The Odd Couple
Baseball's always been a breeding ground for characters. And yet so desperate are the media for something to break up the usual monotonous accretion of locker room clichés and stereotypes that even guys who aren't remotely colorful or entertaining can be elevated to full-blown character status. All it often takes is one disastrous haircut, a deplorable fashion sense, or the occasional malaprop, and a ballplayer is forever after expected to perform the role of clubhouse dancing bear.
As a rule, professional athletes and coaches have hypersensitive bullshit detectors, and they don't tend to have a lot of patience or respect for the blatantly calculated oddballs. That's why the genuine characters in any clubhouse are first and foremost regarded as valuable teammates, whose ability to take shit is at least as important as their ability to dish it out.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire obviously loves guys in this mold. There may be no manager in baseball that does more to exploit the individual idiosyncrasies of his players in order to motivate his team and build clubhouse chemistry.
In Matthew LeCroy and Lew Ford, Gardenhire has a couple of legitimate oddballs who are perfect foils for his wicked sense of humor. They're also examples of two completely different archetypes of the baseball character. LeCroy is both easy- and out-going, capable of laughing at his own limitations and placing himself in the middle of clubhouse pranks. (After a recent beaning he returned to the Dome from an emergency-room visit to present Gardenhire with pilfered x-rays of some kid's broken arm.) Ford is more introverted, a math and computer whiz (he scored 1,400 on his SAT test) whose occasional brain cramps have given his manager and teammates plenty of amusement and ammunition. If he never played another game in the major leagues, Ford would be forever remembered for attempting to iron a shirt while he was still wearing it. While he's learning to laugh at himself, he also can't quite seem to figure out what the hell all the fuss is about.
"I don't know how I got such a reputation, to be honest with you," Ford says. "I'm trying to get past all that business about my SAT scores, because it seems like it's one of those things where everybody thinks I'm supposed to be so smart, but at the same time I guess it must seem like I'm not so smart after all. Everybody has something about them that's funny, I guess, and you just have to be able to take it. I figure guys aren't going to rip on somebody who's going to blow up or tear apart the clubhouse."
That, in a nutshell, is exactly what makes Ford and LeCroy so invaluable in the Twins locker room. Neither of them is likely to destabilize the freewheeling camaraderie so crucial to a low-budget contender over the course of a long season. LeCroy in particular is one of the guys who prides himself on the role he plays in establishing team chemistry and keeping turmoil to a minimum.
"I try to be a quiet leader," LeCroy says. "I'm never going to be a guy who gripes or complains about stuff, and I guess I tend to pick out the positives instead of the negatives. People have different personalities, and you have to respect that, but at the same time you've got to be able to have fun, and you're not going to have fun if everybody's uptight."
Both Ford and LeCroy grew up in the South--Ford in Texas and LeCroy in South Carolina. LeCroy describes Belton, the town where he was raised, as a "three-meal town," and it wasn't until much later in the conversation that I figured out this wasn't some mysterious way of explaining his girth. What he was saying, in fact, was that Belton, located in the middle of South Carolina's textile belt, was a three-mill town. The pace of LeCroy's Southern drawl mirrors his sand-slogging progress around the base paths. He is the slowest man on the team--bet on him to show in the sausage race at County Stadium and you have a better than even chance of losing your two dollars--and the Twins have a lot of fun with his exploits on the bases. "Turn Matthew loose out there and he's very entertaining," Gardenhire says with admirable restraint. "We all have a good time watching Matty run the bases."
"When I was younger, I was short and fat and couldn't run," LeCroy says. "I don't suppose I'm gonna get a whole lot faster, but I can tell you that I've had to work my tail off just to get to where I am. Every day I get up and remind myself that I'm playing baseball at the highest level, and a lot of people could have easily written me off along the way."
LeCroy's characteristically self-deprecating assessment aside, he was actually an excellent all-around athlete in Belton and even played soccer for a time, as well as singles on a state championship tennis team, a concept that Gardenhire and LeCroy's teammates have had a hard time getting their heads around. "Hey, Belton's considered the tennis capital of all of South Carolina," LeCroy says, countering the skepticism. "And I was actually pretty darn good."
"Oh, yeah, we've heard all about Matthew's tennis career," Gardenhire says playfully, then, at least briefly, turns serious. "I know we have a lot of fun with Matthew and Lew-Lew around here, but what really matters is that when I put them out there, I have all the faith in the world in their abilities on the baseball field. They've both meant a lot to this team."
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