Friday, April 10, 2009


Please excuse me for the lack of activity here, as I've submitted most all of my pieces to The Herald for print publication.

My annual spring training trip to Fort Myers, Fla., is best related you in the combined form of travelogue and some personal embellishment, but mostly something Minnesota Twins fans, New Britain Rock Cats fans and baseball fans in general can enjoy.

First from a personal standpoint, I had the wonderful opportunity to stay with my longest and one of my dearest friends -- Andy Vaspasiano -- who lives with his lovely wife Karen and youngest son A.J. between the Twins' complex and Naples. Getting to stay with a friend, in whose home I feel like I'm at my own, is such an incredible advantage. It is truly one of the pleasures of my life to reconnect with a friend who's been a friend since we were 3.

I also have so many friends at the Twins complex.

Atop the list is Jim Rantz, the Twins' minor league director. Jim personifies one of the grandest and most fleeting human resources -- loyalty. He is incredibly loyal to the team, truly concerned with the welfare of his minor league partners and for 13 years has been as responsive as a person can be when it comes to my needs as a sports journalist and person.

But the list goes on -- Kate Townley, Jim's assistant, is so ccommodating; Brad Steil, director of baseball operations; Joel Lepel, minor league field coordinator; Dustin Morse, manager of baseball communications; Bill Springman, minor league hitting coordinator; Eric Rasmussen, Rock Cats pitching coach in 1998 and now in his new post as minor league pitching coordinator; Paul Molitor, Hall of Famer now serving as minor league baserunning/infield coordinator.

Twins GM Bill Smith is a longtime friend whom I saw briefly. Can you imagine anybody more busy than Smith as the Twins whittle down big league camp to 25? And Terry Ryan, former GM and one of the game's great scouts, was friendly as always, but also very busy.

I got to touch base with former Rock Cats managers Stan Cliburn, Riccardo Ingram and Bobby Cuellar, all of whom will be guiding the fortunes of the Twins' Triple-A team in Rochester.

I've left out many, but needless to say, dear friends and colleagues (La Velle Neal and J0e Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune; Kelly Thieser of warmed my heart nearly as much as 84 degrees and sunny. Kudos are also in order to Buddy and Lynne Robinson, Rock Cats and Twins fans to the core, who helped channel some of the dynamic photos from spring training that Herald readers saw.

The team that came north to don Rock Cats garb was never actually together during my five-day stay in Fort Myers. Whether that was problematic to the development of the team is up for debate, but always at the heart of any such discussion needs to be that the Rock Cats serve at the behest of the Twins for the purpose of developing big league talent. Thus, some Rock Cats were still in big league camp, many were playing in the Triple-A work group and one -- left-hander Jose Lugo -- was en route from Seattle camp when the Mariners opted to return him under the rules of the Rule 5 draft.

My assessment of the team is this: great offensive balance in a predominantly left-handed-hitting lineup with plenty of pop; solid up the middle with exceptional catching prospect Wilson Ramos, shortstop Steve Tolleson, second baseman Brian Dinkelman and center fielder Brandon Roberts when he gets healthy (lower back), tremendous bullpen led by Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama; decent speed, again depending on Roberts' recovery; starting rotation, perhaps the key component for any team, is very much in question; plus talent in high Class A, an insurance policy when Rock Cats players are promoted.

Here's the travelogue portion.

I went to the Gulf Coast Town Center, an outdoor mall that would best be described as its own little community. It's dotted with tropical foliage, cobblestone walkways, pastel accoutrements, superb restaurants with Paris street-style open-air cafes and retail stores to suit man, woman and child. The only thing I've seen that is remotely comparable in Connecticut is Evergreen Walk in South Windsor, but even that is like comparing a fast-food burger to the Aqua Turf's prime rib.

I met Stan there for our eighth annual Southwest Florida Sushi-Fest. Blu Sushi is our spot of choice, and we recommend it highly. Couldn't get Andy to eat sushi though. I never had any problem convincing him to eat a Pepe's pizza in New Haven or a split hot dog at Jimmie's on the West Haven shoreline.

Andy's wife works at another one of these unbelievable outdoor malls. It's called Coconut Point, located in Estero. It's truly a self-contained community with a stunningly beautiful theater where A.J. works, restaurants for every taste and even condos above the stores. You have to see both of these places to believe them.

I'll end with an apology to Red Sox fans. I may be the only New England baseball guy to have a spring fling in Fort Myers without paying the least bit of attention to the Sox. Andy, in fact, has a Hall of Fame Yankee room in his house and is going to opening day at the new stadium. He might have tossed me out if I said anything good about the Sox. I didn't go to Red Sox camp. I even had credentials for a spring game in which they visited the Twins but didn't go to their clubhouse. I prefer to be with the Twins.

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