Fond memories focus of caravan stop

Fond memories focus of caravan stop

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Every year it seems a theme forms on the Twins Winter Caravan.

Last year, all of the talk on the visits focused on how the team was going to get back into contention after being unable to capture its fourth straight division title. But this year talking about the previous season has been a bit more fun on the trip, which really is no surprise considering the dramatic year the team had in 2006.

From all the individual honors the club earned, with a batting champion, Cy Young award and MVP honors all bestowed upon the Twins, to the team's completion of another division title, the '06 season delivered a lot of special moments.

But perhaps the most prominent question along the northwest leg of the trip has focused on the final day of that season, when the team finally saw its first glimpse from the top spot of the division. It certainly was a rare event, as it didn't occur until hours after the team had completed its game.

That day remains very special to many of the players, including Nick Punto, who has recounted his memories of standing on the field watching the Tigers-Royals game play out along with 35,000 Twins fans still in attendance. While the moment was a tad overwhelming then, the time during the offseason certainly has allowed the whole experience to sink in for Punto.

"It really was just a surreal experience," Punto said to the crowd at the night stop in Detroit Lakes. "To be able to share that with our fans was something none of us will forget."

Punto is just one of the members of the Twins organization taking part in the northwest leg of the 2007 Dodge Twins Winter Caravan. With him on this part of the trip are closer Joe Nathan, former Twins star Tony Oliva and one of the voices of the Twins on Fox Sports Net, Dick Bremer.

This is the 48th year of the annual caravan, and this week's leg venturing up to North Dakota and the northwest portion of Minnesota is one of five taking place over the next two weeks. Two buses currently are out on the road, while the other three will take off next week as the team prepares for its annual Twinsfest, January 26-28.

But while the experience as a whole on that last day of the season was something special, it also was made even better by the fact that during the game the crowd also was still paying attention to the outcome of both contests. In fact, Punto said it was hard to figure out, at times, just what the crowd was cheering for more.

"A foul ball was hit and we heard a huge ovation from the crowd," Punto said. "I looked up at the scoreboard, and the Royals had scored a run. It was pretty crazy.

"The fans then started screaming 'Let's go Royals!' I think that's the only time that you'll ever hear a chant for the Royals in the Metrodome."

Welcome back: One of the best pieces of news on the caravan came late Tuesday afternoon when the traveling group learned the Twins had signed Matthew LeCroy to a Minor League contract with an invitation to Spring Training.

LeCroy was a member of the Twins for six seasons from 2000-05. He spent most of his time with the club as a designated hitter, although he also provided some backup help at first base and catcher. And clearly during his time with the team, LeCroy became a clubhouse favorite.

"LeCroy's back," Punto said with a smile upon hearing the news.

LeCroy spent the '06 season with the Washington Nationals and had two homers in 39 games before he was released in July. If LeCroy makes the Twins out of Spring Training, he reportedly will make around $500,000.

School's in session: A prominent fixture during the week of the caravan are the school visits, but it wasn't until Tuesday that the group actually made one.

That's because most of the kids in the Upper Midwest were fortunate enough to get Monday off of school thanks to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. As it always seems to go, some of the best entertainment comes from the players getting to interact with the school kids -- and that's exactly what happened on Tuesday.

The group holds a trivia game at most of the visits, and one of the questions this year wasn't exactly easy. It was, "How do you spell piranha?" It seemed only fitting that one of the two kids in Punto's group tried to answer the question -- and although he was just a little off, it was quite impressive for a word that can give even writers fits.

"I was impressed; he wasn't even scared," Punto said. "He raised his hand right up and answered it. I don't know if I would have even been that confident. He missed it just by an 'h.'"

Before the school visit was complete, Nathan even spent time shooting hoops with some kids in one of the gym classes. It took a little bit for Nathan to get a shot to go in, but he wasn't about to leave without getting one in the hoop. Needless to say, the former high school basketball player proved his athleticism, sinking a nothing-but-net shot just in time to catch the bus. However, it seems a tad unlikely the group actually would have left without the All-Star closer.

Ice time? The final stop of the day for the Twins took them to Detroit Lakes, and when the team arrived at its hotel, one of the options for guests was the ability to go ice fishing on the lake.

Unfortunately there wasn't enough time to go (or any houses on the lake with bunk beds for the night as Bremer suggested to the group), but that wasn't to say that the players weren't willing to have a try at it.

"I've been looking to go out with former clubbies Brian Monette and Rod McCormick, but we just haven't had our schedules work out," Nathan said. "I'm looking to do that with them. Today, if we had time, I would have loved to go, but the window of time was just a little too small for us to put the gear on and go out. I'm excited to see what it's like, though, since I've never done it."

Up next: On Wednesday the caravan will travel to Thief River Falls, Fosston, and Bemidji.

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.