Span ready to build his own legacy

By Kelly Thesier
Updated: February 5, 2010

Denard Span

Denard Span

MINNESOTA — The phone call came not long after the Twins had traded outfielder Carlos Gomez to the Brewers in exchange for shortstop J.J. Hardy this past November.

Denard Span’s mentor and good friend, Torii Hunter, was on the other end of the line. The former Twin and current Angels outfielder was calling with good wishes for Span and to finally — two years later than expected — congratulate his protégé on taking over the center field spot.

“He told me, ‘It’s yours now,'” Span said. “He said to just go out and do what you’ve always done, plain and simple. Nothing changes now.”

Nothing changes except the fact that after being an outfield drifter of sorts for the Twins over the past two seasons, Span now officially has a permanent home.

With Gomez gone, Span has been handed the starting center field job for the Twins. It was the spot that for so long during Span’s Minor League career had appeared destined to be his when Hunter left, and so the significance of being given that spot full-time hasn’t escaped him.

“It probably won’t hit me until I get to Spring Training and take my position or it might not even hit me until Opening Day when I run out there,” Span said. “But just to see all the hard work that I’ve done has paid off, it’s a great feeling. I would be lying to you if I said it wasn’t.”

It was almost immediately after he was drafted as the 20th overall pick in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft that Span was touted as the successor to Hunter in center field.

But when the time came for the Twins’ longtime center fielder to depart via free agency, the team was looking for other center field options besides Span.

Span was coming off what was probably his worst year in the Minor Leagues and he had quickly fallen off the top prospects lists. Not only were fans questioning his ability, but the organization was seeking a center field option as part of a trade package for ace Johan Santana.

So it’s no surprise that Span admits the winter leading into the 2008 season was a difficult one for him. He often listened to the same music on the way to work out, using it as motivation.

All of that has paid off as once Span got his shot, he made himself a fixture in the Twins lineup — even if there wasn’t a permanent outfield position to go along with it.

Yet Span says he wouldn’t change anything about how long it’s taken for him to finally earn this role.

“I would have appreciated it but not in the way I appreciate it now,” Span said. “It means a little more because of what I went through, not knowing if I would ever be a Major Leaguer. That’s how I felt at one time. … But now I know I’m ready to be the center fielder for the Minnesota Twins.”

It’s been quite a ride for the 25-year-old Span over the past two seasons as he’s gone from that forgotten prospect to the club’s sparkplug at the top of the order and a defensive gem in the outfield.

The once quiet Span has started to emerge not only on the field, but off it as well. He looked at ease in the spotlight while accepting the Media Good Guy Award at the Twins’ annual Diamond Awards banquet recently.

He cracked a joke or two during his acceptance speech and seemed genuinely appreciative of the honor, which he earned for showing that same graciousness with the local reporters on a daily basis.

That same demeanor has carried over to how Span interacts with fans as well. He joined Twitter recently and has nearly 2,000 fans following his every tweet. He enjoys the interaction it allows and he tries to reply to as many fans as he can.

There is a confidence in how Span carries himself that’s easy to see. A devout Christian, Span attends church twice a week in the offseason and whenever he can once the season is underway. He’s proud to share his beliefs with others, like he did at a Christian concert held at the Metrodome following a game last season.

Span credits his upbringing as a large part in making him who he is today. Yet he also credits the experiences he went through in the Minor Leagues for helping to shape him and helping him to mature.

“It definitely humbled me,” Span said of his struggles. “I remember coming here at 18. I never thought I was cocky. I think I was maybe a step below being cocky. I was real confident in my ability and I still am to this day. But now I don’t take things for granted. I took things for granted before.

“Being in the Minor Leagues, I thought as long as I played decent baseball that my time in the big leagues was going to come. When it didn’t come, that’s when it humbled me. It made me look at myself in the mirror and want to work harder. It put an extra drive in me that I didn’t think I had.”

That drive led Span to avoid what many have called the dreaded sophomore slump last season. Instead of regressing in his second year in the Majors, Span actually raised his batting average to .311, finishing in the league’s top 10 in average , on-base percentage (.392) and triples (10).

And that was while he was shifting every day from left field to center field or right field, and sometimes even playing two spots in one game. In other words, doing whatever it was that the team needed from him that day.

Span has been considered to a be a defensive gem at all three outfield spots, but manager Ron Gardenhire has said that he believes right field has been Span’s best position. Span believes that could change now that he’s going to see more time in his natural spot in center.

“I played a lot of games last year in center field but I haven’t played 162 games straight there,” Span said. “I think now I’ll just be able to maximize my potential, my ability. Last year wherever I played at, guys said I was a good fielder, a good player.”

“I don’t think anybody has seen my maximum ability yet in the Major Leagues. … It’s going to be an adjustment at first. I haven’t played center field every day in two years. I think when Spring Training is over everybody will see that center field is my natural position.”

Of course, when Span takes to his center field spot during the Twins’ home opener, it won’t be the same place that Hunter once occupied. The Twins are moving into their new ballpark, Target Field, for the start of the 2010 season. Perhaps it’s a fitting way for the club to begin its new era — with Span as their everyday center fielder.

And besides, Span has his own ideas of how he can carry on Hunter’s legacy in center field in Minnesota.

“I told him maybe now I can take one of those Gold Gloves away from him,” Span said before breaking into a slight chuckle.