Michael Cuddyer (THE TOPPS COMPANY)

Michael Cuddyer

This article was written by Bryan Lake

Michael Cuddyer (THE TOPPS COMPANY)During Michael Cuddyer’s 15-year major league career, he was an All-Star in both leagues, helped lead the Mets to the World Series, won a batting championship for the Rockies, and was the longtime heart and soul of the Minnesota Twins. Marked for stardom at a young age, Cuddyer battled to establish himself in the big leagues and became respected for his hitting prowess and defensive versatility. But Cuddyer was far more than just a feared slugger and flexible gloveman. He established a legacy of leadership on and off the field and was admired for his strong character, selfless leadership, and community contributions.

Michael Brent Cuddyer was born March 27, 1979. He was raised in Chesapeake, Virginia, by his parents, Henry Cuddyer and Marcia Harris. His father, a delivery truck driver, and his mother, a bank officer, knew early on that their son was a gifted baseball player.

As a three-year-old, young Michael developed hand-eye coordination by bouncing tennis balls off walls and catching them.1 At age 6 he started playing Little League. His father, who was his coach, recalled, “You could tell right away that he was really good.”2 Cuddyer’s natural talent may have come from his mother, who had been a tremendous softball player.3 At 8 Cuddyer went to a baseball camp run by Towny Townsend, a local coach. Townsend used a radar gun to see how hard the youngsters in camp could fire a baseball. “Any time a kid who is eight years old touches 50 [mph], my eyes kind of open up,” Townsend said. Cuddyer hit 54 on the gun.4

By the time Cuddyer was a high school senior, his rocket arm could produce 93 mph heat, and he drew attention as a pitcher.5 It was as a slugging shortstop, however, that he really made a name for himself. He was good enough as a freshman to make his high school varsity team,6 and good enough as a sophomore to get a scholarship offer from Florida State University.7 After his junior year, Cuddyer spent the summer with the United States Junior National Team and led the squad with a .467 batting average.8

Cuddyer was also a standout quarterback recruited by Division I football programs, but he decided to give up football during his senior year of high school so he could concentrate on baseball.9 His singular focus on baseball during his senior year led to his selection as a USA Today First Team All-American.10 During Cuddyer’s senior year, Minnesota Twins scout John Wilson received instructions from his boss. The message? “Stay on top of Cuddyer. That’s going to be our guy.”11 The Twins were focused on Cuddyer because he was more than just a hitting machine—he was also student body president, a member of the National Honor Society, and had a 3.98 GPA.12 Cuddyer was in the middle of a math test when the Twins selected him with the ninth pick in the 1997 draft. After being informed of the news by his principal, Cuddyer finished his test.13

The Twins envisioned Cuddyer as a future clubhouse leader and potential All-Star,14 but it was far from clear that the young slugger would sign with the team because he was sitting on a Florida State baseball scholarship, which he said was “tempting.”15 He spent the summer of 1997 playing with an all-star squad and the U.S. Junior National Team.16 Finally, in late August, with Cuddyer on the verge of going to Florida State, the Twins signed him for a $1.85 million bonus plus money for post-career college expenses.17 With his sudden windfall, the level-headed young man bought new vehicles for himself and his parents but invested most of what remained of his bonus money.18

Because he signed late in the 1997 season, Cuddyer didn’t begin his minor league career until 1998, when he was assigned to the Class-A Fort Wayne Wizards. He committed 61 errors at shortstop, but he made up for it with his bat, hitting well enough to be selected to the Midwest League All-Star Game. It was an honor, but a distinctly minor league one. Cuddyer recalled that his hotel room had “a good-sized hole in the floor. You had to watch yourself walking around in that room.”19

In 1999 Cuddyer moved up to high Class-A with the Fort Myers Miracle and adapted quickly to a new position—Baseball America chose him as the top defensive third baseman in the Florida State League.20 He hit nearly .300 for the Miracle and had an on-base percentage over .400. The talented 20-year-old was selected to play in the first All-Star Futures Game at Fenway Park.

Big league ballparks seemed to be his destiny. “He’s on the fast track to the major leagues,” his Fort Myers manager said.21 Before the 2000 season, Baseball America listed Cuddyer as the Twins’ top prospect, but he didn’t fulfill his promise that year, his first in Class AA.22 He rebounded in 2001, however, belting 30 homers for Mew Britain and making the Eastern League All-Star team.23 The Twins named the young slugger their minor league player of the year.24

When they called him up in September, airplanes were grounded following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, He made a 24-hour drive from Connecticut to Minnesota before his debut in a game against the Cleveland Indians.25 He drew a walk in his first plate appearance, struck out his second time up, and made his first big league hit in his third plate appearance—an opposite field double off Chuck Finley.

