Span follows in Hunter's footsteps
Twins center fielder of the future has strong mentor
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The call wasn't an easy one for Denard Span to make.Even though Span had spent a lot of time getting to know Torii Hunter the last few springs, picking up the phone to ask him for this type of favor felt a little awkward. Span's request was to come visit Hunter at his home outside Dallas, Texas, to get a chance to talk and learn more about what it takes to be a big-league ballplayer. And Hunter didn't hesitate at the request, hosting the outfield prospect for a week this past January. "I went up there for a whole week and that week was just being around him and his family," Span said. "I paid attention to everything -- how he interacted with his kids, his wife and all the people when he would go out. I just learned a lot watching him being a professional, a true big leaguer." Mentoring Span has become a sort of mission for Hunter, who had a similar relationship with another famous Twins center fielder, Kirby Puckett. Hunter had always told Puckett that he would carry on the tradition that Puck set by helping another young guy coming up in system. That friendship developed almost immediately after Span was drafted by the Twins in the first round of the 2002 First-Year Player Draft. The two became close right away and have spent the past few springs talking about everything from baseball to family to life in general. But there was something different about Span when he arrived at Hunter's home in Prospect, and it was something that Hunter noticed immediately. "He's always been a great kid, but you could tell just how much he's grown," Hunter said. "He showed me that he was ready to really learn everything about reaching this level." The growth in Span, 23, hasn't been lost on others, either. This spring, the entire Twins coaching staff has noticed someone who is finally starting to come into his own as both a baseball player and a person. "A lot of maturing has happened," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "You can tell he's grown into a young man here that has a pretty good idea here of what he needs to do to get to this level. He's always been confident, but I think he's pretty sure he can play here now. He knows what it takes and he's waiting for his time." The road to becoming a big leaguer hasn't been the easiest for Span. Since being anointed by outsiders as the eventual heir in center field, Span has had to endure plenty of learning curves along the way. "My first couple of years, it was tough. I wanted the progression to happen a lot quicker, but it just didn't," Span said. "It was frustrating at first, but now I'm older. Back then I was just 18 years old. So even though it was hard at times, I'm thankful for the learning experiences I've been through." Those experiences are something that Hunter and Span also have in common. Hunter also went through his fair share of disappointments, including being sent down near the end of May during the 2000 season, which came after a year of being the team's starting center fielder.
And like Hunter had to do at that time, Span has had to change some things about his own production at the plate. Recently, Span has worked on making changes to his swing, altering his batting grip by moving his hands closer together. It's been a slight adjustment that has helped Span change from a slap hitter to having a bit more strength in his swing."I feel like I have a lot more whip with my hands together," Span said. "And now I'm able to drive the ball more than before." That doesn't mean Span has changed his approach from using his speed as one of his greatest assets. It's that kind of blazing speed that caused Gardenhire to chide the young center fielder about his inability to keep his batting helmet on as he's flown around the bases this spring. But there has been more than just offensive growth for Span. Hunter said he's been watching Span develop in all assets of the game, including the thing that Hunter prides himself most in -- defense. "In the outfield, we've been talking and working a lot," Hunter said. "[Outfield instructor] Jerry White has been working with him, as far as getting rid of the ball quicker. But Denard's already an athlete. Whatever you tell him to do, he'll do it. If he doesn't know how to do it, the first time you tell him he has it just like that, and that's a sign of a great athlete. And that's what the Twins have in him." Span knows this spring is important, because he he can let the organization know he's about ready for his opportunity. And after watching Span play in nearly every game this spring, the Twins aren't so concerned anymore about whether the prospect is ready to make the jump. "He is going to be available to us this year, where in the past he's had things to learn," Gardenhire said. "If something happens with Torii, we'll bring him up and let him have a chance to play." Getting the chance to play with Hunter is something Span hopes could happen. But with the likelihood of Hunter remaining in Minnesota past this season growing more remote by the day, Span has prepared himself for what could be to come. And that's Span in center field and Hunter donning another uniform. "Of course it's in the back of my mind," Span said. "I don't want him to leave, but I have to be prepared. No matter what, the things he's taught me will always be with me."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.