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‘Play hard; dream big’ mantra sends Cuddyer home to the Hall

This is the seventh in a series of stories on the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame website, profiling the eight members of the Hall’s stellar induction Class of 2018. Induction weekend is scheduled April 7, 2018, at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts at the Town Center of Virginia Beach.
By JACK BOGACZYK
Hall of Fame Class of 2017
On Sept. 23, 2001, in his Major League debut, Minnesota designated hitter Michael Cuddyer doubled for his first career hit, off Cleveland lefty Chuck Finley. On Oct. 27, 2015, in his first World Series, Cuddyer pinch-hit for the New York Mets in the seventh inning and took his last three MLB at-bats in a 14-inning, Game 1 loss at Kansas City.

In between, the man teammates called “Cuddy” had established himself as much more than a reliable, successful Major Leaguer. He won the National League batting title in 2013. He played seven of nine positions, mostly in right field, for the Twins, Rockies and Mets. He was a two-time All-Star, a career .277 hitter, with 197 homers and 794 RBI over 15 seasons.

Michael-Cuddyer

In the postseason, for seven divisional championship teams, Cuddyer batted .306. And he was about winning. Six of those seven teams that played into October won 90 or more games. He spent 14 years in the Twins’ organization, and last season the Twin Cities club inducted the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Cuddyer into its Hall of Fame.

Now, the lifelong Chesapeake resident is being honored much, much closer to home. Cuddyer is part of an eight-person Class of 2018 entering the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame on April 7 at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach.

“I never really left,” Cuddyer said when asked about growing up in Chesapeake and starring at Great Bridge High School before becoming the No. 9 overall pick by the Twins in the 1997 MLB Draft. “Chesapeake has been my home forever. In the offseason, I came home here. We live here now (Cuddyer, his wife, Claudia, an Arlington native; son Casey, 9; and twin daughters, Maddie and Chloe, 6).

“It’s absolutely special to be going into the Hall of Fame here. You don’t do what you choose to do as a profession for recognition; you do it because you love it. But I’m not going to lie. When you are recognized like this for the person you are and the athlete you were, that is special. I always tried to represent my state, my city, my school in the right way.”

When Cuddyer retired in December 2015, he was halfway through a two-year, $21 million contract with the Mets. He was due $12.5 million in the final year of the deal in 2016 – his highest career salary. But at age 36, Cuddyer said he just couldn’t do it anymore … and he said it eloquently, too.

In a compelling story he wrote for The Players Tribune website on Dec. 12, 2015, Cuddyer explained why it was time to leave a game he loves. An excerpt:

Baseball is a game of beautiful contradictions. It can be entertainingly fast and painfully slow. You sacrifice your personal and family life for the grind and the glory. Baseball is my life’s passion, but at the same time I knew in some distant part of my heart that it wouldn’t and couldn’t last forever. Ever since I was a kid, my mantra has been, “Play hard, dream big.” But I’ve always believed in loyalty to the game itself: the day that I can’t give it 100 percent is the day I have to walk away. Now that the day has come, it’s harder than I thought it would be.

“I think one thing I promised myself when I got drafted was that I always would be a good self-evaluator; that was very important to me,” said Cuddyer, who is now a special assistant in baseball operations for the Twins. “You’ve got guys who get drafted when they’re 18, last 4-5 years in the game, have no college degree and then it’s like, ‘What now?’They’re stuck in limbo. I decided that wasn’t going to be me.

“Every year, in the offseason, I wanted to evaluate myself in three areas – emotionally, physically and mentally. Now, chances are all three aren’t going to be intact after a long baseball season, whether it’s 140 games in the minors or 162 in the Majors. But I felt if I had two of three intact, that was good.

Michael-Cuddyer

“When it came to the end of the 2015 season, the game had become a struggle. I’d been on the disabled list (six times in his final four seasons, missing more than 150 games). I needed double core surgery, and then the rehab work after that. You’re gone 4-5 months and you miss your wife and your kids are growing and you want to be there. Mentally, I was burned out, too.

“It was just time. Leaving the game was hard, but making the decision was really easy.”

