There are few meaningful methods of measuring defense available to the common fan. Fielding percentages are notoriously misleading, and do you really want to be the kind of person who knows what "range factor" is, let alone how to apply it? Perhaps the best way to assess defense is to simply sit around and watch a lot of TV. Twins righthander Joe Mays did just that last year, and he can now make a pretty compelling argument that Minnesota has the American League's best defense. Says Mays, "Just look how many times we were on Web Gems. I mean, every night?
The Twins finished fifth in the league in fielding percentage last season, but that understates the contribution the glovemen made, especially to the collective state of mind of the pitching staff. "As pitchers we can go out there and relax because we know that the defense is going to be behind us," says Mays, whose emergence gives the Twins a trio of front-of-the-rotation starters—Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Mays—who won 47 games last year, five fewer than the Yankees' big three. Minnesota also has a reliable fourth starter in 36-year-old Rick Reed.
The defense behind that impressive rotation is full of highlight-reel regulars. Center-fielder Torii Hunter and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz won Gold Gloves, and with Roberto Alomar no longer playing alongside Omar Vizquel in Cleveland, the Twins' double-play combo of Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas is the league's best. Frequently overshadowed, however, is Corey Koskie, who in a few short years has transformed himself from a goofball Canadian puckstopper into a goofball Canadian who has been the AL's most consistent third baseman over the past two seasons.
Koskie, 28, grew up in Manitoba, where he played volleyball and hockey. Baseball was little more than a diversion, and when he and his friends did play, there was very little practice involved. "If the game was at six o'clock," says Koskie, "we'd get there at 5:45, throw a little and play." He finally gave baseball his undivided attention in 1992 when, unable to get a Division I hockey or volleyball scholarship because he hadn't taken the SAT, he enrolled at Des Moines Area Community College in Boone, Iowa, which didn't even offer hockey or volleyball.
Because Koskie got serious about the game so late in life, his coaches inundated him with fundamental drill work, which actually hampered him. "I thought he was too robotic," says new manager Ron Gardenhire. "I wanted him to be more of an athlete." Gardenhire, who as a coach has worked with Koskie since 1997, finally told him to forget about trying to be mechanically perfect and instead to draw on his two years of playing goalie for the Selkirk Steelers of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. "Gardy said, 'You're a goalie. Catch the ball like a glove save. Don't fight it,' " Koskie says.
Koskie also helps keep things loose in the clubhouse, which is important since the Twins will play this season knowing that if baseball contracts, they might not be together next year. Koskie's role is to dish out the occasional insult, but more often to serve as the butt of his teammates' wisecracks, usually at the expense of his wardrobe or his homeland. "Well, he's from Canada, so he has kind of this deranged sense of humor," says in-fielder Denny Hocking, unable to resist taking a poke at his pal. "Not the sharpest blade in the drawer, know what I mean?"
Koskie, who missed more than two weeks this spring with a bruised right wrist, had a career year at the plate last season, finishing one homer behind Hunter, who led the team with 27. That number illustrates Minnesota's lack of pop. The team hasn't had a 30-home-run hitter since 1987. But the Twins like to rely on a more slump-proof aspect of the game. "Our defense is still going to be there," says Mays. "It's going to be strong again." As are the Twins.
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