|The Twins did without Jim Thome (from left), Morneau and Mauer for long stretches last season. (Getty Images)|
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Late morning. Executive offices. The man charged with fixing Minnesota's 99-loss problem from a year ago is hard at work, cellphone pressed against his right ear, land-line phone held to his left ear.
Right away, you wonder: Does this new/old general manager have enough ears to fix what ailed the Twins last season?
Quick story from the Legend of Terry Ryan, sometime in the 1980s: He was racing through Louisiana one day, speeding to see some high school prospect somewhere on the bayou. He came up over a knoll, the road turned left, Ryan went straight ... and, splash, right into a swamp.
"It was close to game time, and I couldn't find the park," he explains.
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Fortunately, a farmer passed shortly afterward driving either a tractor or a truck -- the legend gets a little murky here -- and pulled Ryan's rental car from the swamp. The scout was back on the road.
When the Twins looked up from the muck of last season's wreckage, they saw neither a friendly farmer nor a tractor.
But they did see Ryan. And this is where the comeback begins.
"Same," he says, typically low-key and understated, when asked how big a task he faces in resurrecting the team for whom he served as GM from 1994-2007. "We've got a job to do, no doubt. But any GM in the game, at this time of year, you know everybody's got decisions to make. There's no difference here."
The respect he commands, both within the organization and throughout the game, is second to none. You don't hear much about it because, when the spotlight clicks on, he's normally over there in the shadows, sitting on another set of aluminum bleachers, scouting another high school game. You won't find him at the Academy Awards. To Ryan, proud native of Janesville, Wis., there's little better than pizza at home with a good ballgame on the tube.
Extraordinary does not even begin to describe this move. In 51 seasons in Minnesota, the Twins had never fired a GM. As in, ever. They had employed only five -- Calvin Griffith, the irascible old owner, Howard Fox, Andy MacPhail, Ryan, and Bill Smith.
The years rolled by, the baton passed seamlessly and the Twins became a model for other organizations in the way they did things.
Then came last year and a club-record $113 million payroll. Losses piled up like ice in January. Philosophies clashed. Smith made history when he was fired in November. And when the skies cleared, Ryan, who had gone back to his roots and first love, scouting as Smith's special advisor, was back in charge.
And the digging out from under the avalanche is under way in earnest.
"He's stepped right into where he left off," Rick Stelmaszek, now in his 32nd year as Twins bullpen coach, says of Ryan. "He hasn't changed. He's the same type of person: Baseball-oriented, a passion for scouting."
What he sees is a team that lost its way. The 2011 Twins were crushed with injuries, and if Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau don't play more than the 151 games they combined for last year, then Ryan isn't going to wind up being much smarter than Smith -- at least, not in 2012. The defense went AWOL. So many little things -- yeah, fundamentals -- just went away.
"Last year was not good," Ryan says. "We don't want to see that again.
"We were all embarrassed about that -- players, the manager, front office, ownership ... that's not the way we do things."
He's been here before, stuck in this very swamp, and figured a way out. He initially replaced MacPhail a month into the players' strike in 1994, and talk about a guy missing out on a new-job honeymoon period.
In Ryan's first two years as GM: The strike dragged into 1995. He was forced to put together a team of "replacement players" for spring training '95. The Twins lost one of their best hitters, Shane Mack, to Japan because of the strike. Kirby Puckett's career was cut down in its prime because of glaucoma.
"I think the Pohlads are very fortunate and lucky to have him," Stelmaszek says of the marriage between the Twins' owners and Ryan. "To do the job he's done at the major-league level and to stay the same ... a lot of them end up with inflated egos and do themselves in."
Working with one of the majors' smallest payrolls in a horrible stadium and seemingly jinxed at the beginning, he never complained. He just plowed ahead. Then, just when things were lined up for Minnesota to begin winning around 2000, the hurricane of contraction rumors moved in.
The Blue Jays approached him about their GM job. And he told them no thanks.
Breakout ... Scott Baker, SP: Scott Baker has always been the owner of a stellar strikeout-to-walk ratio -- and the low WHIP you would expect to come with it -- but because of high home run rates, his ERA has never matched up. It started to last year. He had a 10-start stretch from the end of May to the end of July in which he posted a 1.85 ERA, lowering his season mark to an unfamiliar 2.86. But that's when his elbow began to bother him, more or less ending his season and undoing his progress in the eyes of many Fantasy owners. Who cares what he was doing last July? He's damaged goods now. No doubt, that opinion holds some merit -- his minor elbow injury could be the precursor to something major, ending his season in mid-April -- but if you focus on the negative, you're missing out on a rare opportunity to buy low on a long-awaited breakout candidate showing clear signs of a breakout.
