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Willians Astudillo: The legend of La Tortuga

Associated Press / Paul Battaglia

Associated Press / Paul Battaglia

This is not just any Friday night at Target Field. It’s “An Evening with La Tortuga,” aka The Turtle.

The Twins expected 2,000 fans to take up the offer of a Tortuga T-shirt and a ticket to see the Orioles. Demand was so high they had to print another 1,000—which promptly sold out.

In the stands above the home team dugout, a 10-year-old boy watches players filing off the field as batting practice winds down. Nelson Cruz passes by. Eddie Rosario. Byron Buxton. He doesn’t flinch. Finally, the boy spots Willians Astudillo. He holds up a drawing of a green turtle and calls, “Tortuga!”

Astudillo stops. The boy tosses him a ball and pen. Astudillo signs the ball and several more for other boys who quickly gather.

On the concourse, a father walks with his 11-year-old son, both wearing black La Tortuga shirts: a red No. 64 over a beige turtle shell on the back and a meme of Astudillo running on the front. Matt Guttman introduces his son, Zach. “This is his biggest fan,” he says of the boy.

Last summer, they attended the Twins’ final game—not to say goodbye to old star Joe Mauer, but to meet the new one. Matt pulls out his phone and flashes a photo. In it, La Tortuga leans into the stands, smiling with his new bestie, Zach.

Minnesota Twins' Willians Astudillo catches against the Toronto Blue Jays in a baseball game Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Minnesota Twins' Willians Astudillo catches against the Toronto Blue Jays in a baseball game Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone) Associated Press / Jim Mone

Matt had the photo made into an 8” x 10” print, and when they heard Astudillo would be at Fan HQ in the Mall of America the previous weekend, they drove from Plymouth. Matt shows another image on his phone of Astudillo signing the photo.

Like many fans, Zach loves the guy. He marvels at his quick rise to celebrity: “He doesn’t even have 200 at-bats in his [MLB] career, but is already having a theme night.”

Indeed, 142 at-bats as of this game, for those keeping score at home, and already he has a theme night, a drink (La Tortuga Cocktail, served at Bat & Barrel and Town Ball Tavern), and a sandwich (La Tortuga Torta, served behind section 114). Astudillo T-shirts have sold more than any other Twin’s. His highlights go viral more frequently than Rosario goes yard, which has made him an instant social media sensation and cult hero.

Astudillo has become the team’s most popular player faster than anybody in Twins history, yet he’s not even a regular starter. He’s a newbie to the majors, a journeyman minor leaguer, a 27-year-old utility fielder the marketing department esteems more than the manager, who lacks the confidence to pencil him into the starting lineup this evening.

Having a theme night for Willians Astudillo is like feting Jerry Terrell, retiring Al Newman’s number, or hosting a Nick Punto party. How did we get here?

Manager Rocco Baldelli’s decision to start Astudillo on the bench this evening enraged La Tortuga’s legions. They lit up social media with the ire of another Arab Spring. Their passion for him mirrors the passion he displays on the field.

“It’s not always easy to be positive about the Twins, but I love that guy,” writes one.

“The most compelling player the Twins have had in many years,” writes another.

“I love this man,” adds still another.

They call him the most talented Twin. A Hall of Famer. The GOAT. They’re obviously blinded by love, so forgive them. It’s been a long time since a player excited Twins Nation this much.

We loved Kirby, of course. But he let us down with his dark side. Eddie Guardado had the spark, but took nearly 10 years to catch fire. Torii Hunter was lovable but left. Going further back, Killebrew was too even-keeled. There’s simply never been a Twins player from whom fans have fallen for so hard, so fast.

The first thing you see when you look at Willians Astudillo is, well, his body. At 5-foot-9, 225 pounds, he looks more like a bowling pin than a baseball player. You might politely say he’s stocky. Husky. Chunky. Short for his weight.

