Play Hard and Dream Big: A Michael Cuddyer Retrospective

A reflection on Cuddyer in his first year of HOF eligibility.

On June 2, 1997, Michael Cuddyer was in the middle of a calculus test at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, when a teacher came into the classroom and interrupted him. Cuddyer had a call waiting for him in the principal’s office. “Can I finish my test?” Cuddyer asked, sheepishly. The teacher said he could finish later. The call was urgent.

It was his mother on the phone, and she had good news. Cuddyer had been drafted ninth overall by the Minnesota Twins in the 1997 Major League Baseball draft.

Cuddyer had already taken two tests that day, and he was released from his calculus test without finishing. The school was abuzz. Less than an hour after Cuddyer received the call that he had been drafted to the Twins, his teammate, John Curtice, was picked 17th overall by the Red Sox. Two players from the same high school getting drafted in the first round had only happened one time before.

Michael Cuddyer made baseball history before he signed his first pro contract.

He had a scholarship to Florida State, and he was committed to his studies. Even in his early pro days, he worked as a substitute teacher at Great Bridge High. It took an over-slot commitment from the Twins of $1.3 million to yank Cuddyer away from Florida State.

Imagine a millionaire baseball player stepping in to work on short notice in a high school as a substitute teacher.

That’s the story of Michael Cuddyer. From the front office to the fans, the words about Cuddyer are clear. He played the “right” way. He’s fan-centered. He’s the utility man who plays every day.

He may not be the star player, but he’s the face of the franchise.

Following his retirement in 2015 after fifteen years of MLB play, Michael Cuddyer will be on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. I am not here to ply for Cuddyer HOF votes. Cuddyer would be the first to admit that his career statistics probably aren’t Hall-worthy. By the multiple Hall of Fame metrics provided at Baseball Reference, Cuddyer’s career stats are about 20% that of the average Hall member.

However, Cuddyer was the 29th inductee to the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame, and now works as a special assistant in baseball operations for the team that drafted him. With a 2013 NL batting title and seven playoff appearances to his name, he’s a great example of what many fans would call a member of the “Hall of Very Good.”

Let’s take a look back on the career of Michael Cuddyer.

 

From Contraction to Competitors

 

There was magic in the Twins from the 2000s, and Cuddyer was front and center on a team that fought to stay in MLB and ended up winning the AL Central six times in nine years. You may not know why that run of success was so important to Minnesota: after years of faulty management in the 1990s, the league threatened to contract the Twins entirely.

When the Pohlad family purchased the Twins from Calvin Griffith in 1984, they acquired a team that had potential — with future Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven on the roster — but with enough missing pieces that the team struggled to reach a .500 record year after year. With the help of some deft free agent acquisitions, the Pohlad-owned Twins won their first and second World Series titles in 1987 and 1991. However, following the second championship, the team fell into disarray, posting sub-.500 years from 1993 until 2000. The strike in 1994-1995 hurt the Twins hard, with the team putting up a .389 winning percentage in 1995. That same year, Kirby Puckett — the undisputed face of the Twins’ franchise — broke his jaw after taking a fastball to the face; subsequent tests revealed Puckett suffered from glaucoma, and his playing career ended. Later reports revealed that Puckett had also been causing stress within the clubhouse and front office due to extramarital affairs with Twins staffers. The 1996 Twins featured the youngest pitching staff in the league and a batting order that would have been one of the youngest in the league had it not featured the 39-year-old future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor playing on a farewell contract for his hometown team. With the Twins piling up losses, their star second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch, asked for a trade to a contending team. By 2000, the Twins’ attendance dwindled to about 12,000 people per game. Over the course of the full season, the Twins attracted fewer fans in 2000 than they did in the strike-shortened 1995 season. Major League Baseball discussed contracting under-performing teams, targeting the Montreal Expos and the Minnesota Twins.

The successful run of the Twins in the 2000s, then, represents a homegrown race to save a franchise that could have been forgotten to history. Instead of contracting, Cuddyer joined Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau as the “piranhas” who dominated the AL Central for a decade.

Play Hard, Dream Big

 

Michael Cuddyer entered the Single-A Fort Wayne Wizards in 1998 as a 19-year-old and rose through the ranks to reach AA ball by 2000. After posting 30 home runs for the AA New Britain Rock Cats in 2001, the Twins promoted him straight to the majors for a cup of coffee. He split time between AAA and MLB in 2002 and 2003 before finally claiming the primary utility-man place on the roster in 2004 by virtue of his bat and his defensive flexibility. Cuddyer carved out playing time that year by appearing for five or more games at 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, RF, and DH.

Fighting off contraction and earning the nickname “Piranhas” from Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen in 2006, the Twins had won the AL Central four out of the last five years, and Cuddyer had settled into a starting right fielder position. Now able to focus on his offense, the 27-year old Cuddyer put up the best hitting line yet in his career, with 24 homers over 635 at-bats, 102 runs, 109 RBI, six steals, and a 123 wRC+. Despite anchoring the first-place Twins, these stats went overlooked by the majority of baseball followers, who were glassy-eyed watching the likes of Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, David Ortiz, Lance Berkman, and Travis Hafner slug over twice as many homers. This is why the Twins were the “piranhas:” they didn’t feature a stunning power hitter, but rather, many good players who united as a dangerous foe.

