General | Professional | 3/12/2012

Top ballplayer, top all-around guy

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Per

FORT MYERS, Fla. – It’s always worth the effort checking in with Minnesota Twins center fielder Denard Span, if only because it’s no effort at all.

The guy is accessible, accommodating, affable, easy-going, easy-to-smile, and as humble as anyone you will find in a Major League Baseball spring training clubhouse. He is also intensely competitive and wants to play in a role in returning the Twins to the top of the American League Central Division standings in 2012.

The 28-year-old Span is a true professional playing this season in what should be the beginning of the prime of his career for the only MLB organization he has ever known. He is coming off a 2011 season in which he missed considerable time mostly because of concussion and migraine headache symptoms, and his aggressive style of play has also led him to miss some time so far this spring.

Running into a chain-link outfield fence face-first can result in lingering effects, such as the stiff neck Span has been experiencing since that collision during a simulated game on March 1.

“It was a pretty good crash,” Span told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on March 2. “My neck and all that – my head feels good. My back’s a little sore, but other than that I feel fine.”

Span spoke with Perfect Game a week later on March 9 before the Twins played the defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals in a Grapefruit League game at Hammond Stadium. Span didn’t play that day, but in five previous spring training games he hit .385 (5-for-13, all singles) and stole two bases.

“We just started playing games about a week ago and we’re getting it going and trying to get ready for Opening Day,” Span told PG from inside the Twins’ clubhouse at Hammond. “I’m feeling pretty good so far and I’ve been able to participate in everything and play in the games I’ve been called on to play in.”

Span graduated from Tampa (Fla.) Catholic High School in the spring of 2002 and was ranked the nation’s No. 9 overall prospect (No. 1 outfield prospect) in his class by Perfect Game. On the PG profile he created while in high school, he wrote "Learn more about the game, be more consistent" on the line asking him his career goals. He never committed to a college but that became a non-issue when the Twins used the 20th overall pick in the first round of the 2002 draft on Span.

He attended only one Perfect Game showcase event during his high school years, but it was a dandy. He was named to the Top Prospect List at the 2001 Perfect Game National Showcase held at the Tampa Bay Rays’ Tropicana Field, an event at which he was one of 12 first round draft picks-to-be and one of 17 prospects at that event eventually selected in the first five rounds.

Current big-leaguers Prince Fielder, Alex Gordon, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and B.J. Upton were among the first-rounders at the 2001 event, the first PG National Showcase ever held.

 “It’s been a lot of fun. It’s definitely been a dream come true, a blessing,” Span said. “I remember being 17-years-old and going to the Perfect Game showcase and being around so many great players, and you look around there’s a lot of players from those Perfect Game showcases that are in the big leagues now.

“The transition from high school and Perfect Game to being in the minor leagues … has been fun and I wouldn’t change anything. If I had to do it all over again I’d do it the same way.”

After signing with the Twins, Span spent five full seasons in the minor leagues. He made his Major League debut on April 6, 2008, but those five seasons in the minors became trying at times.

“I remember being maybe 20 or 21 and just struggling a little bit and wondering if I should have gone to college first to mature a little more,” Span said. “But that’s just part of it. The minor leagues are a grind but it prepares you for the big-league level, and everything that I went through down there has made me the player that I am today. It’s made me humble, it’s made me appreciate my blessings and appreciate the opportunity that I have today.”

Span has some work to do this spring, and the stiff neck hasn’t exactly accelerated his progress.

He hit .264 with 10 triples, 24 doubles, three home runs, 58 RBI 85 runs scored and 26 stolen bases in 2010, his most productive big-league season to date. But he suffered a concussion in a home plate collision early in the 2011 season and was limited to 70 games, hitting .264 with 11 doubles, five triples two homers, 16 RBI and six stolen bases.

As evidenced by his face-to-chain-link-fence collision, Span has proved he’s ready to go all-out this spring.

“I’m going to try not to play cautiously,” he told the Star-Tribune. “I’m going to try to go out there and play the game like I always did before I had these concussions. I feel like if you go out there thinking too much, you’re going to get hurt even more. You have a greater chance of injury by playing half-speed.”

If his health permits it – and there is every reason to think it will – 2012 will be Span’s fifth full season in the big leagues. He’s as up-beat as ever and his contagious smile can light up even a dimly lit clubhouse. And he is, after all, only 28-years-old, although he admits to feeling like a veteran from time-to-time.

“This is my 10th spring training and it’s starting to hit me a little bit,” he said. “I’ve started looking around and I’ve started to see guys that are younger than me, so I have been around for a little while now. But I feel like I have a lot of good baseball left in the tank and I feel like I’m really starting to put it together. In this game you learn something every year, no matter how old you get or how many years you play in this game.

“But I think I’m coming into my own as far as my maturity, my strength and my knowledge of the game, and I’m feeling pretty good about myself.”

That would be the same way he felt about himself in mid-June, 2001, when he was starring at the Perfect Game National Showcase in St. Petersburg. If you ever get the opportunity, ask him about it. He’ll be more than happy to talk to you, smiling with every recollection.

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