With a sprinkling of big league seasoning, Cuddyer, who had played first base, third base, and left field in 2001, entered the 2002 season ranked by Baseball America as the second-best minor league outfielder.26 He divided his time that year between the Class-AAA Edmonton Trappers and the Twins, appearing in 41 games for the big club and hitting well enough to be added to Minnesota’s post-season roster. Cuddyer rewarded the Twins’ faith in him and made a name for himself in the postseason by hitting .333 in eight games during the ALDS and ALCS.

After the Twins lost to the Angels in the ALCS, Cuddyer went back to his hometown in Virginia and did what perhaps no 23-year-old postseason breakout star had ever done: He became a substitute teacher at his old high school.27 The down-to-earth Cuddyer ate lunch in the teachers’ lounge and did his best to blend in.28 A student at the school said, “If you weren’t from the area, you might not have known who he was.”29 The Twins knew exactly who Cuddyer was — their starting right fielder. They gave Cuddyer the job in spring training in 2003, but he could only hold it until May 7. At that point, with his batting average at .233, they sent him back to the minors. The Twins brought him back up in September, but Cuddyer later referred to 2003—a year in which he had experienced multiple hamstring injuries and needed offseason elbow surgery— as “the lost season.”30

Cuddyer had a better year in 2004, his first full season in the big leagues. He served as a utility man—playing both corner outfield spots and every infield position except short—and put up solid numbers in 339 at bats. He flashed enough talent for the Twins to install him as their everyday third baseman at the start of the 2005 season. It didn’t go well. Cuddyer struggled defensively, making 15 errors in 95 games at third (he also spent time at first, second, and the outfield), and his batting stats were mediocre.

Despite his great potential, as Cuddyer entered the 2006 season, he had yet to consistently perform at the plate or establish himself anywhere on the field. During spring training, former Twins great Tony Oliva asked him about his two-strike hitting approach. “Well,” Cuddyer said, “I choke up and drop my hands down.” Oliva replied, “Then do it every time.”31 The change worked. “It’s allowed me to see the ball, and not jump out and have to get it,” Cuddyer explained. “I’m able to get in a lot better counts.”32

Cuddyer didn’t experience immediate success with the new approach. He started the 2006 season platooning in right field with Lew Ford, and he was hitting just .167 entering an April 19 matchup with the Angels. With the score tied, he was inserted as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the 10th inning. Two pitches later, the game was over after he blasted an opposite field home run. The walk-off dinger was a catalyst that set Cuddyer on a trajectory toward becoming the Twins’ everyday right fielder. With a stable position and his Tony Oliva-inspired batting approach, Cuddyer put together the best season of his career, hitting .284 with 24 homers, 41 doubles, and 109 RBI. The cannon-armed Cuddyer also led American League right fielders in assists.

Cuddyer’s on-field performance had finally caught up with his commitment to community work, which earned him the Twins’ nomination for the 2006 Roberto Clemente Award. Community involvement was very important to Cuddyer, who said it was “more rewarding than any of the on-field stuff for me.”33 His biggest off-field moment in 2006 was his November wedding to Claudia Rente, a high school teacher.34 Claudia, whose family is Portuguese, did not know anything about Cuddyer or baseball, nor did her father, who, Cuddyer said, “calls a bat a stick.”35 But that was fine with him/. “They like me for me,” he said, “not because I’m a baseball player.”36

In 2007 Cuddyer again led all AL right fielders in assists, but his batting numbers didn’t measure up to his career highs from the previous season. His numbers slipped even further in 2008 when injuries limited him to 71 games. Much healthier in 2009, Cuddyer played 153 games and put up some of the best numbers of his career, including an .862 OPS and 32 home runs. His season featured a trio of highlights:

  • On May 22 he hit for the cycle against the Brewers.
  • On August 23 he thumped two home runs in one inning against the Royals.37
  • In September he was named AL Player of the Week after powering the Twins with four homers and 11 RBIs during a six-game stretch.38

Cuddyer’s batting numbers faded somewhat in 2010, but his versatility made him invaluable to the Twins. He played right field 66 times; center field twice; third base 14 times; second once; and after Justin Morneau was injured, he took over first base, registering 84 games there. Twins general manager Bill Smith said, “Cuddyer is not only versatile, but he is as big a team player as there is in the game.”39 Smith added, “He’s a team-first guy. He plays hard every day. He’s accountable. He’s one of those guys that if he has a good game, he’s a little bit humble about it, but when he has a bad game, he stands there and answers for it. You wish you had a team full of guys like Michael Cuddyer.”40

