MINNEAPOLIS — The most popular player on the Minnesota Twins is the third-string catcher and play-him-almost-anywhere everyman Willians Astudillo, whose all-in, all-out style has endeared him to players and fans alike since he made his major league debut last season.
Astudillo's cult hero status will hit a new high on Friday, when the Twins take on the Orioles. The event is called "An Evening With La Tortuga at Target Field ," with T-shirts bearing Astudillo's nickname — meaning the turtle, in Spanish — distributed to fans who pre-purchased a special ticket package. All 3,000 seats designated for the promotion sold out.
"You know, I'm grateful for it. It's very satisfying to know the fans welcome me here. I just keep playing hard," Astudillo said recently through team interpreter Elvis Martinez. "It makes me proud, the popularity, but it's something that I wasn't expecting. But it's happening, so I welcome it."
For a 27-year-old bench player who has appeared in only 43 major league games and will likely always be one extended slump away from a demotion to Triple-A, being the subject of a merchandise giveaway is unusual. He already is featured at a Target Field concession stand in the form of the "La Tortuga Torta ," which is hot ham and cheese on telera flat bread rolls. The Twins asked him for his favourite toppings, Astudillo said, but he has not sampled the sandwich.
With his 5-foot-9, 225-pound frame and thick, curly hair flopping out from behind his helmet on hustles around the bases , Astudillo has that look of an instant fan favourite. Last September, three days after he hit a walk-off home run in the ninth inning to beat the Royals, Astudillo scored a key late run in a win over the Yankees, motoring home from first base on a two-out double to left-centre .
Interviewed by reporters afterward, through Martinez, Astudillo produced a quote that perfectly encapsulates his popularity and will forever cement his place in Twins' history no matter how much longer he's with the club.
"I wanted to show that chubby people can run," he said.
Though he has ultimately embraced his fan-favourite status, Astudillo has been hesitant to fully indulge in his image as some kind of softball league mascot. He has plenty of athleticism, actually. He is no slouch with the glove, having played every position but shortstop for the first place Twins. Yes, even centre field, in his major league debut last June against the Cubs.
In this digital age of distraction, with Major League Baseball trying to keep younger fans tuned in, Astudillo has served as a one-man pace-of-play endorsement. In 148 career plate appearances, he has just three walks and four strikeouts. There's hardly a pitch he won't swing hard at, including the one in January in a winter league game in his native Venezuela that he famously dropped to one knee to hit out of the ballpark . He watched it in a thinker's pose the whole way.
Astudillo never passed Class A with the Phillies, who signed him in 2008. He spent a season in the Braves' and Diamondbacks' systems, before finding his opening with the Twins last summer. He is grateful to his father, who played professionally in Venezuela, for the encouragement and confidence-building along the way.
"I worked a lot on the mental aspect of the game because a lot of people were against me, I guess, in the sense of he's too short, he's too chubby and he won't make it," Astudillo said. "But I always believed in myself, and here I am."
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