Mackey: Twins believe minor league academy is â€˜the wave of the futureâ€™
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- A lot of people still blame Bill Smith for the current, 90-loss state of the Minnesota Twins.
Smith was dismissed from his GM post in November of 2011 and replaced by his predecessor, Terry Ryan. After taking a few weeks to himself, Smith rejoined the organization as a special assistant to the GM, and he has kept a very low public profile since.
I came to Fort Myers wondering, among other things, what the former GM had been doing lately. I knew, like many did, that he was overseeing facility upgrades. What I didn't know was how innovative these upgrades were.
Smith, along with a slew of others - including team president Dave St. Peter, director of ballpark development, Dan Starkey, and senior vice president of operations, Matt Hoy - have been working extensively for months on the details of a $50 million renovation of the Lee County Sports Complex, which has been the Twins' spring training home for more than 20 years.
"I spent 150 nights in Fort Myers last year," Smith said, laughing.
Although this project did create an awesome new walkway that wraps around the outfield at Hammond Stadium - and more beer stands - there is another aspect to the renovation that is much more important to the Twins' future on-field product.
In the coming months, the Twins will unveil a 54-room, on-site residential academy for young minor league players - only the third of its kind among the 30 MLB teams.
"It's a little bit of a campus," as Smith puts it. "We think this is going to be a difference maker in our player development. We also think it's going to be the wave of the future."
Details of the project
The only two teams with on-site residential facilities at their minor league complexes are the Detroit Tigers and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Twins will be the third.
As of right now, the Twins, like most teams, house their minor leaguers in nearby hotels during spring training. Players also stay in hotels during instructional league, extended spring training and on rehab stints.
"Right now, rookie minor leaguers are in a hotel all season long," said Smith, who was one of the main liaisons in 1989 for the Twins' initial move to Fort Myers. "Number one, there's nothing for them to do. Plus, the hotel doesn't want them hanging around the lobby. ... This facility will be better for them from a nutritional standpoint, from a physical standpoint, and from an educational standpoint. ...
"If we do it right, we think players are going to want to stay here."
To figure out exactly what to build, the Twins began by asking minor leaguers for their opinions. They created a mock room last year at a nearby hotel and had players come in and explain what they liked and what they didn't.
"We knew what we wanted to start with, but then we got enough feedback from the players that leads us down this path of, 'Hey, this is going to be a great product when we're done,'" Smith said.
Some of the logistics have yet to be determined, but rookie minor leaguers will be able to stay at the academy for no charge. All minor leaguers are welcome stay as long as they want, although some of the older players (Double- and Triple-A guys) often have families and find their own housing. The "campus" is likely geared more toward the younger players coming out of high school, foreign-born players, or even players coming from cold climates who want to get a head start on spring training.
• All 54 rooms will include two double beds with extra length, two desks, separate shower and bathroom areas, and closet/drawer space
• A 3,300 square-foot game room
• A video game room and computer lab
• Commons areas with couches, chairs, TVs and the MLB Package
• On-site laundry machines
• The Twins hired Sodexo to run the daily dining, housekeeping and maintenance operations. Sodexo will put together breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for players every day. The Twins plan to provide education about nutrition.
• A large auditorium -- "To be able to have a good meeting, where everybody isn't crammed in shoulder to shoulder," Smith said.
(Or, perhaps more importantly, to make sure minor leaguers all see the movie "Little Big League" at least once...)
The Twins would like to start housing players on June 1.
The residential housing is just one part of a multi-phase upgrade of the Lee County Sports Complex.
Other upgrades within the past 12 months include:
• Minor league training room upgrades that mirror what Target Field has - more space, multiple hydro-pools and more.
• An expanded home clubhouse.
• An extra playing field, giving the Twins five full-sized fields (and two infield-only fields).
• An agility field with a large hill (8 feet high), flat grassy space for conditioning, and a sand pit - all per the request of Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Perry Castellano.
• A new video system in the batting cages, in bullpens and on the practice fields. For years, the Twins were using hand held video cameras at the Lee County Sports Complex. The new system involves a mix of stationary and portable cameras.
All of this - plus expanded seating at Hammond Stadium and a 360-degree walkway around the outfield, and later this year, renovations to the stadium clubhouse - will cost nearly $50 million. The county will pay $42.5 million and the Twins will pay around $8 million. The Twins will also own the housing residence.
How will these facilities impact the product on the field?
Are these minor league facility upgrades a reaction to the Twins losing 90 games three years in a row? Technically no, because the concept has been in the works for a few years.
"Our goal is to get better athletes and better players," Smith said. "Keep in mind, we moved here (to Fort Myers) in 1991, and since then 28 teams have moved into new facilities or have had dramatic upgrades. That leaves the Twins and the A's. ...
"We love the location, and we love the facilities. But the game has changed. Twenty three years ago, nobody had a weight room. Nutrition wasn't as much of a focus."
Smith added the Twins hope the residential academy creates a stronger culture along with better growth and development - a better, more productive and more exciting overall environment for young players. The Twins will also provide a system to help young players finish their college degrees and take life skills classes.
"Everybody benefits from this," Smith said. "The players get better facilities, the coaches and trainers get better facilities."
As for the upgraded training room and outdoor agility field, Castellano has witnessed some inherent changes in the game recently and wants the Twins to keep up.
"Baseball has become so much about overall athleticism. That's what we're trying to instill," Castellano said. "Shortstops, for instance, work within (a certain range)... And we want to expand them out of it."
"You should have seen Miguel Sano on that thing," Castellano said, pointing to the 8-foot high conditioning hill. "Pretty impressive."
We can criticize the Twins -- Bill Smith and others included - for falling behind the times in certain areas over the past few years. With these latest minor league facility upgrades, they're on the forefront. Credit where credit is due.
"What's the old saying -- 'That's the way we've always done it?'" Smith said. "The famous last words from the captain of a sinking ship."