North Star

Twins rookie Corey Koskie and baseball's Canadian invasion

The major leagues were a rude awakening. Wary of the rookie's limitations at third base, Twins manager Tom Kelly used him sparingly. Koskie struggled in his limited playing time, and batted just .138. He got his first major-league hit off Oakland's Tim Worrell on September 12, an occasion made more memorable by the fact that he had a contingent of family and friends in attendance. (In a wonderful coincidence, his sister Crystal was chosen as the Subway "Fan of the Game"). Still, by his own account, it was a confusing and difficult time.

"I was nervous for two weeks before I got called up," he remembers. "You have this image of what it's going to be like when you finally get there--you know, there's all this hype and this excitement, and you don't imagine the day-to-day struggle of it. I went through this phase where I wondered, 'Is this it?' I had to really work on my mindset. I was lucky to have the influence of guys like Rick Aguilera and Todd Walker. This is a great opportunity, but I think I had to learn that you have to live your life for other more important things than baseball, and just come to the ballpark and work hard and try to have fun."

During the off-season Koskie played in Puerto Rico and the Arizona Fall League, working on his defense and shortening his swing, and he went to spring training determined to win the confidence of Kelly. He has taken thousands of ground balls at third base from coach Ron Gardenhire, and hours of extra batting practice with hitting coach Scott Ullger in an attempt to refine his swing and plate discipline.

The extra work has clearly paid off, and, perhaps equally important, it has also won him points with Kelly and the coaching staff. Kelly is a notorious stickler for defensive fundamentals, and he has traditionally been reluctant to sacrifice solid defense for offensive potential. The organization as a whole has tended to be less than impressed by big offensive numbers posted by players at Salt Lake City in the Pacific Coast League, and Koskie has found himself in much the same position as Ron Coomer did when he first came to the Twins in 1995 after posting impressive stats with Albuquerque in the PCL. Such players, it seems, must work extra hard to earn Kelly's trust, and, like Coomer before him, Koskie has quietly applied himself to the challenge. The result: It has been increasingly difficult for the manager to leave him out of the lineup. Koskie has earned regular turns at third base, and has even begun to pick up the occasional start in right field, a position he had never previously played at any level.

But if Koskie is daunted by the challenge of learning to play the outfield at the major league level, he doesn't let on. "I'm just working hard so T.K. can find a place in the lineup for me," he says.

Koskie's offensive numbers have held up with increasing playing time; as of this past weekend he was batting .305 with 7 home runs and 31 RBI. He has also enjoyed remarkable success as a pinch hitter, going six for eight in that role.

"It's pretty ordinary for a guy to hit .300 in the Pacific Coast League," asserts Ullger, the hitting coach. "It's a whole different thing up here, but Corey's done fine. He's held his own against lefties and righties, and he comes to the cage every day and works his tail off. He's already a nice gap-to-gap hitter, and he's so strong--he's got those big hands and big legs--that he definitely has tremendous power potential."

Not a bad beginning for a guy who didn't consider himself a baseball player eight years ago. With any luck at all, Corey Koskie might make Canadians forget Moonie Gibson.

 

SIDELINES

SPEAKING OF CANADIAN BASEBALL: Winnipeg, Manitoba, just north of our border and a proud Northern League sister city, will play host to the Pan American Games later this month, from July 24 through August 3. The Pan Ams being the launching point for the Olympics, only the top two teams from Winnipeg will go on to Sydney--this despite the fact that the pool for this year's event includes seven of the top ten teams in the world. In other words, the Pan American Games will feature better baseball than the Olympics. It will also pit the Americans against the Cuban national team, which is a better squad than the one that humbled the major-league Baltimore Orioles earlier this year. Also on hand will be powerhouses Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Mexico--and, for that matter, Canada). Tickets are downright cheap--starting at $10 to $14 for the preliminary matchups and ranging up to $18 to $25 for the medal games, plus a $2 service charge--and aside from the gold-medal game, they're still available. To buy 'em, call (888) 780-7328; for more information, visit the Pan American Games Web site (www.panamgames.org) or call (204) 985-1999.

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