By Matt Kane
DELANO Attention spans may not have been as long as usual for the students at the Delano Elementary School Thursday morning. Minds had to be wandering with excitement over who was to visit the school later that morning the Minnesota Twins.
More specifically, the group of visitors included third baseman Danny Valencia, utility infielder Matt Tolbert, former Twins player and current broadcaster Dan Gladden, and the lovable mascot T.C. Bear.
School Principal Darren Schuler couldn’t say whether or not the students got much accomplished in the morning before the Twins arrived, but he knows they were pumped.
“You would have to ask the teachers,” he said about the amount of learning taking place. “I know the excitement level was high with the Twins jerseys and hats. It was an exciting morning.”
The students and teachers, all clad in Twins wear, filled the floor of the school gymnasium, and the surrounding chairs and bleachers were filled with parents and other Twins fans, all of whom were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the big leaguers. And, finally, with the students singing loudly the lyrics to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” (“Tonight’s gonna be a good night”), in walked Schuler with his special guests, minus T.C. Bear.
The crowd erupted with screams and applause for the two current and one former Twins players, many offering high-fives along the path to the stage.
“This was a good one to finish it off with. There was a lot of enthusiasm with them singing songs, and there were good questions,” Tolbert said after the half-hour presentation. “I hope we made some of them happy. There was a lot of Twins gear out there.”
The Twins were in Delano on one of the final legs of the 51st annual Twins Winter Caravan. Thursday’s visit was the final stop for Tolbert, Gladden and T.C. Bear. Valencia is scheduled to finish his tour of Twins Territory today (Jan. 31).
“We started on Sunday and finished today. It’s been great. The fans have been really supportive and it’s been a great time with Danny Gladden and Danny Valencia,” Tolbert said. “Hopefully, they liked it. It seemed like everywhere we went people were excited, so, hopefully, we did a good job for them.”
This was Tolbert’s second tour of Twins Territory he joined Ron Gardenhire, Joe Vavra, Pat Neshek and Dick Bremer last season and Valencia’s first. Both appreciate the chance to get out in the communities of the people who support them and where the Twins call home.
“I’m very happy I got to experience this; it’s great,” Valencia said. “It’s nice to be able to explore Twins Territory, and give back, in a sense, to the people who support us throughout the season.”
Gladden emceed the visit to Delano and read questions that were written by students for the current players to answer. After a few question-and-answer exchanges calmed the crowd down, the crowd quickly turned into an excited frenzy when T.C. Bear made his energetic entrance, winding his way from the back of the room and through the crowd until he reached the other guests of honor. After a Three Stooges fall off of a folding chair set up by Gladden, T.C. and the rest of the group pulled six kids out of the crowd who looked to have the most Twins spirit. Prizes went to all six contestants. Gianna Arthur, Andrew Gilliland, and Gretta Wood received Twins calendars; Brooke Swenson and Ellie Tulkki won autographed baseballs, and Sam Kern took home a Joe Mauer bobblehead doll for having the most Twins spirit.
During the event, both Tolbert and Valencia talked about growing up and playing in the majors, but they also promoted the importance of school and getting a good education. Tolbert said his favorite subject in school was math, while Valencia pointed to social studies. Tolbert also spoke about his desire to finish the few credits he needs to graduate college from the University of Mississippi. It’s that type of message Schuler appreciated the players passing on to the Delano students.
“It was neat for them to explain to the kids that, even though they are professional baseball players and they are making a lot of money, it’s still important to get your education and to read and get on to college someday,” Schuler said.
Valencia completed his junior year at the University of Miami before being drafted by the Twins in 2006.
The Caravan’s inclusion of Delano fit in perfectly with the elementary school’s kickoff to I Love to Read Month, which starts Tuesday, Feb. 1.
“Hit a home run for reading” is the school’s theme for the month. The Twins surely hit a home run with their visit, which was coordinated with the City of Delano.
“Phil Kern asked if we would host it, and I said ‘Absolutely,’” Schuler said. “Knowing how much our staff and students love the Twins, we thought it would be a great way to kick off I Love to Read Month, and a great way just to see the real Twins in action, and T.C. Bear.”
