Faces on the Field: Tommy Watkins

Faces on the Field: Tommy Watkins

TRENTON, N.J. -- A cheesy pop song was blaring over the speakers at Mercer County Waterfront Park, filling the near empty stadium as visiting New Britain began taking batting practice.

Tommy Watkins, an infielder for the Rock Cats, began singing along with the song, a broad smile on his face as he played catch in front of the visiting dugout with coach Floyd Rayford. Halfway through the tune, Watkins turned toward a reporter sitting in the dugout, someone he had never met, and asked, 'Hey, what do you think of this song? You like it?'

The reporter smiled, offered an 'I guess so' and Watkins, having gotten a sufficient response, resumed playing catch with Rayford. Add another name to the list of people on whom Watkins has had an affect, another person drawn in by the mega-watt smile and winning personality. It happens everywhere Watkins goes and on this breezy evening in central New Jersey, the situation is no different.

The 24-year-old Florida native is close to becoming what some would consider a Minor League lifer. A 38th-round pick in the 1998 draft, Watkins is beginning his second season with the Rock Cats and his eighth in the Twins' system. Though he is coming off a career year with New Britain (.267, eight homers, 47 RBIs in 116 games), there still appears to be a long road ahead of him in his quest to reach the Twin Cities.

But if the journey is getting Watkins down, you'd never know it. The ever-present smile is hard to miss as he jokes with fans and teammates prior to the game, keeping everyone loose just about every moment he's around. He's playing baseball and whether it's in Minnesota or New Britain, that's all that seems to matter.

"I don't know what I'd do if I didn't play baseball," Watkins said. "You know, when I was a senior in high school I took an economics class and the teacher went around the room asking people what they wanted to do for their careers. I said I wanted to play baseball and the teacher was like, 'Seriously, what do you want to do?'

"I didn't know anything about the draft. But I ended up being drafted a few weeks later. And I'm glad it worked out that way. My dad [Tommy Sr.] played ball [in the Reds' system] and maybe that pushed me more to play. But I always liked it. I might not have been the greatest athlete coming out of high school. But that might be the greatest reason why I still play today. I'm a student of the game."

So much so, that he's an assistant coach at Riverdale High School, his alma mater, whenever he's home in Ft. Myers. In fact, Watkins is popular in Ft. Myers, where he also played in 2002 and 2003 for the Twins' Florida State League affiliate, that he's putting together his own website so the folks back home can keep track of his whereabouts and what he's doing on the field.

Watkins seems just a little bashful when discussing himself -- ego clearly doesn't come into play with him. He loves helping out in the community around New Britain and was even scheduled to go see some school kids Friday morning while he was in Trenton, "just as a surprise". There was a time last season he even donned the club's mascot uniform during a rain delay just to entertain his teammates.

So it wasn't unexpected to see roommate James Tomlin, an outfielder and seventh-round pick in 2000, pop into the dugout and razz Watkins as he spoke.

"Aw man, why do you want to talk to him?" Tomlin asked.

"Don't listen to him," Watkins laughs. "He's a hater."

They both share a laugh before Tomlin takes off for a few swings in the cage. Tomlin is two years younger than Watkins but they are close friends. When Tomlin was chosen out of St. Bernard's High School in Los Angeles, Watkins served as a role model of sorts.

"He's a good dude," Tomlin said. "He's one of the guys I saw and looked up to. When I first signed, the manager told me that Tommy was the guy to watch and follow. He never gets down on himself. He's a hard worker and he's popular in the organization. And he helps, talking to me about the mental aspect of the game, when to steal a base, where to throw a ball, stuff like that."

So, it's not surprising that Watkins says he'd like to coach or manage if he doesn't make it to the Major Leagues someday. In addition to helping out at his high school, he also coaches a traveling team.

"It's just fun to watch baseball," Watkins said. "And to be able to play baseball, it's the greatest game ever. I just don't get tired of it. He [Tomlin] gets on me all the time because I'll help my high school team or whatever. I don't get tired of it.

"Everyone's goal is to make the Major Leagues. You just have to keep working hard because you never know what will happen. I'll wait for my opportunity. I just like to play. I'll play forever if I could."

Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.