Baldelli, Shelton tout mutual admiration

Skippers celebrate reunion before Grapefruit League matchup

March 1st, 2020

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Rocco Baldelli and his staff are always thinking ahead and typically have their lineups for the following week's games written out well in advance. It's a safe bet that they put a similar degree of love and care into the slideshow of photos they assembled for Derek Shelton's return to Hammond Stadium on Saturday.

Shelton was the bench coach for the Twins in 2018 and again in 2019, when Baldelli replaced Paul Molitor as manager. Baldelli and Shelton had previously spent 2010-16 together in the Rays organization. Shelton was hired this offseason as the Pirates' skipper, and this was the second time the two crossed paths on the field this spring.

"I think once we get through [batting practice] and we find out what Rocco has planned for me, it'll be easier," Shelton said before Saturday's game. "But it's nice to be back here. A lot of friends here. I was only here two years, but these people are like family to me. So it's cool to be back."

First came came a selection of two snaps of Shelton on team travel days during his Twins tenure, which just happened to alternate on the scoreboard throughout Pittsburgh's on-field batting practice before the Pirates' 2-0 victory over the Twins. That was followed by a public-address announcement thanking Shelton for his time in Minnesota, which was accompanied by several more photos and an animation of Shelton running from a previous Spring Training.

Baldelli and the Twins wouldn't poke fun at their friend like that if they hadn't valued him so much during his two years in Minnesota, and that was a sentiment echoed by players and staff members alike ahead of Shelton's arrival in Fort Myers.

"I think I've taken parts of every person I've worked with and gone through," Shelton said. "The fact that Rocco and I were most recently together and we're close friends -- I've taken a lot. I've talked to him a lot about how to do things and how things went. I was here, so I kind of have a good idea of the transformation and how it's going. But I just try to be myself."

When Baldelli took the reins last season, the Twins became known for their laid-back environment in which players and coaches were empowered to be themselves and prepare in their own ways to be the best versions of themselves in a comfortable clubhouse. Shelton's combination of boisterous, easygoing personality and intellectual curiosity was a big part of what helped that clubhouse mentality stick.

"He was amazing," Twins outfielder said. "I really enjoyed his company. He was serious when he had to be, when he was on the field and we were talking baseball and talking strategy and that kind of thing. He knew when to be serious and then he could have times like that when you've got a night off and treat the guys like all a family."

That's a philosophy that obviously worked to a great degree of success for Baldelli in Minneapolis last season (it's hard to complain about 101 wins and a division title), and it's a reputation that Shelton's new clubhouse appears to be gaining around the league.

"One main thing that [Pirates people have] said -- a couple guys I've talked to -- is they feel like they can be themselves," Twins first-base coach Tommy Watkins said. "I think that's a huge thing for a player to feel like they can be themselves. They're not looking over their shoulder. That's a big thing that I've heard from their guys."

Just as significantly, Baldelli's collaborative approach to decision-making has clearly rubbed off on Shelton. The Twins' skipper and front office empowered Shelton and other members of the coaching staff and front office to a significant extent last season, and Shelton would usually sit in and contribute to Baldelli's postgame debriefings with president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine.

Falvey and Pirates general manager Ben Cherington enjoyed a lengthy discussion Saturday night as the pair watched Pittsburgh take batting practice together, and Falvey shared afterward that the collaborative element of Shelton's tenure has made an impression on Cherington.

"[Cherington is] talking just about that," Falvey said. "He's talking about how [Shelton has] really embraced the idea of incorporating so many people from their organization in the Major League environment. Whether that's an analyst in the front office or a player development member or a scout, that's what he does so well. He connects so well with everybody he's around. And it's genuine."

"I think he's trying to implement some of that with the Pirates, but I already know there are things he's interested in and believes in that we weren't doing here last year, and that's really what it's about," Baldelli said. "We talk a lot about trying to not recreate something that's currently going on somewhere else."

Based on all of those experiences, Falvey, Baldelli and the Twins knew that Shelton was bound for a managerial position someday. And though Shelton had to leave the winning environment of Minnesota behind for this promotion, he's confident that taking the best parts of Baldelli's mentorship to Pittsburgh with him will prime his new organization for that kind of success, too.

"I think for me, personally, it's an opportunity that I wanted in a place that we're going to build something, and something that's going to be part of something special," Shelton said. "In no way am I envious. I'm very excited. I'm excited for Rocco and I'm excited for this group of players because of how close I am with them."