"Just a comprehensive workout," says infield coach Al Newman, who endured his share of Good Mornings playing for Kelly from 1987 to '91. "TK wanted to know who hadn't kept his arms and legs in shape during the winter. And he wanted to see which guys were mentally capable of making a play when physically they were exhausted."
When Ron Gardenhire was promoted from bench coach to take over for Kelly this season, Good Morning remained part of the Twins' spring program. For one thing, Gardenhire believes in Kelly's curriculum. For another, he knew his current infield wouldn't have had it any other way. Around the horn, from third baseman Corey Koskie to shortstop Cristian Guzman to second baseman Luis Rivas to first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, you've got a unit that believes you play like you practice. They learned to approach Good Morning as a test they needed to pass.
"We hate it," says 2001 Gold Glover Mientkiewicz. "But we love it, too, if that makes sense. We consider ourselves the best defensive infield in the big leagues. And we think the reason is that no one works harder than us from Day One of spring training. There are times we've got five guys hitting fungoes at one time. Everyone's got to have their head into it, or someone will get hurt. And the ragging that's dished out when someone muffs a ground ball, when it's 300° out and you can hardly move, it can get guys pretty pissed off."
The ragging comes in four distinct languages: English, Spanish, Spanglish and Canadian. The Twins infield has been dubbed the League of Nations -- each position represented by a different country. Koskie is from Canada. Guzman is from the Dominican Republic. Rivas is from Venezuela, and Mientkiewicz is from the good ol' U.S.A. "Honestly," says Mientkiewicz, "we could do without the Canadian. He's the one guy no one can understand."
Koskie, 29, fits every Canuck stereotype: easygoing, borderline goofy, not much into fashion and, yeah, he'd probably rather be playing hockey. In fact, he says he did not start to take baseball seriously until he was 21 -- when he signed -- because he was tending goal for a Junior-A (eh?) team in Manitoba. To watch him handle the erratic hops coming off the hard and soft spots of the Metrodome turf, you can imagine Koskie between the pipes. "We yell all the time," says Mientkiewicz. "'Glove save, and a beauty!' Hit it within his wingspan, he's going to make a play."
Says Koskie, "Sometimes my hockey instincts take over and I throw my body in front of the ball. But watching Guz, I've learned to relax and catch the ball."
Guzman is the coolest member of the unit, the one with the most flair. "I played with him in Double-A in 1998," says Mientkiewicz. "I knew after two days he would be in the big leagues. His arm, his speed, his confidence." A year ago, after the Twins stormed to a 56–32 record and a five-game lead in the AL Central, Guzman went on the disabled list with a sore shoulder. By the time he returned in mid-August, the Twins were 64-58 and 4 1/2 games off the lead. "We lost our spark," says teammate Denny Hocking. "It made us realize what a great player he is."
The youngest member of the infield is Rivas, 23, playing in just his second full season in the bigs. With outstanding range and a kamikaze mentality on double plays, Rivas may already be the most respected member of the infield. He is known as the worker bee of the group. "Luis takes a minimum of 250 ground balls a day," says Mientkiewicz. "Late in the year, that's unheard of. I probably take 25 this time of year, tops. If I had his mentality, I'd be a lot further along in my career." When Mientkiewicz was awarded his Gold Glove last season, Rivas congratulated him, and then said, "I want to be the next guy on this team to get one of those."
Every day during batting practice, Rivas and Mientkiewicz play a game with backup catcher Tom Prince, challenging him to hit a ball through the right side. It's all in good fun -- if your idea of fun is getting rug burns at 5 p.m. before a 7 p.m. game. "We're not happy when someone puts a ball in between us," says Mientkiewicz. "We have right-side pride."
Communication runs like a telephone wire, from pole to pole, around the infield. Mientkiewicz and Rivas have their thing. So do Rivas and Guzman, and Guzman and Koskie. "Watch us," says Mientkiewicz, "and you'll see guys who are tuned in to the game, always moving, backing up, always in the right spot. Everybody made a big stink about that play Derek Jeter made in the playoffs against Oakland last year. I'm telling you, somebody here would have made that play. We're well-drilled."
Come October, the country will get a chance to see what Mientkiewicz is talking about. It'll be eye-opening for those who haven't seen much of the Team That Almost Wasn't. A wake-up call from the best defensive infield in the game.
This article appears in the September 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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