average (.344), at bats (209), hits (72), doubles (10) and on base percentage (.394). In 209 at bats, A. J. struck out only seventeen times while taking fifteen walks. The aspect of his game that struck me most was that in 689 at bats for the Gophers, A. J. grounded into a total of five double plays.
While with the Gophers, A. J. spent his summers playing in the Northwoods League with one memorable summer playing for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks (former Harbor Hawks include Casey Blake, Pat Burrell, J. J. Putz and Jason Varitek) in the prestigious Cape Cod League. A. J. held his own playing shortstop in a league with the best college talent in America. The league plays in many of the small towns on the Cape at neighborhood ballparks where they don't charge to attend a game. In a baseball league many of us know best from having watched the movie, Summer Catch, A. J. had a first hand experience we can only dream of.
We talked about what his expectations were as the draft approached and what teams and scouts thought of him. The Twins were one of seven or eight teams that had shown an interest. A. J. said he wouldn't have been surprised had he been drafted anywhere from the teens to the lower rounds. It certainly was a pleasant surprise, however, when the Twins called his name in the twenty-fifth round of the draft.
What did the scouts see and what can the Twins expect from A. J. in the coming years? What struck me as most interesting is that A. J. said if scouts only watched whatever team he was on once, they probably didn't notice him. To understand what he brings to the team, a scout needs to see him play alot. His value to his team is a player who works hard to do whatever is needed to win. Whether that is defensively, at the plate or on the bases, A. J. often goes unnoticed as he does the little things to help his team win.
Much of our discussion about Elizabethton was included in my recent review. Other comments related to off field issues players needed to deal with. Most of the players coming to Tennessee from Extended Spring Training had arrangements to live with 'host families.' Because they didn't know who else would be with the team until after the draft, college players such as A. J. were on their own. Immediately after arriving in Elizabethton, a team official took them around town to look at several homes that were available for rent. After seeing a few they would not live in, they found an acceptable home. A. J. lived on the porch in a house with three others incuding Matt Bashore and Todd VanSteensel. Players at Elizabethton receive a small monthly salary plus a per diem for meals, however, they do not receive a housing allowance so it was important to find a house with rent of only $600. Another aspect of a short season team is that they are drafted, sign, travel to Florida and on to Tennesee. This means that few of the players on the team have cars, although one of A. J.'s roommates who played at the U of Tennessee did have his car.
We are all aware of the lowlight of his season, getting hit in the face in his third game, breaking his nose in ten places. A. J. returned to the Twin Cities where a local surgeon did the surgery to put him back together. [You cannot tell his nose was broken] Fortunately, all minor league players have an excellent health insurance policy that covers players from all teams. The highlight of his season was the night he hit his only home run. His brother, sister-in-law and fiancee arrived at Joe O'Brien Field from Minnesota about game time. Although he hadn't had a chance to talk with them, hitting a home run with family at the park was special.
Because he missed half the season, A. J. had only 67 plate appearances. Looking at his season statistically, he was the same player he was for the Gophers. He hit for the team's fifth highest batting average (.286) and fourth highest on base percentage (.388). More interesting are the sixteen runs he scored (once for every four plate appearances which was helped by having Rosario and Sano hitting directly behind him in the order). He walked seven times, was hit by three pitches and struck out only nine times. As during his career with the Gophers, A. J. didn't ground into a single double play.
What were some of the more interesting experiences A. J. had in Elizabethton? He talked about when he first heard the thick accents of the local residents. The scenic bus rides to the cities throughout the league scattered throughout the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. In a league with teams from three different States, Bluefield is most unusual with the ballpark in Virginia and the parking lot in West Virginia...or maybe it was the other way around. Although he wasn't with the team all that long, A. J. and his family were able to spend time at a beautiful lake in Roane Mountain State Park on the Tennessee/Virginia border.
A. J. found the relationship between players from seven different countries to be a special experience. Having graduated from Minnesota with a spanish minor, he was able to be the interpreter for their spanish speaking catcher whenever he made one of his infrequent visits to the mound. He also commented on what it was like to play with the younger Latin players who have tremendous natural talent. That was special, although he did say that the college players were more polished.
Considering that he missed about half of his short season, it was important that A. J. was invited to the Fall Instructional League. Considering the temperature in Florida in the early fall, practices are scheduled early every morning when they work on fundamentals with games scheduled later in the morning against teams who also have their training camps near Ft. Myers.
When we talked about the Twins discussion about moving Eddie Rosario to second base, I didn't know what A. J.'s response would be. After all, he is a second baseman. That is when I learned the most about this young man. He told me he knows that he will need to become a player who adds value to a team through his versatility, defense, hard work and doing the little things right. As we were talking I began thinking of a certain former Twin, so I asked A. J. if his ultimate goal was to become the next Nick Punto? He talked about Punto being one of the better defensive players in baseball at second, third and short. We talked about how important it was for a player such as Punto being able to do all the little things right, including bunting. A. J. agreed that a career equal to Nick Punto's would be a dream. After all, I pointed out that Punto did have a $4,000,000 contract a few years ago. In a follow up question, No, A. J. doesn't slide into first base unless it is to avoid a tag.
A. J. is spending most of this winter in Rochester where his fiancee, Emily, is a nurse at Saint Marys hospital. While in Rochester, he is a volunteer at Rochester Community Technical College where he assists their baseball team with their off season program. This gives him access to their facilities to work on the program the Twins have laid out for him this winter. He has his degree in Economics from Minnesota. Whenever his career is over, A. J. may get involved in teachig while staying involved in the game as a coach.
As I look back on our morning together, I was impressed by a young man who knows exactly what it will take for him to have a chance to beat those odds and someday make it in the big leagues. From what a reliable source has told me, the Twins believe that he can develop into a player who has a legitimate chance of making it. Most of all, I saw a young man who is so very much like his father. I certainly enjoyed our morning together talking about baseball and the Twins. Thanks A. J.