Sunday Notes: Dustin Morse is Missing the Hammond Stadium Press Box

Spring training taking place on (what is hopefully) the back end of a pandemic makes for different routines and challenges, and not just for players and coaching staffs. Media relations personnel are impacted as well. Due to COVID-19 protocols, how they’re going about their business is anything but ordinary.

Dustin Morse is among those having to adjust on the fly. Now in his 16th season with the Minnesota Twins — his sixth as Senior Director of Communications — Morse is doing more than masking-up when he arrives at Hammond Stadium every morning. With face-to-face interactions limited, he’s juggling responsibilities in an increasingly-virtual world, and with one of his favorite areas of the Fort Myers facility off limits.

“Not being in the press box is a real change,” explained Morse, who along with colleagues Mitch Hestad and Elvis Martinez have either Tier 1 or Tier 2 status. As they’re allowed in highly-restricted areas, they can’t mingle with reporters or with others in less-restricted areas. “One way we’d been doing it with Derek [Falvey] and Thad [Levine] is that they’d give me information and I’d deliver it directly to the media during spring training. My usual office there is right behind the press box, and we’d have almost-daily briefings. That’s not allowed this year.”

Nina Zimmerman, who is on Morse’s staff as a communications assistant, is being entrusted to run the press box. Her responsibilities include official scoring, keeping track of substitutions, and announcing when players are available to speak to the media in-game. Not being in a tier, Zimmerman doesn’t have access to restricted areas.

Unlike in normal times, reporters are largely relegated to doing interviews via Zoom, and on occasion over the phone. That means more work for a media-relations department, as simply opening a clubhouse door isn’t an option. Each interview, whether a group session or a one-on-one, needs to be arranged. Morse does his best to accommodate all requests — he professes not to liking the word ‘No’ — but that’s not always possible. As he put it, “There is only so much time in the day.”

Morse usually arrives at Hammond around 7:30am, and after grabbing breakfast he’ll head to his office to read news clips. Along with what’s been written by the Minnesota media, he’ll check in on what’s being covered around the league. Some of that will be shared with Falvey, Levine, and other front office members, or with Rocco Baldelli. Helping keep the manager up to date on the news-cycle buzz — canvassing Twitter being part of that routine — is an important part of his job. When Baldelli holds his daily media session, he’ll typically be asked about some of those happenings.

Morse is on the receiving end as well. Baldelli and/or Falvey/Levine will fill him in on injury updates, pitching schedules, roster moves, and any other information that will be of value to the media. And even with the pandemic ongoing, there are a lot of media. Morse estimated that there are 16 reporters at Twins camp on most days, not all of them from Minnesota. With Kenta Maeda on the roster, reporters from multiple Japanese media entities are there on a daily basis. And again, the interactions are rarely face-to-face. Texts, calls, and Zooms dominate his day.

Once those duties have been completed, Morse will check email and return messages, many to reporters a far cry from Fort Myers. There are 70 players in camp, and “All of them have a hometown.”

From there, Morse will go down to the clubhouse to set up outstanding interview requests, endorsement deals, radio reads, and whatever else the day demands. MLB Network Radio was on site recently, which meant bringing several players to the Zoom room.

His Director-of-Communications hat doesn’t come off as he’s exiting the Hammond Stadium parking lot at the end of the day. By and large, that doesn’t happen until his head hits the pillow.

“I try to get out of here at 5:00 o’clock, but it doesn’t mean I’m done for the day,” explained Morse. “One thing you learn about spring training is that it’s kind of around the clock. I think anybody in our profession will tell you that it’s hard to just put the phone or computer down. If you can get back to a few people before you get to bed, it’s only going to make the following day easier.”

Once again, that would be a day unlike what is typically experienced in the month of March. Personable by nature, Morse is more than a little anxious to return to spring training in a non-pandemic environment. For the native Minnesotan, the press box is normally his home away from home.

“I was just telling our club president that I’m missing those stories that the Patrick Reusses of the world would tell me about the 1963 Twins,” said Morse, who this past winter was honored with the Robert O. Fishel Award for Public Relations Excellence. “It’s a good place to connect with the media, because everybody’s got a unique take on the club, and a different story they’re working on. I’m missing those moments up there, but I also understand that I need to be nimble and flexible. This year, spring training is safety first.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Willie Upshaw went 2 for 5 with two home runs against John Denny.

Dan Uggla went 3 for 5 with two home runs against Sergio Romo.

Melvin Upton went 3 for 5 with two home runs against Kei Igawa.

Justin Upton is 5 for 7 with two home runs against Jon Lester.

Chase Utley went 4 for 4 with three home runs against Dave Borkowski.

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Two Sundays ago this column led with Pittsburgh Pirates manager Derek Shelton, whose club ranked third from the bottom among the 30 teams in stolen bases last season. The plodding approach wasn’t philosophy-driven, but rather a matter of personnel. As Shelton wryly told me, “If we had [Ozzie Smith, Tommy Herr, Willie McGee, and Vince Coleman], we would definitely run more.”

