Twins’ Polanco honors grandfather’s memory with strong play
By Mike Berardino
St. Paul Pioneer Press
MINNEAPOLIS — It’s easy to forget now as he hits third for a Twins team steamrolling toward its first postseason berth in seven years, but for two solid months this summer Jorge Polanco wandered around in a fog.
There were games to be played almost daily, and for those three hours he would give his all, but his heart was heavy after the death of his grandfather.
Maximo Polanco, who died at 73 on June 6, wasn’t just a strong influence on the Twins shortstop. He was the man who essentially raised him in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.
“I lived with him for 16 years,” Polanco said through a translator. “I moved when I was 17.”
It wasn’t his grandfather who taught him how to play baseball, but he certainly taught young Jorge — whom he called “Chulo,” Spanish for “handsome boy” — how to love the game.
“He was a good fan of baseball,” Polanco said. “He was a Twins fan once I signed here, but before that he would support the Yankees or the Red Sox.”
While Polanco’s father spent most of his time in New York City, his grandfather cared for him while operating a property management company. Maximo Polanco owned a few apartments, and he would take young Jorge on his rounds, but the best memories were of time spent at the mansion of a wealthy businessman in a neighboring town.
“He would travel a lot, so my grandfather would take care of his home,” Polanco said. “His house had a pool and everything. My grandfather would take me to the house. That’s how I learned to swim.”
With the help of a family friend as well as his grandfather, Polanco learned to swim at a young age. He quickly became one of the fastest swimmers in the area.
“My grandfather’s friend knew a lot about swimming, so he taught me,” Polanco said. “They both taught me. When I was little I was good. I’m all right now, but I stopped swimming to play baseball.”
Young Jorge and other relatives would spend hot afternoons swimming in the pool of the rich businessman. There would be food and laughter and easy conversation.
“We all used to go to that house,” Polanco said. “That’s where we spent most of our time.”
Hard work pays off
When his grandfather died, Polanco was whisked away from batting practice at Seattle’s Safeco Field and placed on the bereavement list so he could make the 12-hour flight back home to the Dominican. The Twins told him to take all the time he needed.
Polanco missed six games over a span of nine days while the Twins were on the West Coast. Once the Twins returned home, Polanco rejoined the team on June 12, but Twins manager Paul Molitor gave him an extra day just to settle back in.
Once Polanco resumed playing, he was a shell of his talented self. He made seven errors over his next 32 games, batting just .146 with a .205 on-base percentage and a paltry .214 slugging percentage in 112 plate appearances.
By the time the Twins headed west again in late July, Polanco had basically lost his starting job. He was fitted for contact lenses but discarded them after one game.
His first full season in the major leagues was turning into a lost summer.
“He had a little bit of a rough time early,” Molitor said. “That’s not overly surprising to me — a guy trying to win a job at a position where he knows it’s been a little controversial in terms of opinions whether he could play it.”
Through it all, the 24-year-old switch-hitter kept working. He would grab his glove and trot out to his position four-plus hours before first pitch to take extra grounders from Twins third-base coach Gene Glynn.
Most days Miguel Sano, his childhood neighbor from back home in San Pedro de Macoris, would be out there to Polanco’s right, taking grounders at third.
“More than anything, I don’t know if anybody has done more work on any part of their game than (Polanco) has done on his defense this year,” Molitor said. “The amount of time he spent with Geno — early on, it seemed like every day — it’s paid off.”
After Polanco was left out of the starting lineup 11 times in a 16-game span from July 15 through Aug. 3, the rebooting of his season began in earnest with a home series against the Texas Rangers. He went 3 for 9 with a walk, but it was several high-end defensive plays that gave observers an indication the fog was finally lifting.
“I’m sure with each hit that comes his way, there’s a lightness to it that he hasn’t felt for a while,” Molitor said that Sunday after the series finale. “You can see it. He’s a little more himself when he runs out and takes his position defensively.”
On Aug. 7, the following night, Polanco went 4 for 4 against the Milwaukee Brewers, igniting a stretch of five straight multi-hit games. He hasn’t looked back.
As he ran through the checklist of second-half contributions and stunning turnarounds, from Joe Mauer and Byron Buxton to Kyle Gibson and Bartolo Colon to Eduardo Escobar and Eddie Rosario and on and on, Molitor stopped in mid-sentence and went back to maybe the most amazing mid-year resurgence of all.
“Polanco may be a little bit overlooked, I think,” Molitor said. “It seems like in all these games he was in the middle of it, whether it was a big hit, a big at-bat, making a play. He’s had to play a lot. I’m sure the season is taking its toll, but he keeps finding a way to get it done.”
Over his past 49 games, Polanco has hit .332 with a .391 OBP and a .578 slugging percentage. Helped in part by a .353 batting average on balls in play — more than double the .175 BABIP he posted during his mid-summer doldrums — and much-improved plate discipline, Polanco has hit nine home runs and driven in 39 runs while scoring 27 times in his past 213 plate appearances.
He has made seven errors in that span, but few of them have proved costly the way some of the earlier miscues did.
“I don’t know if his (arm strength) has improved a ton as much as he’s learned to trust what he can do with his throws,” Molitor said. “I don’t think we’ve seen too many times where he’s needed to make a throw and he hasn’t done it. It might not be the elite arm strength but it certainly has played.”
In Sunday’s 10-4 victory over the Detroit Tigers, Polanco again provided solid defense while continuing his hot streak at the plate. His first time up he ripped Buck Farmer’s no-ball, two-strike fastball into the right-field seats for a quick 1-0 lead.
Afterward, Polanco talked at length by his locker about a pesky, high-contact lineup no team wants to face. What does it mean, for instance, that the Twins have scored 10 or more runs 10 times since Sano went down with a stress reaction in his shin on Aug. 20?
“In this lineup, it just means the next hitter and the next hitter and the next hitter are locked in,” Polanco said. “There’s a lot of confidence. You can see it each game. It doesn’t matter what happens during the game. We show our confidence, and it think it shows in the result of our games.”
If the Twins keep this up for a few more games, they will head back to Yankee Stadium early next week for a fascinating American League wild-card rematch with a team that swept them a week ago. The young man Maximo Polanco used to call “Chulo” will get another chance to honor his late grandfather by playing well against the same team they rooted for together all those years ago.
The fog has lifted. The lightness has returned.