Which makes him all the more irresistible. The fan in the stands snarfing nachos from a plastic batting helmet or the guy at home on the couch looks at Astudillo and sees himself.

“He doesn’t look like your typical ballplayer,” says fan Matt Guttman. “He gives a lot of people hope you don’t have to be 6’2” and 250 pounds to succeed.”

Minnesota Twins' Willians Astudillo loses his helmet as he hits a line out against the Seattle Mariners during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 19, 2019, in Seattle. The Mariners won 7-4. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Minnesota Twins' Willians Astudillo loses his helmet as he hits a line out against the Seattle Mariners during the eighth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, May 19, 2019, in Seattle. The Mariners won 7-4. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

Combine that with a rubbery and expressive face, framed by a mullet perm that could qualify for hockey hair videos, and you’ve got the makings of baseball highlight porn.

The moment that got him noticed was in spring training last year. From behind the plate, he catches the pitch and—without leaving his crouch or shifting his gaze from the pitcher—whips the ball to first base to pick off a runner, who doesn’t know what’s happened.

In another clip, while playing third in minor-league Rochester, he fields a throw after a runner reaches the base and simply pockets the ball in his glove. When the pitcher climbs the mound, and the runner takes his lead, Astudillo pounces on him with the tag.

Astudillo auditioned for the outfield with film he sent to Twins brass during the 2014-15 Venezuelan Winter League season. This time he’s playing center field. He runs to the wall, sets, jumps—well, more hops, since he doesn’t get much air—and nabs the ball before it disappears over the fence to deny a home run. He lands flat on his belly, rolls to his side, and raises his glove to show a clean catch. It’s more a seal performing a trick than Gold Glover.

In another blooper converted into an out, this one while catching for the Twins last summer, Astudillo scampers from behind the plate to field a bunt, snaps a throw to third, collides with Jose Berrios coming off the mound, and falls flush on his face.

In a braver moment behind the plate in April, Astudillo stands his ground while Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper bears down. Harper tries to hurdle The Turtle but collides with him instead. Astudillo falls back, rolls, and comes to rest on his knees. He raises the ball to show the ump. Out!

But the instant classic, the one that solidified the Legend of La Tortuga, comes from September at Target Field. Astudillo is on first when a Max Kepler drive to left-center eludes Yankee centerfielder Aaron Hicks’ dive. Astudillo rounds second and chugs for third. He sheds his helmet along the way—shades of Willie Mays in slow motion.

He’s already gassed as he rounds third. The drama plays out on Astudillo’s eloquent face. He’s grimacing, biting his tongue, willing the luggage of his body forward.

His long curls unfurl behind him. He’s gasping, a drowning man fighting for air. The throw reaches the cutoff man. And still Astudillo chugs on.

Finally—finally!—La Tortuga slides in safely.

“That was painful to watch,” Manager Paul Moliter admitted.

“I just wanted to show that chubby people also run,” Astudillo declared.

That became his tagline. It’s on the front of the giveaway T-shirt, above the image of his mad dash and over the words “RUN, RUN, RUN.”

The personality that fueled that 270-foot run is infectious among fans and teammates. Astudillo grew up choosing Nelson Cruz for home run contests playing video games, yet he’s brash enough to call the veteran “Vieja” (Old Lady) in jest. Cruz retorts with “Señor Barriga” (Mr. Big Belly). “He gets mad at me,” Cruz laughs.

Before La Tortuga night, Cruz is wearing one of the promo shirts. “He’s just fun to be around. Always positive. He brings good energy to the clubhouse.”

Kyle Gibson agrees. “Because he’s a young guy, he ends up being the brunt of some jokes. He also kind of brings it on himself and enjoys it a little bit. He likes to make jokes and take jokes at the same time. He’s one of the guys who keeps it light around here.”

La Tortuga seems to inspire that sort of reaction in everyone. When asked about Astudillo, Twins catching coach Bill Evers smiles reflexively. “He brings that energy every day to the game. He’s fun to watch because he plays with passion. He cares about what he does, and he puts the time and effort into it.”

