Danny Valencia is fitting in fine with the Minnesota Twins

Soon, minutes from now, Danny Valencia will jog around the bases, floating almost, on the exhilaration of his first big-league homer, one that came with the bases loaded and 2009 American League Cy Young winner Zack Greinke on the mound. For now, though, here he is at Kauffman Stadium, under the bright big-league lights, slinking sheepishly back to the on-deck circle.

His eagerness once again the victor, Valencia had just watched Jason Kubel's at-bat. He saw Kubel bend over and begin removing his shin guard, saw the bat boy march toward the plate to collect it, and, taking that as his cue, he strode toward the batter's box.

But then he turned and retreated.

Kubel might have made the first false start in the sequence, thinking his called strike was ball four, but it was Valencia, unable to play it cool with so many eyes watching, who looked the rookie, his return to warming up met by headshaking from his manager and snickers from his teammates.

When Valencia finally got his turn at the plate, he did his best to make up for the harmless gaffe, putting the Twins up 6-0 with his first homer at any level this season. But his snafu did not go unnoticed. With the clubhouse version of kangaroo court in full session these days, the Twins have a watchful eye on their rookies, and Valencia pays — literally — for even the most miniscule of miscues.

Asked after the game whether Valencia would be fined for his premature stroll to the plate, Michael Cuddyer, the court's bailiff of sorts, said: "Probably. He gets fined for everything. You guys bring me something; I'll fine him."

Drafted out of the University of Miami in the 19th round in 2006, Valencia quickly gained a reputation for brimming with so much confidence that it often spilled over into arrogance. He would tout his talents aloud, and that's where his early problems with this organization began.
Other Twins players and executives thought the young third baseman — the kid from Miami with a South Beach swagger and wide, bright smile — appreciated his own ability to an un-Twins-like degree. His actions often drew eye rolls, and only after two straight four-hit games, that grand slam and a batting average swollen to .387 with seven doubles, one triple and 12 runs batted in did manager Ron Gardenhire seem comfortable giving Valencia his due.

Just days before the 25-year-old's Kansas City breakout, Gardenhire's compliments were not so free-flowing. For weeks after Valencia's arrival in the big leagues June 3, questions to the manager about how Valencia was doing in his first stint in the majors drew the uninspired half-hearted response: "Danny's doing fine."

Asked last week at Baltimore if he likes more and more what he's seeing from Valencia, Gardenhire said: "Yeah, he's swinging fine. We'll spot-play him and all those things. I want his movement to keep improving at third base."

Perhaps Gardenhire's measured approach to Valencia is understandable. After all, the third baseman still has just 93 at-bats in his budding big-league career. And just as the manager is measured when talking about the rookie, Valencia is measured in the clubhouse.

He tries to sit quietly, something that just might go against every instinct he has, and he does his best not to offend. He is still prone to rookie mistakes, caused no doubt by ignorance and eagerness, and each time he does something remotely suspect, his teammates let him know. Aside from that, the Twins have few complaints.

"He's been fine here," Cuddyer said. "I think in this clubhouse you can't afford to be too cocky. Not that anything bad is going to happen to you. It's just that you kind of fall into what everybody else is about. It's about team; it's not about yourself. That's the thing. All you've heard about him is that he's cocky, tells people how good he is, things like that. Well, now he's playing well, and you still don't hear from him, so that's a good thing."

Still, the Twins work diligently to teach Valencia the team-first message.

Right about the time he was called up from the minors, the team established its 2010 kangaroo court, and ever since, Valencia has been a heavy contributor. It is his job to carry the court's fine box — an oversized black shoebox with its name scrawled in marker — on the road.

He forgot the box Monday, a mental lapse that qualified for another team-imposed fine in a ritual that is mostly comical and quite benign. The money in the box (all players, not just rookies, are fined for mistakes) helps fund a team get-together at the end of the season.

"He's definitely funded," Cuddyer said. "We're going to have a good party."

There is a certain arrogance about Valencia, yet he seems mostly harmless, his airs delivered with a wide grin. He believes in his ability, and occasionally — though much less now that he's working to heed the advice former general manager Terry Ryan gave him during Twinsfest to be seen and not heard — he can't stop himself from expressing that confidence.

Asked Wednesday if his success in the big leagues has surprised him, Valencia said yes — while shaking his head side to side.

"I felt like my confidence came from going to the University of Miami," he said. "They really embed in you to be real confident. Obviously, you heard the word swagger, and we invented that there. So I feel it's something that every player that goes through that program, every athlete — whether it be football, basketball or baseball — they've always been people that are real confident with some swagger. Obviously, you can't do that in pro ball, which is what I've learned."

Perhaps it's that trait that helped Valencia climb from the 19th round to the majors, laugh his way past a locker stuffed full of baby food and diapers in spring training (a message meant to remind him of his rookie status) and smile and shrug when he arrived in a big-league locker room for the first time back at Safeco Field in early June to find a jersey with the number 79 stitched on the back rather than the 19 he was supposed to wear. The number 79 was Valencia's during his first spring training, a year when all nonrostered players wear numbers in the high double digits.

"I like it. I love it. It's part of the game," Valencia said of his initiation. "If they're doing that to you, I've always taken it that they like you. Whether they do or they don't, that's how I take it."

Cuddyer said that since Valencia has joined the big-league team, "you don't notice him, and that's a good thing," and Valencia said that his toned-down confidence has made him an all-around better person. He was surprised at how long it took him to overcome the label of being the overconfident prospect, but now, he said, he feels a part of the team.

He should, of course, because he's funding their postseason party.

"Our guys do a really good job of not letting anybody get too high on the horse," Gardenhire said. "He's getting put in his place, but he's handling it very well. He's not fighting against it. He enjoys it, and I think he's having a good time."

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