Wednesday, September 1st, 2010...4:09 pm

Big League dreams come true

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Twins rookie third baseman Danny Valencia is enjoying life on the upswing in the top tier of professional baseball

By MORDECAI SPECKTOR

Growing up in Boca Raton, Fla., Danny Valencia says he was “a huge baseball fan.” He recalls cheering for the hometown team, the Florida Marlins, when they played against Cleveland in the 1997 World Series. In the fall classic that year, Jim Thome was a star for the Marlins’ American League rivals.

Flash forward 13 years, and Valencia, 25, third baseman for the Twins and one of the few Jews now playing in Major League Baseball, was on deck in the bottom of the 10th inning of the Aug. 17 home game against the Chicago White Sox.

The Twins had blown a 4-0 lead, and regained it in the fifth inning. Then newly acquired closer Matt Capps blew the save in the ninth, and Jon Rauch gave up the go-ahead run to the Sox in the top of the 10th.

In the bottom of the 10th, with the Twins trailing 6-5, Delmon Young led off with a single; and then Thome, the Twins’ designated hitter this year, smacked a Matt Thornton pitch into the right field seats, giving the Twins a 7-6 win, and entered the Target Field records book with the first walk-off hit in the new ballpark. (Valencia hit two doubles in the game; but the story, of course, was the veteran Thome’s big blast.)

Sitting in the Twins dugout at Target Field the following day, Valencia said that he had followed Thome’s long career in the Big Leagues, “and to be on the same team with him, and watch him go about his business, and do things like he did last night — being as I was on deck, so I would say that I had the best view in the house — it’s unbelievable, and I’m just really happy to be part of it.”

Danny Valencia: It’s just been a roller coaster ride, being that we’re in a playoff race. It’s a great feeling. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)Danny Valencia: It’s just been a roller coaster ride, being that we’re in a playoff race. It’s a great feeling. (Photo: Mordecai Specktor)

The Twins called up Valencia on June 2, from their AAA team in Rochester, N.Y. He flew out to Seattle, and played now and then, until regular third baseman Nick Punto got injured. Valencia was called on to fill the gap.

“Recently, I’ve been in the lineup every day,” he told the AJW before the Aug. 18 night game between the Twins and the White Sox. “It’s been great for me; it’s been a learning experience. And it’s just been a roller coaster ride, being that we’re in a playoff race. It’s a great feeling — I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Valencia, of course, is not your stereotypical Jewish family name. His mother, Mindy, is Jewish; his father, Michael, is from Cuba, which explains the Spanish surname.

At the outset of the interview, Valencia let me know that he was not religious, which seems to be the case with most Jewish professional athletes.

“When I was younger, we always kept up with the holidays, celebrated Hanuka,” he recalled. “My parents were really adamant about me going to temple when I was young; but that stopped when I was a teenager.”

The Twins rookie standout said that Judaism is important to his mother. “She always wants me to remember where I come from and her beliefs. So it’s good.”

Although Mindy Valencia talked about Sandy Koufax, her son says that he didn’t think about Jewish ballplayers, but rather was a “fan of the game” and followed his favorite players with no thought to their religious persuasion.

After a stellar diamond career at Spanish River High School, Valencia played freshman college ball at UNC-Greensboro, then transferred to the University of Miami (Fla.). He left college to play pro ball, and has worked his way up steadily in the Twins minor league system, culminating in his call up to the Big Show in June.

The Twins organization is high on Valencia, who has been hitting the ball hard, batting .320, and contributing on both offense and defense. He is the first player in the Twins’ 49-year history to hit a grand slam home run for his first homer; and he is the first Twins rookie to have back-to-back four-hit games.

“Danny’s a wonderful kid,” remarked Jim Thome, who seemed still aglow from the hubbub attending his 581st career homer the previous night. “He’s a guy that, I think, has improved every step of the way. Getting to know him in spring training, and watching him progress as a player, and as a person it’s been a real pleasure to watch him grow as he’s gone through his first major league season. It’s been a lot of fun…. I think he’s done a tremendous job. He’s stepped in, he’s played tremendous third base for us; he’s gotten big hits.”

And what does the boss think of the rookie?

“He’s doing great,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said emphatically. “He’s been one of our top prospects… and you always wait for that opportunity to get a shot in the Big Leagues, and he’s taking full advantage of it. He’s come up and played fantastic.”

Gardy, like other knowledgeable observers I talked to at Target Field, mentioned that Valencia has worked hard to hone his defensive skills at the hot corner.

“I like him out there,” said the skipper. “You never know what’s going to happen day to day, but as long as he continues to play well, he’ll be third base.”

Just before returning to the clubhouse to suit up for the game, Valencia paused to talk with Paul Molitor in the dugout. The Hall of Famer said that he has “spent a lot of time” with Valencia over the past four years, in his role as a Twins minor league coordinator, handling base running and infield play.

“As well as he’s hit, I’ve been most impressed that he’s played a solid third base for the Twins since he’s been called up,” Molitor commented. “Hopefully, he’ll be the answer for the team for many years to come. Danny’s a good kid, and I’m glad he’s finally got an opportunity.”

The Twins information book lists Valencia at 6 foot 2 and 210 pounds. He wallops the ball; and many of his outs come on hard-to-handle liners and wicked shots snared on the warning path.

“He always had a special sound to his bat,” added Molitor. “It was a matter of him learning and understanding hitting — not just mechanics, but the mental side of hitting, and dealing with frustration and failure. He kind of was a little up and down in his mood… and it was just a matter of maturing a little and understanding the day to day grind.”

In just two months with the Twins, the player wearing the No. 19 jersey has become a valuable part of an extremely confident baseball team. The trick will be to keep it going at this pace for another five or 10 years.

Valencia does understand that he’s playing a “game predicated on failure,” in his words. “It’s really hard to stay mentally sane,” amid the failures that even the best players experience. “The people who deal with the ups and downs the best are the most successful,” Valencia said.

On Aug. 18, against the White Sox, Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano struggled from one jam to the next. He squandered a two-run lead in the second inning, giving up a three-run homer to Andruw Jones. The Twins kept battling, and in the sixth, Valencia knocked in the go-ahead run on an infield hit to the shortstop, whose throw home sailed up the first base line, allowing Thome to score. The Twins finally edged Chicago, 7-6.

Getting dressed in the clubhouse after the game, Valencia was happy to have played a crucial part “in a big win for the team.”

It seemed kind of quiet in the clubhouse, in the aftermath of the second consecutive victory over Chicago.

“We’re pretty chilled out right now,” Valencia explained. “It’s late, the game was long, everybody’s a little tired. But, trust me, the team’s really happy right now; we’re really excited.”

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