“I don’t know how you can talk about him and not smile,” Baldelli once said, his eyes gleaming. “He’s a really enjoyable player to watch for a lot of reasons. But he’s also a really talented guy. This is a guy who has a really unique ability with a bat in his hands.”

He’s talking about Astudillo’s ability to make contact. The man is a free swinger who seems to hit the ball wherever it’s thrown. Back in spring training, a batting practice pitcher was messing with him, throwing farther and farther outside. Astudillo kept making contact.

Then he threw inside, closer and closer. Same thing: Astudillo made contact. Finally, the pitcher tossed a ball behind Astudillo, who turned and whacked it with an axe stroke.

He developed his hand-eye coordination as a boy when his father, a retired pro, flicked corn kernels in the back yard that Astudillo picked out of the air with the swing of a broomstick. Try that at home.

Through the end of April, La Tortuga had the best contact rate in the majors. His 96.8 percent was way higher than the MLB average of 76.9 percent last year (meaning when batters swung, they made contact roughly three out of four times). That skill makes him ideal as a pinch hitter or in hit-and-run situations.

His extraordinary coordination means he almost never strikes out, an anomaly in an age of inflated strikeout rates. In the minor leagues, he had the lowest strikeout rate among all Double-A and Triple-A players the past two years—and among all minor leaguers the two years before that.

Astudillo likes to swing. He doesn’t like to walk. He had not gotten to a 2-0 count in the majors until April 6 of this year.

As SABRites worship at the altar of the “three true outcomes” (home runs, walks, and strikeouts), Astudillo is guilty of apostasy. Through the first month of the 2019 season, he had one walk and one strikeout. Not only is he a maverick as a disciplined free swinger, he’s also a free thinker in the batter’s box.

Despite his life-of-the-party reputation, Astudillo is subdued and serious during a pregame dugout interview. He answers questions in Spanish translated by Elvis Martinez, the Twins’ interpreter. Afterward, Martinez points out that Astudillo’s businesslike manner is his standard M.O. with media. Astudillo came from nothing in the port town of Barcelona, Venezuela, and while he’s working for near the Major League minimum wage of $550,000 a year, he knows that if he doesn’t make it, poverty awaits him.

Fittingly, La Tortuga arrived here at a tortoise’s pace. Signed by the Phillies shortly after his 17th birthday, he spent three years in the Venezuelan Summer League before winding his way through the Gulf Coast League, the South Atlantic League, and the Florida State League, only to be released by the Phillies in 2015.

Signed by the Braves, he played a summer in the Double-A Southern League and was released. Then he signed with the Diamondbacks, batted .342 in Triple-A, and instead of being promoted, got released. Again.

The Twins signed him in November 2017 and sent him to Rochester in the Triple-A International League. The man paid his dues, another credit among Twins fans with their Midwestern work ethic.

When the Rochester manager told Astudillo in June last year that the parent club wanted him to join the team in Chicago, he was so excited, he telephoned his parents in Venezuela. They didn’t believe him. Ten long years had passed since the major leagues had first expressed interest. They thought he was joking.

But it was true. In a game against the Cubs, Moliter sent Astudillo to left field in the fifth inning to relieve Rosario on a very hot day. “I was extremely nervous, especially playing in Wrigley and in the outfield, not my natural position,” he told Kyle Gibson on his podcast Meeting on the Mound.

“But it felt really good to be out there and in the big leagues and to show people what I can do.” That included a single in his debut at-bat, driving in the tying run. He also caught two fly balls and made no errors. The legend began.

Though he lasted only three weeks, Astudillo burnished said legend when he took the mound to finish a losing blowout against Tampa. He’d once thrown two scoreless innings for Triple-A Reno. But on this day, he would not threaten the job security of anyone in the Twins bullpen.