Tarrik Brock believes in the running game, but just like his boss he understands that you can’t make chicken soup out of chicken litter. That’s not to say he believe the Bucs are bereft of players who can scamper around the base paths. It’s more a matter of calculated risk, and even though we’re in an era where boppers greatly outnumber jackrabbits, pilfering bags hasn’t become any easier. In the opinion of Pittsburgh’s first base coach/running coach, it’s actually become harder.

My suggestion that teams maybe don’t defend the running game as well as they once did was met with a rebuttal.

“I disagree,” replied Brock, who played professionally from 1991-2003. “I think they do defend the running game a lot better than they have in the past. Whether it’s mixing the holds, your times to the plate, picks over… they’re just doing more things. There are teams in our division that uses their catchers very well to slow down the running game with a lot of back-picks as well; St. Louis and Chicago to name the two.”

“Pitcher’s times are also becoming a lot quicker,” continued the former Cubs outfielder. “Sometimes we’ll joke that we’re throwing out California freeway times, which are like 101, 110. You’re not running on that, especially when guys have cannons behind the plate. When they’re throwing freeway times, we might want to just get in the slow lane and wait for some action to take place.”

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A quiz:

Only one position player in Dodgers franchise history has recorded two or more seasons with at least 9.0 fWAR. Who is it?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

The Pittsburgh Pirates will continue to play in PNC Park. The club announced that the naming rights for their home venue, which opened in 2001, have been extended until 2031.

The Baltimore Orioles have hired Katie Krause as their new Director of Public Relations. Krause recently served as the Senior Manager of Corporate Communications with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Joe Altobelli, who managed the Orioles to their most-recent World Series championship in 1983, died Wednesday at age 88. A Detroit native, Altobelli was an outfielder/first baseman for the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins before going on to have a long career as a coach, manager, and minor-league broadcaster. He’s a member of both the Rochester Red Wings and International League Halls of Fame.

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The answer to the quiz is Jackie Robinson. The Hall of Fame infielder had 9.6 fWAR in 1949, and 9.0 fWAR in 1951. On the pitching side, Sandy Koufax had three seasons with at least 9.0 fWAR.

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A Powerpoint presentation awaited Tyler Nevin when he came over to the Orioles from the Colorado Rockies at last summer’s trade deadline. Upon his arrival, the 23-year-old corner infield prospect was shown what he does well, and more importantly, what the Baltimore brain trust wants to see him continue to improve upon.

I asked the No. 17 prospect in the Orioles system how his new organization compares to the one that drafted him 38th-overall in 2015.

“The Orioles are more on the data swing, for sure,” said the youngster, whose father, Phil Nevin, played in the big leagues for 12 seasons and is now the third base coach for the New York Yankees. “I don’t say that in a negative way at all. I like having all that information. It helps me develop a plan, [and] if we’re working in the cage, different technologies help us figure out what’s going on, I’ve found a lot of helpful tools since I’ve come over here.”

Asked to elaborate, Nevin said that while the Rockies did some things similarly, the Orioles go more in-depth. Tracking swing movements and ball-flight is a big part of that, and while he recognizes data and technology aren’t silver bullets, they’re helping him move in the right direction.

“It’s not something you just immediately flip, and can see a direct translation,” explained Nevin. “It’s kind of a process. It’s just given me a different outlook on how to approach things, realizing that I have these tools to track progress, and develop that way.”

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Mike Clevinger’s curveball was lacking in movement last year — the horizontal and vertical both fell relative to 2019 — and hitters took advantage, punishing it to the tune of a .389 BA and a .444 SLG. Small sample size that it was, the offering clearly wasn’t up to snuff. I asked the San Diego Padres about it earlier this week.

“I was just rushing back from a knee injury, early,” explained Clevinger, who subsequently underwent Tommy John surgery and will be on the shelf this season. “I was five or six inches higher at release point on all pitches for my first couple starts, and it affected my curveball more than anything. Once I started getting my knee back underneath, I starting to see my velo get back to where it was and my pitches started molding back into where they should be. So I think that was more just my knee not being ready to perform.”

Once he returns to action, Clevinger intends to be more unpredictable in his usage. Not wanting to be pigeonholed as pitcher who throws his slider 60% on 2-2 counts — that was the example he gave — he intends to diversify to keep hitters guessing. Counts aside, more sliders to lefties is another of his plans.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Masahiro Tanaka made his first spring training appearance for NPB’s Rakuten Golden Eagles yesterday. The erstwhile New York Yankees hurler allowed two runs over four innings in a game against the Chunichi Dragons.

The Yomiuri Giants traded 25-year-old left-hander Kazuto Taguchi to the Yakult Swallows in exchange for 23-year-old infielder Taishi Hirooka. An effective starter in 2016 and 2017, Taguchi will be looking to rebound from three subpar seasons. Hirooka has historically hit for a low average, but provides pop for his position.

NPB’s players’ union met with NPB officials this week to discuss bringing about a version of MLB’s Rule 5 draft. According to Tokyo-based scribe Jim Allen, the likelihood of NPB owners’ acquiescing to the request are good.