Sleeper ... Ryan Doumit, C: OK, Ryan Doumit is a catcher. What makes you think he can be a Fantasy sleeper with the almighty Mauer ahead of him on the depth chart? Ah, but the depth chart isn't so straightforward in Minnesota. Doumit has experience at first base. He has experience in right field. At catcher and first base, the Twins have two players (Mauer and Morneau) who missed a combined 173 games last season, and in right field, they have one (Willingham) who has missed an average of 40.8 over the last four. They also have a wide open DH spot where Doumit can collect at-bats when he's not filling in somewhere on the diamond. Doumit's offensive potential has long made him a sleeper in Fantasy, but injuries and inconsistent at-bats held him back in Pittsburgh. The availability of the DH spot should counteract both. Project last year's .303 batting average and .830 OPS over 500 at-bats, and you can understand why he's a catcher to target with a late-round pick. -- Scott White
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Crazy or brilliant, that wasn't the best part. No, the best part came when he faced a Twins organization full of employees fearful of losing their jobs if contraction did happen, people fully aware that the Blue Jays were circling, and told them en masse: "I'm not jumping ship. I hope nobody else bails. I'm not bailing."
"He is fiercely loyal to the organization and to people he cares about," says assistant GM Rob Antony, currently in his 26th season with the Twins. "He'll drive two hours out of his way to go see a friend of his dad's, because that guy meant a lot to his dad. He's unbelievable.
"He believes in accountability and trust. He doesn't have time for any BS."
Few have covered more road miles, or given more blood -- literally -- for an organization than Ryan has for the Twins.
Pitching coach Rick Anderson and bench coach Steve Liddle still talk about the time they were standing next to the batting cage with Ryan in the Florida Instructional League sometime around 1990 when an old prospect named Travis Buckley swung and missed and, somehow, his bat came right through the screen and blasted Ryan in the forehead.
"He fell backwards, and there was blood everywhere," Anderson says. "We were panicking."
He was taken directly to the emergency room, and Twins lore has him taking more than 100 stitches.
"And, sure enough, you look in the stands the next day and there Terry was scouting," Anderson says. "With a big ol' bandage on his head."
For years, Ryan was fueled by prospects and so-called Scout's Meals. Scout's Meals? Two cheeseburgers, fries and a Coke, all the easier to devour in the car while driving across some prairie chasing another 18-year-old might-be.
"I don't think nutritionists, the way it is now, would accept that meal," Stelmaszek quips.
Quick story from the Legend of Terry Ryan, circa 1989: He once attempted to return a rental car in Illinois after six days, and was handed a bill much higher than anticipated.
"You had the car six days, you don't qualify for the weekly rate," the attendant told him. "I have to charge you the daily rate."
"That's ridiculous," Ryan said.
"That's the way it is."
"Fine, I'll keep it."
So he did. Drove it instead of flying for the next couple of weeks. Drove and drove and drove. After several thousand miles, he phoned the rental company and said he thought he'd better change the oil.
"No, don't do that. We'll worry about that."
And he drove some more.
"I don't think I did too well by that car," he says. "They maybe should have taken me up on my offer."
The rental car in the Louisiana swamp?
"That car wasn't too good, either," he says.
One more: He was speeding to another high school game, also in the 1980s in Louisiana, when he was pulled over.
The cop told him the ticket would be $28, and he could pay right then.
"All I've got is $28," Ryan pleaded. "Can I give you $25, so I'll have $3 left to get into the game?"
Justice was merciful that day. Ryan made it to the field with the $3 admission fee in his pocket. Then the heavens opened, the storm came and the game lasted all of two innings. But he saw what he needed to see.
"Man, that was a tough place to find," he says.
He shakes his head, the stories always circling back to his respect and admiration for all the scouts who have ever driven through far-flung, out-of-the-way places.
"No one ever wants to make a trip and miss a guy, because then it's a wasted trip and you've got to double back," he says. "We didn't have GPS back then, or cellphones."
They do now, and there is a renewed confidence around the organization this spring. They know that Ryan will argue with the rental car person, negotiate with the cops, flag down the farmer, plug information into that GPS, do whatever it takes to get the Twins back on track.
Yes, you would think this would be strange in so many ways. Smith is even in the next office over, eventually having accepted the Twins' offer to return. He now serves as special assistant to the president (Dave St. Peter) and GM.
"I report to the guy who fired me, and to the guy who came in and took my job," jokes Smith, a Twin since 1986.
"It really isn't odd, and I think the reason is, Bill has handled things so well," Antony says. "He hasn't allowed it to be odd."
It's the Twins way. Put the egos over there in the corner, and pitch in for the good of the team.
"Everyone talks about the Twins way," Antony says. "I've never believed in that. I just think there's a right way to do things, and that's what Terry brings.
"What you see with him is credibility and stability. Everyone understands where he's coming from.
"Not much has changed from when he was here before. He's very intense. Very focused. And very determined to put that 99-loss season behind us and get back to the way we play the game."