Minor League Sports

The Tommy Effect: Tommy Watkins enjoying big-league life with first-place Minnesota Twins

Former Cedar Rapids Kernels manager in first season as Twins' first-base coach

Cedar Rapids Kernels Manager Tommy Watkins smiles as he talks with a fan during the 2nd inning of their game at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Apr. 8, 2017. (The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Kernels Manager Tommy Watkins smiles as he talks with a fan during the 2nd inning of their game at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Apr. 8, 2017. (The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — It was pointed out to Tommy Watkins that perhaps it is no coincidence the Minnesota Twins are on pace to shatter the Major League Baseball record for most home runs in a season.

Watkins is a coach in the bigs for the first time, manning first base and running the outfield defense for the American League Central leaders. Maybe it’s his mere presence that has keyed this power surge.

“I’m not the hitting coach,” he quickly pointed out.

No, but there’s just got to be something there, right?

“Nobody wants to stop at first base and talk to him,” deadpanned a friend who was listening in on a Wednesday night conversation between Watkins and a couple of reporters.

That definitely is not the case, because everyone loves to talk to Tommy. He is the very definition of affable, as good a dude as you will meet in professional baseball, a guy nicknamed “The Mayor” because he can converse with a virtual stranger and make him feel as if he or she is his friend.

That’s why it was heartwarming to so many when Watkins was named to first-year manager Rocco Baldelli’s staff over the winter. The 39-year-old Watkins is a baseball lifer, a guy who has been with the Twins as a player, coach and manager since he graduated from high school in 1998.

With the exception of nine games as a player in 2007, all that time has been spent in the minor leagues, including as a hitting coach and manager for the Cedar Rapids Kernels. He skippered the Kernels just two years ago, as a matter of fact, taking them to the Midwest League playoffs.

Now he’s in the majors.

“It has been a lot of learning, just been fun,” he said. “We’ve been playing well, too, so it’s fun to go to the park when you’ve got something to play for.

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“When you are in the minor leagues managing, you are worried about everything: the offense, the defense, the pitching, the alignment of the infield and outfield, everything. Now I concentrate on the outfielders and where they are positioned, concentrate on the pitchers and their time to the plate for our baserunners. You concentrate on your job. It’s just different in that way.”

Watkins said he had been told he likely was going to manage the Twins’ Double-A affiliate for a second consecutive year, only to receive a phone call a couple days later from Baldelli, who was hired to replace Paul Molitor as Minnesota’s manager in late October.

“I congratulated him on getting his job, and the conversation went from there,” Watkins said. “He asked me if I wanted to be part of his staff, and I was like ‘Are you serious?’ He said ‘I’ll take that as a yes.’”

Twins Executive Vice President and Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey then phoned Watkins shortly after that.

“Derek called later and said ‘Welcome,’” Watkins said. “We talked a little bit, and he wanted me to think about what they had offered. I just told him I didn’t have to think too much. I wanted to say yes before they changed their minds.”

Watkins spent the all-star break last week in Cedar Rapids with his girlfriend, who lives and works here. The Twins went into Saturday with a 57-33 record and a six-game lead on Cleveland in the A.L. Central.

The Tommy Effect.

“There are a bunch of guys who we’ve had come up through the minor leagues, so to see them again, that part has been fun, too,” he said. “Guys like (Jorge) Polanco, (Max) Kepler, (Mitch) Garver, (Byron) Buxton, (Eddie) Rosario, all those guys. Rosario didn’t play here in Cedar Rapids, but we saw him coming up in the minor leagues for us. It is fun to see those guys do well and contribute.”

And it’s fun to see Tommy Watkins in the big leagues.

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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