Cuddyer spent the majority of his time with the Twins batting in the heart of the order and playing right field or first base as necessary. Although his stat lines never wowed fans from out of town, he was remarkably consistent, racking up more than 80 runs and 80 RBI every year from 2006 to 2010 (not counting an injury-shortened 2008). Batting with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau next to him in the lineup everyday gave the Twins one of the better run-creating machines in the AL Central. However, the Twins struggled in the playoffs, winning only three total division playoff games in the 2000s before entering the MLB’s longest playoff win drought. That drought now stands at 18 consecutive losses and reaches back to 2004.

All good things must come to an end, though. Following the 2011 season, when the Twins came in last place in the AL Central, Cuddyer earned free agency status. Twins General Manager Bill Smith was fired, and the team cut payroll by 40% over the next two years. Johan Santana had been traded years before for a controversial package of minor leaguers, most of whom never played for the major league club. Justin Morneau suffered a concussion in 2010 and never regained his 2006 MVP form. Catcher Joe Mauer‘s legs couldn’t take everyday duty behind the plate anymore, and he was moved to first base. The piranhas’ teeth had weakened with age, and it was time for Cuddyer to move on.

On the free-agent market, Cuddyer took a three-year deal with the Colorado Rockies, valued at $10.5 million per year.

Although Coors Field was friendly to Cuddyer’s contact rates, injuries began to take their toll on his body. Over his tenure with the Rockies, Cuddyer played in only 57% of games, topping 500 at-bats only once. His ratios remained remarkably consistent with career norms — about 8% walk rate, about 18% K rate, and a 120 wRC+. In 2013, Cuddyer celebrated winning the NL Batting Title, a feat that was helped by a 27-game hitting streak.

In 2015, Cuddyer signed with the New York Mets as a free agent, and injuries again slowed his year. He managed to play in 70% of the Mets games. However, on a Mets team that made it to the World Series, Cuddyer managed only 10 at-bats throughout the playoffs. Right field was manned by Curtis Granderson, Michael Conforto had taken over starting duties in left field, and Yoenis Cespedes commanded center field. With Granderson, Cespedes, and Conforto all slated to return in 2016, Cuddyer listened to his body’s aches and voluntarily retired from Major League Baseball that season at the age of 36.

In his retirement message, Cuddyer made it clear that injuries had taken their toll on his ability to play and focus on the game of baseball. He wrote in The Player’s Tribune,

Over the last four years, I was on the disabled list six times. I missed 150-200 games over that time span — a broken shoulder, a strained oblique, a torn-up knee, a bulging disc in my neck. I pushed through it. Mentally, I was able to overcome it for a long time, but the physical and emotional taxation took its toll. Part of being a professional is to know yourself and to know your limits. Chasing the ideal of professionalism became a theme throughout my career.

As a guy known for playing the game the “right” way, and having seen his friends succumb to injuries, Cuddyer bowed out of baseball more-or-less on top. In a 15-year career that started on a team on the brink of contraction, he appeared in the postseason seven times, including the World Series. He had won a batting title, made two All-Star Game appearances, and won accolades from the baseball community not for his stunning stat lines, but for his love of the game.

Five years after his retirement, if you research Cuddyer right now, you’re likely to hear about his exchanges with the fans. He’s adept with card tricks and loves to perform magic for fans (see here or here or here or here or…). I’d argue that it’s easier to find a video of this Hall of Fame-eligible player performing magic tricks for fans than it is of him playing baseball. Cuddyer took up photography as well and has taken some stunning photos showing the landscape of baseball.

Cuddyer has already been inducted to the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame, but it’s unlikely he’ll get any recognition on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. However, he seems to be the kind of guy that is happier remaining “among the people” than becoming a bronze bust in a museum. His priority is to teach the game of baseball widely and has even presented at academic conferences on youth coaching in baseball. If you’re currently in the youth amateur baseball pipeline, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen some of Cuddyer’s recent work with USA Baseball. It’s tough to be memorialized when you’re still making memories.

We’ve undoubtedly entered an era where — regardless of what the official Hall of Fame induction considerations state — off-the-field actions matter in Hall of Fame voting. Again, I’m not here to campaign for a Cuddyer HOF vote. However, I think it’s worthwhile to valorize and celebrate those players who had very good careers and have done everything they can to unite baseball communities. By being the everyday utilityman, Michael Cuddyer has earned his place in the true Hall of Fame: the hearts of the fans that cheered for him over 15 years.

Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn / Icon Sportswire | Design by Daniel Pearson (@persondaniel)

Blair Williams

Blair holds a PhD in Japanese history and is the author of "Making Japan's National Game: A Cultural History of Baseball." He's a fan of sci-fi, prog metal, and sipping rums.

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