Tommy Watkins interview-April 2010
by John Boccacino
One of the most popular Rochester Red Wings in recent history heard 1,128 other names called ahead of him before the Minnesota Twins eventually selected him in the 1998 Major League Baseball draft.
Yet despite being tabbed in the 38th round of the draft, Tommy Watkins never pitied himself; rather, he played the game the right way, with heart and hustle, and wasn’t afraid to take chances.
After playing 12 seasons in the minor leagues, and with fond memories of Rochester and Frontier Field, Watkins, a career .248 hitter, hung up his spikes and retired last fall. The Twins, acknowledging his managerial potential, asked Watkins to serve as hitting coach for the Single-A Beloit, Wis. club.
During an emotional pre-game, on-field ceremony Aug. 9, General Manager Dan Mason and Chief Operating Officer Naomi Silver paid tribute to Watkins’ time in Rochester, honoring him as 2009’s Most Popular Red Wing.
On the disabled list at the time, Watkins, 29, worked hard to recover from a right ankle sprain, and was activated in time for the final four games, savoring every chance to play before his doting fans. During his final at-bat, Watkins, who said he can remember most plate appearances, had tears in his eyes over leaving Rochester.
“I spent four years in Rochester, but it felt like eight years. It was an unbelievable experience,” Watkins recalled during a recent phone conversation.
“I felt like I was this guy who came up (in 2006), and no one really knew who I was. I wasn’t a top prospect, but I remember in my second game (against Toledo) I hit a three-run homer, and everyone went crazy. The people of Rochester really welcomed me.”
After spending three seasons in rookie ball during those early years, Watkins, showing his moxie, introduced himself to then Double-A New Britain manager Stan Cliburn with a bold prediction during 2001's spring training in Fort Myers, Fla.
“Tommy was a young rookie, and he said ‘I’m Tommy Watkins, and I can’t wait for the day I can play for you in Double-A’,” Cliburn said. “I said ‘I know who you are, and know your good work habits; one day you’ll play for me and we’ll get you on your start to your major league career.’”
Minnesota can only hope Watkins has the same impact on the Snappers’ hitters that Cliburn did on Watkins. Coming in, Watkins knew the expectations of ever playing in the big leagues were low for a 38th-round pick, and he started wondering if he’d ever get his chance after toiling in the minors for eight years coming into the 2006 season.
Having spent his entire minor league career below Triple-A, Watkins finally earned his call-up to Rochester in June of 2006.
While some fans wondered why Watkins, a .218 hitter for the New Britain Rock Cats at the time of the promotion, was called-up, the energetic Watkins wasted little time proving he belonged. Watkins crushed a pair of three-run home runs, to the delight of the Frontier faithful, during the early-going and was here to stay.
Watkins saw action in 60 games, including 50 starts, hitting safely in 40 of his starts en route to a .276 average. His good range and stellar glove provided defensive stability at shortstop as the Wings came within a game of claiming the team’s first Governors’ Cup championship since 1997.
The next year, an injury to infielder Brian Buscher left the Twins with a void, and General Manager Terry Ryan, who was in Syracuse at the time, decided to finally give Watkins his shot in the big leagues. Only a day before the Aug. 8 promotion, a down-in-the-dumps Watkins called his father and expressed his frustration about not getting his chance with the Twins.
“Everyone was saying ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen for you,’ and I cried on the phone,” Watkins said. “Then, the next day I get the call and called my dad and my best friend, and I was crying too because my time finally came. It was the right place at the right time.”
Watkins wasted little time capitalizing.
His first big-league hit came in Seattle, a single off Jarrod Washburn in his second at-bat. Umpires didn’t have to halt the game for Watkins to retrieve the special baseball; it was tossed into first base and then the dugout as Watkins received congratulations from the Mariners' Richie Sexson.
Watkins hit 10-for-28, a .357 average, for the Twins before suffering a lower abdominal muscle strain Aug. 23. Sidelined for the rest of the season, Watkins never got another chance to play for Minnesota, but he relishes every at-bat from his magical call-up.
Included in his torrid hitting was a modest seven-game hit streak (10-for-24) until suffering the season-ending injury.
His infectious smile and go-go engine made him a fan-favorite in Rochester, and now the Twins are counting on Watkins to mold Beloit’s hitters. Last fall the club sent Watkins to scouting school in the Arizona, where he learned more about evaluating prospects and young players.
“I never was the best hitter, never the best fielder, didn’t have the best arm and I didn’t run the fastest,” said Watkins, who grew up in Fort Myers idolizing Minnesota’s perennial All-Star center fielder Kirby Puckett.
“I was always taught to play the game the right way, to play hard and hustle, and at the end of the day … just leave it all on the field. I always tried to be that coach on the field. Now I’m teaching those lessons as a coach.”
If Watkins attacks this new career challenge with the same vigor and passion as his playing days, he could one day end up managing in Rochester – or Minnesota.
“One day I’d love to come back to Rochester as a coach, and if I could coach in the big leagues, that would be even better,” Watkins said.
About the author: John Boccacino covered youth, high school and college sports for the Democrat and Chronicle for almost six years. A native of Rochester, Boccacino graduated from Brighton High in 1999 and started his journalism career at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He graduated in 2003 with a degree in broadcast journalism, and covered sports and local news both in print and online, including video stories, for the Democrat and Chronicle from Aug. 2004 through April 2010. Contact him at email@example.com.
BONUS WALLPAPER IMAGES
Celebrate Tommy's career as a Red Wings player with this exclusive RedWingsBaseball.com image. Click on the image to open in a new window, then right-click on the image and choose "save as background."
images created by RIT student and Red Wings graphic design intern Diana Polle