It took resilience, faith and hard work, but Denard Span has quietly emerged as a stalwart in the Twins’ lineup. Once buried behind Torii Hunter and labeled an underachieving, failed-prospect-in-the-making, the 26-year-old Span is now best described as one of the most underrated center fielders in the American League. A first-round pick in 2002 out of a Tampa high school, Span spent his first full season in the big leagues last year, hitting .311/.392/.415 and leading the circuit in triples while providing plus defense.
David Laurila: Who are you out on the field?
Denard Span: Who am I on the field? I’m definitely a confident ballplayer, a hard-working ballplayer. It took a lot of hard work for me to get here, so I cherish every moment that I get a chance to put on a big-league uniform and set foot on a big-league field. Religion and faith are real big in my life. I’m truly a believer that without my faith I wouldn’t be here today. I’ve been through a lot, going through the minor leagues and the ups and downs in my life, so I would basically say that I’m a hard-working and humble person. That’s what has gotten me to this point.
DL: Do you see yourself as having been born to play baseball?
DS: I feel that God put me on this earth to play this game. I do truly believe that. I believe that He put me in the position that I’m in today to witness to others and to play this game, and whenever I do get the spotlight, to give Him his glory. That’s what I try to do, so yes, I truly believe that I was.
DL: As a player, is it possible to step back and really think about life after baseball?
DS: It’s tough, so not really, man. You really don’t. At this age, in most of our lives…I can’t speak for others, but for me, personally, it’s kind of hard to think about life after baseball. Especially at this stage of my career, because I‘ve only been here a few years. Every now and again, maybe in the offseason, I think about when I retire and being around my family, but this is all that all us of know—this game—because we’ve been playing since we were 5 years old and playing professionally since were 18 years old. It kind of gets to the point where you fall in love with this game and you kind of feel vulnerable to this game. And you do this for not just six months during the season, but also during the offseason when you‘re preparing for the next year, so it‘s really a 12-month-long job.
DL: For better or for worse, big-league players are looked upon as heroes, especially by kids. What do you say to those people?
DS: Yes, and it kind of hasn’t dawned on me just where I am. Kids do look up to me as being a hero, or this and that. The first thing that I would tell a kid who looks up to me is where my talents come from. I’d tell them to look, if they’re a religious person, to God, and if they insist on still thinking that I’m their hero, I’d tell them to just put forth all the hard work. I firmly believe that hard work pays off and you should never deviate from that. When you try to cut corners, you never prosper. I would tell them that God should be their hero, or their parents should be their hero, and that they should work hard.
DL: There were times in the minor leagues that you struggled and a lot of people were saying that maybe you weren’t big-league material. How do players handle that?
DS: For a lot of players, that’s hard to deal with. A lot of people get down about it. I think that if you pay attention to what others write and say about you, it can ruin your career. It can ruin a 19-year-old’s career when you look on the Internet and see grown men writing stuff, saying what you can’t do when you’re just a kid yourself. It can mess with your psyche and your confidence, and I think that is what makes this game so tough. You have to be mentally strong to get through all of that. You have to be mentally strong to block all of that out and continue to go out there and work hard and play your game and prove everybody wrong.
DL: Some players claim that they never pay attention to what is written about them. Are they telling the truth?
DS: That’s a lie. I don’t believe that. All of us, especially when we’re young… everybody is curious. I think that a majority of people are curious about what others think about them. For the most part, we do care about other people’s opinions. When you get to a certain age, to a certain point in your career, maybe you can block that all out, but when you’re young—an 18, 19, 20-year-old prospect—yeah, you do care what others think. You’re trying to get to the big leagues and you want to please everybody.
DL: Is it sometimes hard to respond to criticism by looking into a mirror rather than by being in denial about a limitation?
DS: When you get drafted and you’re a prospect… you were drafted for a reason. You have to realize what type of player you are. An individual has to know what type of player he is and if you need to work on your basestealing, that’s what you need to work on. If somebody points that out… most of the time, when you’re coming up, you already know what you need to work on. Somebody doesn’t have to tell you.