There was only one Cuddyer, of course, and by 2011, despite spending his career in the shadow of bigger Twins stars like Morneau and Joe Mauer, Cuddyer had become the heart of the team. “To me, he’s like the middle piece of the foundation. Everything else goes around him,” said teammate Brian Duensing. “He’s the leader in the clubhouse and he’s a very well-spoken guy. He handles the media and he handles the team well. If he wasn’t around, it would be kind of tough.”41The possibility of Cuddyer not being around was more pronounced in 2011, the final year of his contract. He wanted to stay with the Twins, but he knew he might be approaching the end of the road in Minnesota. Before the 2011 season he said, “If this is my last year here, I’m extremely grateful for the way this organization has taught me how to play baseball.”42

Once again, the versatile Cuddyer filled in wherever his team needed him in 2011, appearing in 46 games at first base, 17 at second, 77 in right field, and eight as the DH. He also got a wish he’d long campaigned for when he pitched an inning in a blowout loss against the Rangers on July 25. After getting into a one-out, bases-loaded jam, Cuddyer—who hit 88 mph with his fastball and also tossed a cutter, a curve, and a few changeups—retired Elvis Andrus and David Murphy to end the inning and establish a 0.00 lifetime ERA.43 “I was excited,” Cuddyer said of the experience. “It was a lot of fun.”44

Even more exciting that year was his first selection to the All-Star Game. “Words can’t describe it,” Cuddyer said of his All-Star selection. “It ranks right up there with getting the first call to the big leagues.”45 He flew out against Brian Wilson in his only at bat in the All-Star Game, but that didn’t diminish the experience. “I’ll always be able to say I was an All-Star,” he said. “It’s humbling and gratifying.”46

In August 2011, the Twins proposed a two-year, $16 million contract extension for their All-Star leader, but the offer represented a reduction in Cuddyer’s annual salary. 47 He unsurprisingly turned it down and chose to enter free agency. The Twins increased their bid in the offseason, but not enough to approach the three-year, $31.5 million deal dangled by the Colorado Rockies.48 Cuddyer accepted Colorado’s offer and started a new phase of his career with a new team in a new league. Injuries limited him to 101 games in 2012, the first year of his Colorado contract, and he hit only .260, but 48 of his 93 hits went for extra bases. The following season, though, Cuddyer more than lived up to his contract, winning the 2013 National League batting title with a .331 average to go along with a .919 OPS, 20 homers, and 84 RBIs. His performance netted him his second All-Star selection and his first Silver Slugger Award.

Michael Cuddyer (TRADING CARD DB)Cuddyer benefited from batting in high-altitude Denver, hitting .356 at home and .311 on the road. But he was helped just as much by his mental approach to hitting. “The one thing I’ve done better this year than at any time in my career is to focus on each pitch, each at-bat,” he explained. “That sounds simple, but I definitely used to be guilty of thinking ‘I’ve got to get two hits today.’ Or, ‘I need three hits in my next 10 at-bats.’ Or, ‘Didn’t get a hit yesterday, need to make up for it today.’”49 His pursuit of the batting title was aided by a 27-game hitting streak. It finally ended on July 2 when he went hitless in four at bats against Clayton Kershaw. There was no shame in failing against the Dodgers ace, who tossed a complete game shutout and, as one writer observed, “made the Rockies look like they were batting in the dark.”50

Cuddyer had an easier time facing the pitchers in the Rookie-level Pioneer League, where he found himself playing for the Grand Junction Rockies in the middle of the 2014 season. Rehabbing a shoulder injury, hw could have knocked his rust off in a more comfortable setting at a higher minor league level, but he chose to go down to rookie ball to set an example for the Rockies’ youngest prospects. “For them to see what a guy in the Major Leagues is like, how he prepares, will be good for them.”51

In his first day back in the majors after his rehab assignment, Cuddyer hit for the cycle for the second time in his career, becoming just the third player to accomplish that feat in both leagues.52 Cuddyer’s historical performance raised his batting average to .331, matching his league-leading clip from 2013. He finished his injury-shortened 2014 season with 49 games played, a .332 average, and 10 home runs. The end of the 2014 season coincided with the end of his Colorado contract, making him a free agent for the second time in his career. Now 35 years old, Cuddyer wanted to play on the East Coast so he could be closer to his hometown. He also wanted to join a team that was built to win immediately. The New York Mets fit his criteria, and they felt Cuddyer was a match for their needs. He rejected a one-year $15.3 million offer from the Rockies to join the Mets on a two-year, $21 million deal.53

