FORT MYERS, Fla. Chartered flights. Five-star hotels. Tens of thousands of fans in state-of-the-art ballparks.
Yes, things are a bit nicer in the major leagues. For several Twins minor leaguers, last season was their first taste of the bigs. Numerous injuries and 99 losses meant several young players had an opportunity to show their stuff with Minnesota late in the 2011 season.
Several months later, those same players are trying to make a case to stay in the majors in 2012.
"Once you have a taste of the big leagues, you don't want to go back to the minor leagues," said outfielder Rene Tosoni, one of several Twins to make his major league debut in 2011. "But when you get back there, that's all you want to do is get back to the big leagues. Your goal is to stay out of the minor leagues. You want to be playing in the big leagues as long as you can."
Tosoni, 25, spent a decent part of 2011 with Minnesota, playing 60 total games in the majors and 73 with Triple-A Rochester. There were others, such as outfielder Joe Benson and first baseman Chris Parmelee, who didn't get that chance until September.
Both Benson and Parmelee skipped Triple-A altogether last year, going straight from Double-A New Britain to the Twins in September. The two-level leap didn't seem to affect Parmelee, who batted .355 while slugging .592 in 21 games for the Twins. That included four homers and 14 RBIs in 76 at-bats.
"The difference between Double-A and the big leagues was the pitching was a little bit better," Parmelee said. "But at the same time, they were around the zone a little bit more, so I felt like it was a little bit easier to hit. The lights are brighter. The balls are whiter. That's what I think helped me out a lot through the time I was up there was just staying relaxed in the game itself."
Benson, ranked by Baseball America as the No. 99 overall prospect prior to this season, didn't have quite the success in the majors last September that Parmelee did. Benson batted just .239 with a .270 on-base percentage in 21 games (71 at-bats).
He's been off to a slow start this spring, too, hitting 3-for-14 in his first six games. Benson did hit a deep home run in Sunday's game against the Yankees. He homered 16 times with New Britain last season and 27 combined homers in 2010 between New Britain (23) and High-A Fort Myers (4).
That power is something Benson is hoping to exhibit this spring as he fights for a roster spot.
"I'd like to make power part of my game," Benson said Sunday after his solo homer. "It's something you can't consciously think about or force, but it just comes with repetition, putting good swings on baseballs, going up there with a good plan and plate approach. Eventually some of them start getting backspin and balls start flying. But for today, the rest of camp, I'm just trying to battle, be aggressive and try to stay out of those two-strike counts."
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire knows the early-spring struggles have weighed on Benson, but Minnesota's skipper was glad to see the 24-year-old Illinois native snap out of it with a homer Sunday.
"He's got all the tools. Now it's about harnessing that," Gardenhire said of Benson. "Making it to the big leagues (last year) is a good thing. He saw what he needed to work on."
Tosoni has quickly become friends with veteran third baseman Sean Burroughs, whose locker is next to Tosoni's in the Hammond Stadium clubhouse. On the other side of Tosoni's locker is fellow Canadian Justin Morneau. Those two have been next to each other since Tosoni's first camp with the Twins three springs ago. For his first two years in Fort Myers, Tosoni was also next to slugger Jim Thome.
"A couple good lefties right here," Tosoni said. "Good to take in some information and take it to the field."
Now that players like Tosoni, Benson, Parmelee and others have had several spring trainings under their belts as well as a taste of the majors last season they've become more comfortable and assertive, both on the field and in the clubhouse.
"You have to be more comfortable when you've been around it for a few years," Gardenhire said. "They've been in camp, most of those guys, for two or three years now. We expect that. That's kind of the process. Better each year, more comfortable, and know what we have to do. We get away from having to, as they say, hold their hand step-by-step every day."
Yet while last year's taste of the major leagues was a great learning experience for Minnesota's young players, it doesn't result in any guarantees this spring.
"It doesn't matter how old you are, whether you're 20 or 40. You're always fighting for a job," Parmelee said. "You've always got to compete. You've just got to go out there and give it 100 percent. That's how I look at it. It doesn't matter what age you are. You've still got to go out there and earn a spot."
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