Thursday’s visit to Delano was the first time the Twins visited Delano in six years. The last time was in 2005, when Matthew LeCroy, Michael Cuddyer, Bert Blyleven and Al Newman met fans at the city hall senior center. Schuler wouldn’t mind hosting the Winter Caravan more often.
“We could do this every year,” said Schuler, who was wearing a Joe Mauer jersey. “The kids would be pumped up.”
A week of traveling through Twins Territory presented several winter opportunities to the group of Twins who made their way to Delano.
“I got a chance to ride a snowmobile at one of the schools me and Danny (Valencia) both did so that was cool. One of the kids was nice enough to let us get on one of his,” said Tolbert, who grew up in Mississippi. “We went bowling, and made some stops, and, hopefully, we made some people happy.”
The snowmobile ride was Tuesday in Fergus Falls.
“I did get to go snowmobiling, but I cut my time short because I thought I was going to get stuck on this hill,” said Valencia, a Miami guy. “It was fun and interesting. That’s something I would actually consider doing because it seems like it’s a lot of fun.”
Tolbert and Valencia, who are 28 and 26 years of age, respectively, also took time to act like kids in winter while on the tour.
“Me and Matty are like brothers, and we have been throwing snowballs off each other’s heads when we get off the bus,” Valencia said. “It’s been a lot of fun and I couldn’t have envisioned it being any better.
“It’s definitely nice in Miami, but, at the same time, I like to get away from Miami and get away from that heat,” he added. “The winters are cold here, but you just deal with it, and I’ve actually enjoyed being up here.”
The group which included Tolbert, Valencia, Gladden, T.C. Bear, and also two Twins employees, started its journey Jan. 23 in Albert Lea, and ventured to Sioux City, IA, Yankton, SD, Sioux Falls, SD, Watertown, SD, Wahpeton, SD, Fergus Falls, Morris, Glenwood, Benson, and Willmar, and stopped in Buffalo Thursday morning, before finally arriving in Delano.
“It’s all about giving back, shaking hands, and interacting with the people who support us during the season,” Valencia said. “We don’t really have the time to see everybody and say, ‘Thanks, we appreciate it.’ We get sidetracked by so much else that is going on that to see Twins Territory and interacting with the fans is phenomenal.”
Although it sits just 28 miles west of Target Field, the city of Delano was foreign to both players, but is now memorable.
“I had no idea about Delano,” Tolbert said.
Valencia had slightly more knowledge of the town.
“I had heard of (Delano), but had never been through it. This is my first time and the turnout was awesome,” said Valencia, who will enter his second season with the Twins this season. “It was phenomenal. These kids are great, and they are very happy, as you can see right now (kids gawking through the windows of the elementary school office). It’s awesome seeing smiles. They look up to us, which is very humbling to us.”
Down to business
After winning the American League Central Division championship in 2010, the Twins were quickly bumped from the American League Division Series by the New York Yankees. Both Tolbert and Valencia were there to experience the 2010 season, and both hope and expect to improve in 2011.
“We are going to go in there and kick some butt. We’re going to win the American League Central again, make the playoffs, and, hopefully, win the World Series,” said Tolbert, who has played parts of three seasons with the Twins, and batted .230 with one home run and 18 runs batted in last season.
Valencia, who finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting, and batted .311 with seven home runs and 40 runs batted in last season, echoed Tolbert’s prediction.
“I see the Twins being there until the end. Whey would I see it any other way? We are the defending AL Central champs, and I expect us to compete and be at the top of the division, and, hopefully, go deeper in the playoffs than we did this past year,” he explained, supplying good arguments for his optimism. “We played last year without Justin Morneau for half the season and we did really well the second half. To have him healthy, and bringing back Jim Thome and Carl Pavano and (Tsuyoshi) Nishioka we are going to see how he plays. He’s a good player and a good guy we are all excited and looking forward to getting down to spring training.”
The Twins finished last week at TwinsFest. Spring training begins Wednesday, Feb. 16, when pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers. Workouts begin Feb. 17, position players report Feb. 22, and full workouts begin Feb. 23.