Individually, the 2015 season wasn’t Cuddyer’s best. He hit just .259 and by the end of the year he was little more than a pinch hitter and backup outfielder. But, ever the team player and clubhouse leader, he still imprinted his winning attitude on the Mets as they marched to the National League title. New York lost in the World Series, but Cuddyer, after 15 seasons in the big leagues and seven postseason appearances, finally got to experience the Fall Classic. He made only one hit in 11 postseason at-bats and didn’t play after striking out three times in Game 1 of the World Series. With an aging, injury-ravaged body, Cuddyer knew he couldn’t perform at the level he wanted to, so despite having another year—and $12.5 million—on his Mets contract, he retired. He announced the news in a Players Tribune essay, writing, “Retiring is the toughest decision [athletes] have to make.”54 Noting that he had been injured numerous times in the previous four seasons, Cuddyer added, “Part of being a professional is to know yourself and know your limits.”55

Retirement enabled Cuddyer to spend much more time with Claudia and their three young children—Casey, Chloe, and Maddie. He also went back to his roots and joined the Twins as a special assistant in 2016. He enjoyed the role, saying, “I like being a resource. I feel I can offer something because I’ve seen a lot.”56

Cuddyer had indeed seen and accomplished much during more than 1,500 major league games over 15 seasons. He finished with a .277 lifetime batting average, 197 home runs, and a career OPS of .805. But the statistics he accumulated and the competition he experienced were not what Cuddyer remembers most about his career. “I remember conversations and relationships,” he said. “I remember walking down city streets, and visiting ballparks. The games were fun and cool, but they weren’t that important to me. I’m not trying to diminish them—I played hard. But those weren’t the most meaningful things to me.”57

Despite his batting title with the Rockies and his World Series appearance with the Mets, Cuddyer will forever be identified with the Twins. Even when he played for other teams, he still noticed fans in the stands wearing his No. 5 Minnesota jersey. When the Twins inducted him into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2017, Cuddyer thanked the club’s fans at the end of his speech, saying, “I’m eternally grateful and I love you all.”58

As it turned out, Minnesota was the only team Cuddyer did not play against during his major league career—fitting for a player who was the team’s heart and soul for so many seasons. He became exactly the kind of leader the club had envisioned when he was in high school. Like other big league teams, the Twins use a 1-8 scale to judge prospects’ playing skills and personal attributes; the Twins had pegged Cuddyer’s makeup as a clear 8. Years later, after he’d stamped his selfless, winning attitude on the team, the Twins came up with a new measurement. Prospects who had super high character weren’t given an 8, they were labeled “Cuddyer-like.”59

It is the measure of the man that others are measured against him.

Last revised: January 26, 2021

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Donna L. Halper and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Chris Rainey.

 

Notes

1 David Dorsey, “Cuddyer aims for magical career,” Fort Myers News Press, April 23, 1999.

2 Dorsey, “Cuddyer aims for magical career.”

3 Peter Brewington, “Va. Baseball teammates also star in draft,” USA Today, June 17, 1997.

4 Josh Barr, “Big Day for Young Talent; Chesapeake, Va., Shortstop Awaits Word in Baseball Draft,” Washington Post, June 4, 2002.

5 Patrick Reusse, “Twins seek ‘impact guys’ in power-packed draft,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 4, 1997.

6 Brewington, “Va. Baseball teammates also star in draft.”

7 “Stay Cool With The Rock Cats Michael Cuddyer,” Hartford Courant, July 27, 2000.

8 Tom Robinson, “Great Bridge duo drafted within minutes of each other,” Newport News Daily Press, June 9, 2020.

9 Sid Hartman, “Cuddyer shows confidence as the everyday right fielder,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 11, 2007.

10 Dorsey, “Cuddyer aims for magical career.” A 1997 USA Today post-draft summary noted the Cuddyer “was high on the list of a lot of clubs. All thought he could fit at second or third, if not at short. Cuddyer has good right-handed power and good hands.” See “A capsulized look at the first-round picks,” USA Today, June 4, 1997.

11 Joe Christensen, “Pegged from the start,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 10, 2011.

12 Joe Christensen, “Pegged from the start”; Brewington, “Va. Baseball teammates also star in draft.”

13 Christensen, “Pegged from the start.”

14 Christensen, “Pegged from the start.”

15 Reusse, “Twins seek ‘impact guys’ in power-packed draft.”

16 Patrick Reusse, “Twins’ top pick Cuddyer gets $1.85 million bonus,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 20, 1997.