He gave up five runs, including a homer to the first batter. But he appeared so overmatched—David pitching to Goliath, yet persevering—that he won over fans, who embraced him as the lovable underdog.

Astudillo is listed as a catcher, though he’ll gamely play anywhere. Called up again in September, he played first, second, third, left field, center field, and catcher. This season, he added right field to his résumé. That’s led to speculation of him playing all nine positions in a game, like fellow Venezuelan and Twin Cesar Tovar did in 1968.

Molitor introduced the idea as a joke last year. Baldelli has toyed over it with reporters, but recently insisted he would not be putting Astudillo at shortstop, the last position to check off the list.

Astudillo has no aspirations of following in Tovar’s footsteps, though he insists he could, pointing to 10 years playing shortstop as a kid. He thought he was going to get his chance in spring training when he saw his name at short on the lineup card. He texted friend and countryman Ehire Adrianza, nervously asking for advice. But the assignment turned out to be a clerical error. The next day Astudillo was at second.

Still, he has proven his value with versatility. La Tortuga has appeared most often at the infield corners when he’s not behind the plate. Management does not seem to have complete confidence in him as a catcher, preferring the experience of Jason Castro, or the promise of Mitch Garver.

Catching coach Evers notes that Astudillo has made progress in implementing the game plan and framing pitches to win strikes. When asked if he thinks The Turtle’s best position is catcher, Evers’ response is telling: “I think he is a wonderful utility man that brings energy all over the diamond and has the athleticism even though the body type does not [make you] think of a great athlete. He’s an excellent athlete that can play other positions.”

In other words, don’t expect Evers to be lobbying for Astudillo to assume the starting job. General manager Derek Falvey has admitted that he and his scouts haven’t been quite sure how to best employ The Turtle, since he defies standard models and metrics. “There are not many [comparisons] for him,” Falvey admitted during spring training.

That may explain why Astudillo’s role on his special night is limited to brief cameos warming up pitchers. It’s not until the bottom of the eighth, with the game seemingly in hand, that Baldelli gives the fans what they’ve paid to see.

When Astudillo is announced as a pinch-hitter, the crowd sounds louder than the 15,000 on hand. Inspired, La Tortuga goes all in on the first pitch. He clips a foul with a swing so mighty that he staggers across the plate.

Astudillo steps back, taps his spikes with his bat, and settles into the box. He lines the next pitch sharply but foul. Down 0-2 in the count, Astudillo checks his swing on the next pitch, which is outside. The catcher appeals to the first base ump.

In the press box, a reporter says, “You can’t call him out on La Tortuga Night.”

He doesn’t. The ump signals no swing. The fans exhale.

The next pitch is a breaking ball tailing off the far side of the plate. Astudillo swings and connects, rapping a sharp grounder past the Orioles’ diving shortstop. The Tortugans let out a roar and rise to their feet.

On the railing of the Twins’ dugout, Cruz and Rosario burst into a big laugh. They clap above their heads for Señor Barriga to see.

TV announcer Justin Morneau marvels that Astudillo was able to get his bat on a ball so far off the plate. “That’s what makes him special,” he tells the home audience.

Giggles spread through the press box. It’s as though the game’s followed an improbable yet predictable script. The crowd chants, “La Tortuga! La Tortuga!” Everyone’s caught up in the moment.

“That’s pretty cool to see,” Morneau says. “For a guy who’s grinded his way through the minor leagues—to get an opportunity and see everyone embrace him like that—it has to put a smile on your face.”

As Astudillo stands on first base, the ovation consummates “An Evening with La Tortuga.” Astudillo feels the love cascading down from the stands and emitting from his teammates. Words can’t quite capture this feeling, but he tries in an Instagram post the next morning along with a clip of his pinch hit:

“Seriously, you all have no idea how much it means to me, someone who had to fight to get here, to hear this. Thank you. Sincerely, thank you.”