Baseball's highest level is that of respect -- for playing the game right, for respecting one's opponent, for a code of professionalism.
In this strata reside Ryne Sandberg and the Minnesota Twins. The two connected in a special way this week, and the result was nothing but positive vibes from both parties.
Sandberg, of course, makes no secret of his craving to manage the Cubs. He's paid his apprenticeship dues GM Jim Hendry asked him to accrue and now he feels his time has come. But if he's fortunate enough to be named manager, he'd like his players trained in a high-class manner where attention to detail and hustling are in the forefront.
As his example of a team that grooms its players in such a manner, Sandberg cited the Minnesota Twins. Of course, the Twins have long been noted for developing players well-schooled in fundamentals and good attitude. Those who know the game wonder if the Cubs can somehow adopt the Twins' development style. But rarely has such high praise come from a Hall of Famer who was self-motivated to play the game right from Day One -- and who roasted those taking shortcuts, such as steroids, in his Cooperstown induction speech in 2005.
The Twins, who like Sandberg don't beat their own chests in self-praise, almost blushed when asked for their reaction to his praise.
"It's a great compliment, not just for our major-league ballclub -- that's for our entire organization," said manager Ron Gardenhire. "They've worked very hard to develop and draft 'em. We're not saying it's always the right way. It's just the way we've been doing it. A lot of us were taught that way. I was taught by Tom Kelly to respect the game and pay attention to the details. We've tried to maintain (that philosophy). If people think that's the right way to do it, I think that's a great compliment."
Gardenhire's team leaders also welcomed Sandberg's plaudits.
"Ryne Sandberg, it doesn't get much better than that," said catcher Joe Mauer. "That's what we try to do over here. It's great to be recognized by a player like that. He was one of my favorites growing up because of that. He wasn't a flashy guy. He let his play do the talking. To have him say that is definitely a great thing. We're definitely going to continue to try to keep doing that."
Said first baseman Michael Cuddyer, kind of the Twins' senior 'piranha': "It's definitely a huge compliment, for somebody of his stature to use us as an example -- that's big."
Cuddyer said the crucial momentum for the organization's reputation begins with the entry point into the Twins system.
"For me, it starts with the personnel you bring in," he said. "Bringing in character people. If you bring in character people, they're going to follow the examples of the people who came in before them. That's what this organization does best. -- bringing in character people from A ball to the draft all the way to the free agents they bring in. Gardy takes a lot of pride in the minor leagues. He talks to the minor leaguers and talks to the minor-league coaches and managers. He makes sure everybody from rookie ball all the way up to here is on the same page. All that is, is just playing baseball."
So can another team, especially the one Sandberg hopes to manage, adopt the Twins' Way?
"I'm sure any team can do that," Mauer said. "What Cuddy said is true -- we get good players, but we also get good guys. They're more worried about the bigger picture than their individual goals."
"If you can bring in good people who can also play rather than bringing in good players who are OK people -- I think that's where it starts. You've got to bring in good people people. It works from the bottom up."
Latest Twins newcomer is lefty reliever Brian Fuentes, whom the Sox passed on even as their bullpen was being ravaged by injuries. Gardenhire, a master chess-piece mover, immediately put Fuentes to work in a save situation. But the longtime closer is ready to work in any role, and immediately bought into the Twins' system.
"It's a pretty easy transition for me," Fuentes said. "It's a kind of blue-collar team. They do all the little things, similar to the Angels' style of play. The clubhouse is relaxed. There's a lot of homegrown talent here. So it's definitely a tight clubhouse. But with that, there's the abiity to ease into that in a kind of seamless entry. Look around, it's a loose clubhouse. Guys are comfortable. There's leadership. Guys play roles and do well in them.
"This is a well-oiled machine Gardy has here."
Something that Sandberg would love to have. But no matter which manager the Cubs hire, it's a blueprint that's an absolute necessity.