Cuddyer wasn’t thrilled when he was drafted by the Twins in 1997 – far from it – and he delayed signing so long he didn’t make his pro debut until 1998 at Fort Wayne. But he came to appreciate the commitment to success and doing things the right way in the organization. He received call-ups to the bigs after great success at Double A New Britain and then Triple A Edmonton, and then established himself with a franchise that won.

With Cuddyer in the lineup, the Twins won the American League Central title from 2002-04, in 2006 and 2009-10. He then made the postseason – and the Series – with the Mets in 2015.

Among the 35 baseball inductees to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, Cuddyer is the only one with a batting title in the Major Leagues. He batted .331 with the Rockies in 2013, winning the NL Silver Slugger Award for first basemen – undoubtedly aided by the large outfield expanse at Coors Field.

Most would assume that was his best season, since he also homered 20 times with 84 RBI. But Cuddyer’s other All-Star season came in 2009 with Minnesota, when he hit 32 homers with 94 RBI.

“My best year wasn’t when I won the batting title,” Cuddyer said. “I always associated good years with team success. The numbers are what they are, and I’m happy and very proud of the accomplishment, but the situation was that we were 20 games under .500. The Rockies were out of it the last month of the season.

“So, it was all hanging on the batting title. That’s what people were talking about, and I felt like I kind of started playing for myself, and I didn’t like that at all. That’s not what drives me. My mentality is different, and even though I was hitting well, it didn’t leave a great taste in my mouth.

“To me, 2006 was a great year, chasing down the Tigers (for the AL Central title). Same with 2009, a fun year, chasing down the Tigers. In 2010, it was a fun year. When you win, that’s what it’s about.”

Cuddyer said his formative years in youth and school sports in Chesapeake – “I played everything as a kid,” he said – established his foundation for what was to come as a professional.

“All of those experiences were really important,” Cuddyer said. “Playing all of those sports allowed me to learn different roles and allowed me to learn to be part of a team. Learning how to be a teammate is very important, and that shaped what I was able to do through the minor leagues and once I went into the big leagues.

“You need to accept different roles – be on the team for the sake of the team, and not just for yourself.”

Michael-Cuddyer

When asked to recall his first hit, Cuddyer explained what he sees as the best memories from his years in a game that brought him what he had hoped.

“I remember that first hit, off Chuck Finley, against Cleveland, but it wasn’t like it registered much,” he said. “It wasn’t long after 9/11 (only 12 days) and that was still on everyone’s minds, as it should have been. The thing to me is, as I get older, the memories of specific things, they fade or they start to blend together. The things that maybe happened on one day or in one season, like maybe a big home run I hit, that’s not what I carry with me.

“It’s the people, the relationships, the friends you made, the ones who are special. Those are the best memories to me.”Meanwhile, Cuddyer’s success has seemed to open the gates from Hampton Roads to the Majors. Those who have followed Cuddyer include Chesapeake’s David Wright and Justin and Melvin Upton Jr., and Ryan Zimmerman and Mark Reynolds from Virginia Beach.

“To me, what was the highlight was just the opportunity to do what I always wanted to do and to accomplish what I was able to accomplish,” Cuddyer said. “When you’re a little boy, you want to be a baseball player. Nine out of 10 little boys, you ask them, and they want to be baseball players, football players, firemen, policeman, doctor.

“I was able to take my abilities and take advice from others and put the work in … and I got to do something fewer than 20,000 people have had the great opportunity to do – play baseball in the Major Leagues. I was very fortunate and I really appreciate that.”

So, let’s let Cuddyer write the last word, from the close of his Players Tribune retirement story of Dec. 12, 2015:

Finally, thank you to the game of baseball. I was one of the lucky ones who got to play the game for a living. One of the lucky ones who got the play for All-Star managers and coaches. One of the lucky ones who got to be a poster on a kid’s wall. I never played for money or fame, but you showered me with both. I played baseball the way I did because I knew one day it would be over. Today’s that day.

I hope you know that physically, mentally and emotionally, I gave you everything I had.

Retired award-winning sportswriter and columnist Jack Bogaczyk is a 2017 inductee to the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. He spent more than 45 years in the sportswriting business, including 27 years at The Roanoke Times.

The 2018 Spotlight Series is presented by Dominion Energy. The Virginia Sports Hall of Fame welcomes Dominion Energy as a proud partner for 2018 Induction Weekend.