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Baldelli shares expertise with eager students

@dohyoungpark
January 22, 2020

COKATO, Minn. -- Rocco Baldelli walked up to a line of fifth- and sixth-grade boys waiting to throw a pitch into an inflated backstop with Randy Dobnak and beckoned for one boy to follow him. Uh-oh. The manager wants a meeting. Confused, the student named Fox, who was wearing a

COKATO, Minn. -- Rocco Baldelli walked up to a line of fifth- and sixth-grade boys waiting to throw a pitch into an inflated backstop with Randy Dobnak and beckoned for one boy to follow him. Uh-oh. The manager wants a meeting.

Confused, the student named Fox, who was wearing a protective boot on his right foot, followed Baldelli to the side. No, he wasn't in trouble. In fact, much to his surprise, Baldelli took off the jersey on his back and draped it across Fox's much smaller shoulders before shooing the awestruck child back to his group of disbelieving friends.

Baldelli had signed the jersey and written a note: "Fox: Get back on the field soon!"

Fox's grin was one of the brightest in a room full of smiles in the gymnasium of Dassel-Cokato Middle School, an hour west of the Twin Cities, where the Twins Winter Caravan made a day stop on Tuesday for a "Play Ball!" activation event. Baldelli, Dobnak, pitching coach Wes Johnson and Twins communications director Dustin Morse joined members of the varsity high school baseball and softball teams in an interactive event designed to encourage youth participation in the bat-and-ball sports.

"In our Dassel-Cokato community, baseball is a big deal to us," said Cole Flick, the varsity baseball head coach, who has taught physical education at the school for 25 years. "We have two town fields that are really nice and filled with adult teams. We have teams from grade one all the way through adults. It's a huge thing for us, to have the Twins come here. It's fantastic."

Baldelli, Dobnak, Johnson and Morse assisted with stations that included pictures with mascot T.C. Bear, agility drills, fielding grounders, pitching into a backstop, hitting off a tee and trivia questions. The event was attended by fifth- and sixth-grade boys and girls between fifth and eighth grades that participated in the area's summer baseball and softball programs.

While Dobnak learned how to throw with a softball delivery (with Johnson watching cautiously in the background), Baldelli held court across the gym with Flick and several members of the high school team, sharing his awe at the Twins' home run feats in 2019 and discussing his experiences in high school baseball.

"We're talking about the difference, because he's from Rhode Island, so he's talking about high school baseball there and in Minnesota," said senior Austin Kantola, a catcher who hopes to play at a junior college next year. "They're kind of similar because they both have snow in the spring."

The skipper's advice to his pupils?

"Just work hard and keep going at it," Kantola said.

Caution: Heavy machinery

Johnson beamed as he climbed down the five steps from the enclosed cab of the gleaming red tractor into the frigid morning air.

"Made it up to 4.8 miles an hour," he said, boasting of how he coaxed the machine around a white car parked in the lot.

Not to rain on the pitching coach's ability to operate heavy machinery and his self-proclaimed familiarity with farm equipment from his life in Arkansas, but Sean Arnold, the general manager of the St. Cloud branch of Arnold's Case IH dealership, pulled back the curtain on the feat after he accompanied Johnson on the joyride.

"It actually drove itself," Arnold said. "We had a guidance lane set up, so it drove a circle by itself."

All Johnson had to do was start the tractor, disengage the clutch, use the brakes, hit the button for auto-steering and then converse about soybean farming in Arkansas and the (astronomical) cost of farm equipment as he and Arnold did a lap of the dealership building that served as the morning stop in the second day of the Twins Winter Caravan leg.

That's why Baldelli, Dobnak and even mascot T.C. Bear were able to get in on the tractor-driving action without risk to life or limb for anyone involved as they conversed with several members of the Minnesota farming community before heading down to Cokato for the second day stop. (According to Scott Schnackenberg, the Case IH territory sales manager, Jake Cave was the most enthusiastic of all tractor test-drivers when he stopped by last year, while play-by-play broadcaster Dick Bremer opted out.)

"Getting a chance to actually meet Twins players, coaches, broadcasters was actually huge," Schnackenberg said. "[The Twins] are so gracious and approachable. It's been a huge win, and we're glad to be a partner in 2020 and we look forward to the future with the Winter Caravan, not only doing this type of stuff, but also the stuff we do with [the Twins] through the season."

The second wave of Twins Winter Caravan legs will commence on Wednesday, when Tony Oliva, Ehire Adrianza, Brent Rooker and broadcaster Kris Atteberry will head west to Sioux Falls, S.D., while Cave, Ryan Jeffers and broadcasters Bert Blyleven and Cory Provus will head southeast towards Rochester, Minn.

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.