Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Trouble with Torii (or: Exile on Twin Street)

[photo caption] Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter holds the closest thing to a baseball he's held in the past three months.

Minneapolis, Minn. --
Torii Hunter is mad, and he's not going to take it anymore. Coming off of a season when Hunter played in a career-low 98 games and batted a whopping .269, Hunter vented this week at news his squad had hired a new hitting coach, former Twins Minor League Coordinator Joe Vavra.

"Nothing against Joe, but I thought Paul Molitor [who turned the job down] or Don Baylor [who wasn't interviewed after being fired by Seattle] or someone who had done something in the game would help," Hunter said. "If you want to increase offense, you would want to do that. All I can do is voice my opinion." Hunter added that he "didn't even know" Vavra was a hitting coach.

Amazingly, Hunter is just now taking the time to concern himself with the personnel moves of the Twins. Since injuring his ankle July 29 in Boston, Hunter has spent his downtime avoiding the Twins lockerroom, publicly lobbying for a trade to the Yankees, and snoozing on the couch.

After going after Vavra, Hunter turned his attention to former hitting coach Scott Ullger, who has been "reassigned" to third base coach [replacing Al Newman, who was released]. In a comment designed either to endorse a complete firing of Ullger [likely] or displaying his concern over team chemistry [unlikely], Hunter opined, "It's tough because Scotty is still there. If you're going to get rid of Scotty [as the hitting coach] I thought they were going to get someone big-time, that was my thinking."

After the verbal bitch-slap, Hunter declined to physically bitch-slap Vavra, citing his ankle rehabilitation.

[photo caption] Immediately after his injury, Hunter resolves himself to spend his rehab time sabotaging both his reputation and the Twins organization as a whole.

Hunter-Vavragate is only an added stain on the tenure of Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. Four years after the departure of former manager Tom Kelly, the Twins have slowly dismantled the reputation they forged during the Kelly years. Gone are the days of emphasizing solid defense in the face of decreased offense, with Gardenhire installing the iron-mitted Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau as the cornerstones of his defense. In fact, the Twins could have fielded the All-Cement Hands infield of Cuddyer, Jason Bartlett, Bret Boone, and Morneau this season, had they desired.

Troubling too is the slow demise of the dominant pitching the Twins maintained during the Kelly regime. Yes, Johan Santana continues to dominate, Brad Radke is still dependable, and Francisco Liriano shows incredible promise. But the Twins wasted two of their five rotation spots on the immortal Kyle Lohse and the awe-inspiring Joe Mays [Note: to be fair, playing Mays was more of an issue of economics rather than competitiveness, but that's another story altogether].

The Gardenhire-era lockerroom chemistry has slowly deteriorated as well. Whereas Kelly ruled over Twins players in the fashion of a ruthless despot, demoting those who refused his mentoring [see: Doug Mientkiewicz, for one] or getting rid of them altogether [i.e., Chuck Knoblauch], Gardenhire has displayed either saintly restraint or incredible ignorance in allowing his charge to be so upfront in their opinions. Kelly was never a player favorite, but he got results and never tolerated complacency. Gardenhire has embraced the label of "player's coach," for better or for worse.

Evidence of Gardenhire's lack of leadership could be seen is his absence in defending Vavra from Hunter's barbs, offering no comment in support of his new hitting coach.

One thinks back to an informal meeting with Gardenhire that took place in 2003. When asked, "Who has the most say in writing the lineup?", Gardenhire's answer was, "The agents."

All of this begs the question: Who's guiding the ship, if anyone? Or is this nothing more than a ship of fools?