The big day is here, and it’s always something special. I can’t even describe what the adrenaline rush is like on Opening Day. It’s my 12th Opening Day, and the butterflies will be there as always. Once the game starts, though, it’s back to doing what we do. It’s a thrill to take the field and get another season going.
We’re meeting my old team, the Twins, to get it started for the second time in my three years with the Angels. Everyone knows how it all started for me in Minnesota, so this is special.
The truth is, I’m looking forward to this one a lot more than the opener at the Metrodome in 2008. That series went four games and was hard on me emotionally, mentally and even physically, being on artificial turf.
Opening Day at the Metrdome, my first game in an Angels uniform, that was really rough on me. I was kind of in a daze, running around trying to see so many people who meant so much to me for such a big part of my life. I knew everybody there, from the janitors to the vendors.
My nerves were shot before the game even started. I didn’t play very well and we lost, but it was just one game. As the series went on, I started feeling better and playing better. I hit a home run, got a few hits and we came out of it all right. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad it was over.
This time it’s all different. The Twins are coming to our house, to my place. It’ll be good to see all those guys again, from Ron Gardenhire and Joe Mauer through the ranks. That’s always been a great organization, and I was proud to be a Twin from June 3, 1993 to the end of 2007.
It’s a new era with the Twins. They showed that when they stepped up and did what it took to keep Joe. They showed they didn’t want to be a small-market team anymore. They’ve got their new ballpark, and a whole new era. It’s great to see.
Guys like myself and Johan Santana, we were there at the wrong time. They couldn’t keep us, but I know it means the world to those great fans that they signed Joe, their hometown guy, to that eight-year deal. I was really happy to see that.
It’s going to be exciting for those guys to come to our turf. It’ll be cool to see Gardy, Jerry White, all those guys who taught me so much.
I’ll also get to see some guys I helped raise as players. Denard Span, who’s taking my old spot, is my protégé. He came to stay with me in Texas, in my house. I talked to him about everything, from finances to family to the game.
Gardy was one of the first guys I met when I signed with the Twins out of high school in Pine Bluff, Ark. I was 17 when I signed. We met in Spring Training in 1994. He was the third-base coach then, and he was so cool to me. I’ll always remember that.
Gardenhire reminds me of Mike Scioscia in some ways. Both those guys are really into the game, always studying the game. I don’t know if Gardy has changed any – I seriously doubt it — but when I was there, he was a players’ manager. He was always joking with the players, staying close to us. Guys loved playing for him.
I’ve been lucky to spend almost my whole career playing for two of the best managers in the game. We’re going to do everything we can to take Mike back to the World Series this season. It’s a long process, but everything starts with that first step, that first game. Let’s get it going.
We’re down a game in this series, but we’re not out by a long shot. I know what a team can do when it comes together and plays the game with something to prove. I’ve seen it firsthand.
My first exposure to the postseason was in 2002 with the Twins. In ’01, we were in first place the whole season until Cleveland came back and beat us. We were up by five games in July. We were a young team, with guys like David Ortiz, Jacque Jones and Corey Koskie. We would up in second place, and it was devastating.
That winter, there was all that talk about contraction, how they were going to contract the Twins and the Expos. I was getting calls all winter, people asking me what was going to happen. I thought I was going to be somewhere else. But we got everything worked out, and we came into the 2002 season determined to show everyone what we could do with our $40 million payroll.
Ron Gardenhire was in his first season as the manager. Nobody had us winning the American League Central, but we ended up taking the division with 94 wins and going to the AL Championship Series. That’s when we ran into the Angels, and you know how that turned out.
We went up against Oakland in the AL Division Series, and they had that rotation that was the best in baseball — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. We had to beat the best rotation in baseball. Johan Santana was in our bullpen. Our starters were Joe Mays, Eric Milton, Brad Radke and Kyle Lohse.
They were up on us, 2-1, but we came back and won the fourth and fifth games. When Eddie Guardado threw that last out at Oakland, and Ray Durham popped it up to Denny Hocking, there was this incredible feeling of joy and accomplishment we all had. I mean, think about it. The winter before they were talking about contracting us, and here we were beating the best rotation in baseball and going on to the ALCS.
We didn’t know John Lackey was waiting for us with his 97 mph gas, and Frankie Rodriguez was coming after us. And the Rally Monkey, making everybody go crazy. And, oh yeah, Adam Kennedy with his three home runs in Game 5 after he hit seven all season.