What gets me is when somebody comes to see one series—they come watch you for three or four games—and they form an opinion on you. Or they don’t come and see you play; they just read your stat sheet. Especially in the minor leagues, nobody knows what a young prospect is going through. You don’t know if the organization has them working on an approach, or wants them to do this or that. Outsiders don’t know. That’s something I didn’t like when I was in the minor leagues. People would just look at my stat sheet and not have any idea that the organization had me working on a certain thing about hitting.
DL: Is there anything specific the Twins had you work on?
DS: It was so much, man, to be honest with you. I can’t put my finger on one thing, because I went through a lot of changes with my hitting, from pretty much the time I got drafted.
DL: Can you elaborate on any of them?
DS: When I got drafted, anybody who scouted me will remember that I was a small-framed guy, but I had pretty good pop, so to speak. I wasn’t a slap hitter coming out of high school; I was a guy who could drive the ball into the gaps. I wasn’t a home-run hitter, but I was a guy who could drive the ball. When I got drafted, they took me with the idea of making me into a leadoff hitter and they wanted me to slap the ball. That had them changing my hitting approach to try to stay inside the ball and hit ground balls to the left side of the infield instead of turning on balls. I did that for two-and-half, three years, and it almost got to the point where I didn’t know how to turn on a ball. On an inside pitch, I’d try to fight it the other way.
Finally, I got to Double-A and a scout who had seen me in high school, and had been promoted to a position in our minor-league system, remembered seeing me as a 17-year-old kid. At that age, I was probably 25 pounds lighter than I was at 22. So, when he saw me at 22 he said, "I remember when you were 170 pounds and now you’re close to 200 pounds and you hit the ball farther, with more strength, as a 17-year-old. That doesn‘t make sense to me." After that, they had me, finally, working on turning on the ball and driving it. I almost felt like I… I don’t want to say "wasted"three years, but I was working on something for three years that I don’t think I should have been.
DL: As a young player, how difficult is it to question authority?
DS: It goes back to what I said: When you’re a young kid, you want to please everybody. You want to please the organization. You don’t want to be labeled as a kid who isn’t coachable or doesn’t listen. I figured that this organization drafted me and I’m going to do whatever it takes to make them happy and do what they want me to do to make it to the major leagues.
DL: The Twins’ player-development system has a stellar reputation. Have you ever asked guys from other organizations if they see that from an outsider’s perspective?
DS: You really don’t have to talk to anybody. Coming up through the minor leagues, you can just watch other teams. You can watch their pre-game, what they do as opposed to what we do, as far as how extensive—sometimes it can be annoying. Sometimes it can be a little ticky-tack, what we do as an organization. But in the long run, it helps us. It helps us defensively, and even the things we do in batting practice. In our second round of BP, we go through situations like getting guys over. Coming up, I used to be like, "Man, why do we have to take infield when other teams never take infield—or outfield,"or "Why do we have to do this? Why are we taking all this fungo when the other team didn’t?’"But when you get up to the big-league level, you see how it paid off.
DL: The repetitions and attention to detail sound not unlike workout regimens in Japan. Have you heard that analogy before?
DS: I haven’t, but I watched a show about how diligent they are and what kind of workers they are, and how precise they are. They want to practice something until they get it down pat. So I have heard about how they do it in Japan, and maybe there are some similarities. I’m not sure.
DL: Getting back to your game, how do you view yourself as a hitter today?
DS: I view myself as a guy who can drive the ball in the gaps. I’m not a power hitter by any means, but if you make a mistake, I do have the ability to drive the ball. What I went through in the minor leagues, in those first three years, to the last two-and-a-half, three years where I finally got back to driving the ball, has made me into a combination of those types of players.
DL: Which of your statistics are most meaningful to you?
DS: I’d say on-base percentage and runs scored. (Batting) average is a measurement of success as well, especially with my role on the team. So, I’d say average, on-base percentage, and runs.
DL: Coming up through the minor leagues, is there a tendency to focus too much on batting average and not enough on OBP?
DS: Oh yeah, and that’s how I was. Everybody, when they’re coming up, feels like they have to hit .280 or above to be considered a good player in the minor-league system. But what’s most important is that you get on base. It took time for me to mature as a player, but I understand that part of the game a lot better now.