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Twins Caravan rides on optimism as it swings through Duluth

Minnesota Twins pitcher Anthony Swarzak is known among his baseball buddies for his Bigfoot obsession. Swarzak downplayed it on Thursday at Grandma's Sports Garden as part of the Minnesota Twins Winter Caravan stop, but he admitted, "Anything is ...

Twins Caravan
Sitting between pitcher Anthony Swarzak (left) and mascot T.C. Bear, Minnesota Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe (center) answers a question during a Twins Caravan stop in Duluth on Thursday evening. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Minnesota Twins pitcher Anthony Swarzak is known among his baseball buddies for his Bigfoot obsession.

Swarzak downplayed it on Thursday at Grandma's Sports Garden as part of the Minnesota Twins Winter Caravan stop, but he admitted, "Anything is possible."

The same belief could apply to the 2014 Minnesota Twins.

Never mind that the team has gone 66-96 in each of the past two years, with a pitching staff and offense ranked close to last in the 30-team league. Or that Las Vegas oddsmakers have them as a 100-to-1 longshot to win the World Series, second only to the lowly low-budget Houston Astros, coming in at 200-to-1.

This is the offseason, where optimism reigns supreme, and nowhere is that more apparent than at the Winter Caravan.

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This year's Duluth stop included Twins players Swarzak and Trevor Plouffe, team legends Terry Steinbach and Bert Blyleven, assistant general manager Rob Antony and of course, mascot T.C. Bear.

"This is the 54th year of the caravan, and my first caravan was in 1970. That shows you how old I am," joked the 62-year-old Blyleven. "What the caravan is all about is saying thank you to the fans for your support of Twins baseball. This never gets old. You realize the importance of what a fan means."

The Minnesota Twins Winter Caravan is one of the longest running and largest team caravans in professional sports, spreading Twins goodwill from the Dakotas to Wisconsin, Iowa to northern Minnesota. The various legs of the caravan featured 13 players and four coaches, covering about 60 cities over nine days and logging nearly 5,000 miles. The caravan culminates with TwinsFest today through Sunday at Target Field in Minneapolis.

The northern leg of the tour started on Monday in Valley City, N.D., before heading east. It was perhaps the most entertaining, with Steinbach, a Minnesota native, being joined by Swarzak and Plouffe, who hail from southern Florida and California, respectively.

"Welcome to Minnesota!" Steinbach said, laughing. "I don't think those two will ever come back."

Not so fast.

Plouffe was caught on camera making snow angels with T.C. during a caravan stop on Tuesday outside an elementary school in Bagley, Minn., and then on Wednesday, the players had to scrape the windshield of the team bus after the defroster went out on the way to Hibbing.

"I've embraced the cold," Plouffe said.

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Fans shivered through sub-zero temperatures to reach Grandma's Sports Garden en masse. It was standing room only. While T.C. greeted fans who eagerly awaited the night's program, the rest of the caravan greeted media and VIPs in the loft at Grandma's Sports Garden.

"On top of everything else going on around here, the caravan is a sure sign of spring. You know it's coming," said Collin Ventrella with AM-610 KDAL, which hosted the event. "These guys always amaze me. They will sit here till they sign everything and the last person is gone."

Records don't seem to matter. History does. While the Twins have struggled the past three years, it doesn't diminish the fond memories fans have developed through more than 50 years of Twins baseball.

"I grew up in Superior but always loved the Twins," said Kevin LaJoie, attending his first Twins caravan on Thursday.

After winning the Central Division with a 94-68 mark in 2010, the Twins haven't won more than 66 games in each of the three seasons since while attendance has dropped by nearly 25 percent, from 3,223,640 in 2010 to 2,477,644 last year.

While T.C. was the closest thing anyone saw to a Sasquatch on Thursday, Swarzak said the Twins have reasons to be optimistic after pumping $83 million into their pitching staff with the additions of Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco and Mike Pelfrey.

That's enough to make some skeptics true believers.

"I'm from South Florida, and the Marlins have a hard time getting 10,000 people a game," Swarzak said. "So it's been great to see the Twins fans here on this caravan. They are so passionate about baseball, even when it's freezing cold outside. You can tell how bad they want the season to start. It makes you excited to get out there and play for them. I can't wait."

Related Topics: BASEBALLCANAL PARK
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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