The Angels beat us at our game. That’s when I really began to admire the Anaheim Angels. I saw similarities with us — and nice weather with a great stadium. When they went on and won the World Series against the Giants, it gave me hope. If we’d beaten that team, it probably would have been us winning the World Series.
You can do great things in this game with talent and the right attitude. The Twins that year showed how far you could take it, and so did the Angels. Play the game right, play together, with everything you’ve got, and you can move mountains.
What we have to do now is come out and play with emotion, not play scared. But we also have to play smart. Be patient, take the walk if it’s there. Let somebody else drive you in. We’ve got weapons all through out lineup. Move the runner over, hit the cutoff man, run the bases aggressively, but be smart about it, too.
Hey, we know what we can do. You don’t have the best record in the Major Leagues and win 50 games on the road without having some mental toughness to go with the talent.
The Red Sox are the champions. We’re trying to take the crown off their heads. To do that, you’ve got to get that dog in you. That dog means being a little more aggressive, not being too timid. It’s time to let the dogs out. Woof-woof.
This is what I hoped for, what I envisioned when I signed my free-agent contract with the Angels last winter. We’re in the postseason, with a good shot at getting to the World Series and winning it all. But that’s not the whole story.
As thrilled as I am to be a part of this team, I couldn’t be any happier with what the Twins have done since I left Minnesota.
I’ve got a lot of friends there, a lot of people I truly love. That’s why it was so hard on a personal level to leave. Everything I know about the game — how to play it right, how to develop chemistry, how to get everything you can out of the talent you have — comes from that organization. We’ve achieved a lot here with the Angels this year, and so have the Twins.
Really, it couldn’t have worked out any better for everybody concerned.
One of the positives to come out of me leaving Minnesota was that Denard Span got a chance to show what he can do. Denard was my protégé. He came to Texas to work out with me in the offseason, and we talked all the time about the life of baseball. To see him get that opportunity and come through the way he has is just awesome for me.
That’s really amazing, what they’ve done. I mean, Johan Santana is one of the best pitchers in the game, and they also lost Carlos Silva to the Mariners. That’s where their pitching philosophy came through for them. They teach their guys to pound the strike zone, and that’s what they do. They catch the ball and run the bases hard. And they’re smart; you rarely see them beat themselves. I have tremendous respect for that organization, the way they teach guys to play the right way all through the organization.
Everything I brought here with me, I learned there. I am indebted to the Twins for that. I’ll always have a connection to that organization and the city. It was a great time in my life. But the time came where it was best for me to make a move — and this is where I definitely wanted to be.
Going all the way back to 2002 when the Angels beat us in the ALCS, I’ve admired the way they play the game. They do all the things the Twins do. When I became a free agent, I was a scout. I talked to eight or nine teams, and the Angels were right at the top — with the Twins.
You can’t explain it to fans, but getting off the artificial turf was a big deal for me. I didn’t want to be like so many guys who played the outfield on carpets and had to leave the game too soon, before their time, because of the beating their bodies took on it. It’s a long list, and I didn’t want to be on it.
I want to play this game as long as I can, because I love everything about it. That’s one of the things that made the Angels so appealing to me from the start. On top of playing the game the right way, like the Twins, they played outside — on grass. And in front of great fans, like we had in Minnesota.
Early in the free-agent process, it didn’t look like the Angels were going to get involved. When they did, kind of out of the blue, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. It came together fast, like a dream. And like I keep saying, it couldn’t have worked out any better.
I’ve had no problems with my body this year. I go in for a massage, but that’s about it. Playing on a hard turf, by the end of the season you’re all beat up. My body is feeling great.
This team has so much talent, it’s unbelievable. And some great guys, too. I’ve tried to open up a few of them with my jokes and attitude, and I think I’ve done that. If you’re having a good time, it makes the season more enjoyable — and it can be a long season if you’re not having a good time.
Rolling around on the floor in the clubhouse, wearing those goggles, swimming and dancing during our celebration after winning the division title, that was about as good as it gets. I loved seeing the guys cut loose and really have some fun together. That’s part of building camaraderie, chemistry. You’re all in it together — literally, in that case.
Now it’s time to go out and take care of business. These guys know what they have to do. It’s all about playing the game with feeling, playing from your heart and executing with your head, hands and feet.