The KBO’s SK Wyverns have officially been renamed SSG Landers. Per The Korea Herald, the nickname “Landers” was inspired by Incheon International Airport, the country’s main gateway, as travelers land there when arriving in South Korea.

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CJ Abrams is No. 6 our on 2021 Top 100 Prospects list, and that lofty ranking comes with an eye-opening comp. Called “the best leadoff-hitting prospect in baseball,” by Eric Longenhagen, the 20-year-old infielder has been likened to Kenny Lofton thanks to elite speed and a similar left-handed stroke. Few scouts would argue with Longnhagen’s claim that “Abrams can absolutely rake.”

I asked Abrams about his hitting skills, and the approach that accompanies them into the batter’s box. His response came not with nuance, but rather with straightforward simplicity.

“It has to do with swinging so much in my life; it’s kind of subconscious,” Abrams said. “When I’m at the plate, I use all parts of the field and see ball, hit ball… Hunt the fastball, and if it’s a strike, swing. If it’s not, don’t.”

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Spencer Torkelson — No. 9 on our Top 100 Prospects list — was asked earlier this week about slowing the game down. (I believe the question was posed by broadcaster Matt Shepard.) Last year’s first-overall draft pick supplied an answer that exuded both calm and confidence.

“It comes over time,” said the 21-year-old Arizona State product. “Getting the repetitions in practice, day after day, nothing is new, nothing surprises you. You know going into an at bat, or an inning out in the field, that anything that comes your way, you’re ready for it. You know you’re going to get the job done.”

The Tigers will be counting on Torkelson to get the job done in the not-too-distant future. Detroit’s rebuild won’t bear fruit on the shoulders of its promising pitching alone. The young hitters need to mature as well, and Torkelson — calm, cool, and collected — could very well be on the fast track. As much as anyone, he’s the key to the club’s return to relevance in the AL Central.

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Adley Rutschman was made available to the media yesterday, and I asked him the same question Torkelson had fielded: What allows you to slow the game down?

“That’s a good question,” responded Rutschman, who is No. 3 on our Top 100 Prospects list. “I think the most important thing for me is understanding, and having the ability to be able to step back from the game, realizing how fortunate you are to be able to play the game, That puts everything in perspective. First and foremost, you’re able to step back and see everything as an opportunity, as opposed to a pressure situation. That’s the first thing, and then just being able to control your mind and your body at the time, being able to relax and breathe.”

A 23-year-old catcher, Rutschman was drafted first-overall by the Baltimore Orioles out of Oregon State University in 2019. As Longenhagen accurately phrased it in the youngster’s prospect profile, Rutschman is physical similar to 2007 first-rounder Matt Wieters, but his “blood courses through his veins at a much different temperature.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The New York Times, Juliet Macur told us about how Bianca Smith, the first Black woman to coach in professional baseball, learned the language of the game from her mother.

How many pitchers in MLB history have thrown a shutout in the only game they ever started? Aidan Jackson-Evans provided us with the answer at High Heat Stats.

At Hall of Stats, Adam Darowski wrote about Rick Reuschel, WAR, and Hall of Fame value.

MLB.com’s Matt Monagan told us about Fats Fothergill, who not only put up impressive numbers for the Detroit Tigers in the 1920s, he outdrank Babe Ruth and outhit Ty Cobb.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Tampa Bay’s Yoshitomo Tsutsugo had a 20.9% O-Swing% last year, the lowest among rookies with at least 70 plate appearances. Chicago’s Luis Robert had the highest, 43.1%.

Felix Hernandez leads all active pitchers in losses, with 136. He’s sixth in wins, with 169.

On July 30, 1968, Ron Hansen turned an unassisted triple play while playing shortstop for the Washington Senators. Three years earlier, on August 1, 1965, Hansen hit into a triple play while playing for the Chicago White Sox.

Cleveland Indians right-hander Wes Ferrell allowed nine home runs in 276-and-a-third innings, in 1931. He also hit nine home runs in 128 plate appearances.

In 2000, no MLB team finished above .600 or below .400. That was a first in big-league history.

The Cincinnati Reds went the entire 2000 season without being shut out. No team had don so since the schedule was increased from 154 to 162 games.

The Reds purchased 21-year-old Johnny Mize from the St. Louis Cardinals in December 1934, only to return him to his old team four months later due to a health issue. Mize recovered, then went on to log a .164 wRC+ from 1936-1942. After missing three seasons serving in the military, Mize went on to hit 51 home runs, and strike out just 42 times, for the New York Giants in 1947.

The Philadelphia Phillies signed George Bell as an amateur free agent on today’s date in 1978. Bell was subsequently acquired by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1980 Rule 5 draft and went on to be named AL MVP in 1987.

Players born on this date include Scott Munter, who made 84 relief appearances for the San Francisco Giants from 2005-2007. A first baseman at the University of Oklahoma before moving to the mound, Munter had an RBI double in his only official big-league at bat.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Bruce Schwindt
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Bruce Schwindt

Interesting and informative as always.