17 Dorsey, “Cuddyer aims for magical career.”

18 Dorsey, “Cuddyer aims for magical career.”

19 Patrick Reusse, “Twins’ Cuddyer gets All-Star call,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 3, 2011.

20 Jim Souhan, “Leather unlimited,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 2, 2004.

21 Dorsey, “Cuddyer aims for magical career.”

22 Jim Luttrell, “Cuddyer Is Back On Track,” New York Times, July 20, 2001.

23 Luttrell, “Cuddyer Is Back On Track.”

24 John Shipley, “Groovin’ — Michael Cuddyer Has A Better Handle On His Role With The Twins, And That Maturity Could Have A Lasting Effect On His Hitting,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 26, 2006.

25 Sid Harman, “Longest-tenured Twin Cuddyer is an All-Star,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 4, 2011.

26 Souhan, “Leather unlimited.”

27 Tim Rohan, “Mets Tap a Former Substitute Teacher to Fill a Void,” New York Times, March 9, 2015.

28 Rohan, “Mets Tap a Former Substitute Teacher to Fill a Void.”

29 Rohan, “Mets Tap a Former Substitute Teacher to Fill a Void.”

30 La Velle E. Neal III, “Cuddyer has joy up his sleeve,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 19, 2006.

31 Shipley, “Groovin’ — Michael Cuddyer Has A Better Handle On His Role With The Twins.”

32 Shipley, “Groovin’ — Michael Cuddyer Has A Better Handle On His Role With The Twins.”

33 Neal III, “Cuddyer has joy up his sleeve.”

34 Charley Walters, “Leyland likes Twins,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 30, 2006.

35 Walters, “Leyland likes Twins,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 30, 2006. See also, Neal III, “Cuddyer has joy up his sleeve.”

36 Walters, “Leyland likes Twins.”.

37 Cuddyer led off the top of the 7th and hit Brian Bannister’s first pitch over the wall, breaking a 1-1 tie. He then came up later in the inning and took Kyle Farnsworth deep with a two-run shot to put the Twins up 9-1.

38 Kelsie Smith, “Modest Cuddyer Recognized,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, September 22, 2009.

39 Sid Hartman, “Smith appreciates Cuddyer’s attitude,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 9, 2010.

40 Hartman, “Smith appreciates Cuddyer’s attitude.”

41 Kelsie Smith, “Twins would lose a lot should veteran Michael Cuddyer become a free agent after this season,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, February 28, 2011.

42 Smith, “Twins would lose a lot should veteran Michael Cuddyer become a free agent after this season.”

43 Brian Murphy, “Twins’ nightmare loss leads to Michael Cuddyer’s dream job: major league pitcher,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, July 25, 2011.

44 Murphy, “Twins’ nightmare loss leads to Michael Cuddyer’s dream job: major league pitcher.”

45 Reusse, “Twins’ Cuddyer gets All-Star call.”

46 John Shipley, “Twins’ lone all-star, Michael Cuddyer, clearly belongs,” St. Paul Pioneer Press,” July 11, 2011.

47 Joe Christensen, “Extension offered, but Cuddyer waits,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 5, 2011.

48 La Velle E. Neal III, “Cuddyer sees Twins’ decision as all business,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 21, 2011.

49 Phil Miller, “His numbers adding up,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 7, 2013.

50 Mark Robertson, “Cuddyer coming to Centene,” Great Falls Tribune, August 7, 2014.

51 Mark Robertson, “Cuddyer in town,” Great Falls Tribune, August 9, 2014.

52 David Borges, “Register MLB Rankings: Angels may slip after Garrett Richards’ injury,” TCA Regional News, August 23, 2014.

53 Jared Diamond, “Cuddyer and the Mets, a Match Made in Flushing,” Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2014.

54 Michael Cuddyer, “Play Hard and Dream Big,” The Players Tribune, December 12, 2015; https://www.theplayerstribune.com/articles/michael-cuddyer-retirement (last accessed November 18, 2020).

55 Cuddyer, “Play Hard and Dream Big.”

56 Jim Souhan, “Cuddyer enjoying his life as an ex-player,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 24, 2017.

57 Souhan, “Cuddyer enjoying his life as an ex-player.”

58 La Velle E. Neal III, “Tim Melville, not Stephen Gonsalves, will pitch for the Twins in Monday’s doubleheader,” TCA Regional News, August 20, 2017.

59 Christensen, “Pegged from the start.”

Full Name

Michael Brent Cuddyer

Born

March 27, 1979 at Norfolk, VA (USA)

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