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Twins winter caravan stops in Bemidji

Minnesota Twins players Anthony Swarzak, left, and Trevor Plouffe sign baseballs for Mason, 4 and Morgan Webb, 6, on Tuesday night at the Twins Caravan. A full house greeted the two players, who were accompanied by ex-Twins Terry Steinbach, now a coach with the team, and Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, who is a Twins television announcer. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 2
Minnesota Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe (left), pitcher Anthony Swarzak (center) and ex-Twin and current coach Terry Steinbach take questions from the audience at Bemidji High School on Tuesday evening as part of the Twins Caravan. (Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 2

BEMIDJI -- The Minnesota Twins winter caravan made its annual stop in Bemidji Tuesday at the high school and this year’s guests had one clear message.

The team is not happy with three straight seasons with at least 90 losses and they are working to make 2014 a successful season.

“It is no secret that there is nobody in the organization that is happy with our record last year,” former player and current bench coach Terry Steinbach said. “We want to try to get the Minnesota Twins back to stage where we can compete against anyone and get back to the playoffs.”

“It has been three years of frustration for the Twins,” Hall of Famer and Fox Sports North broadcaster Bert Blyleven added. “They do not like the the way they have played.”

Blyleven and Steinbach were joined by pitcher Anthony Swarzak and third baseman Trevor Plouffe.

“This is my second year on the caravan,” Swarzak said. “It is a very interesting experience. It is freezing cold, but I love coming up here and socializing with the people. It is fun.”

“This is my third year on it and every year I am more impressed with how far Twins Territory reaches,” Plouffe added. “I have been all over Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas, so it is pretty cool to see how loyal the fans are across the area.”

Despite the cold winter weather in Minnesota, Swarzak, originally from Florida, and Plouffe, from California, were more than willing to leave the warmth of home and visit with Twins fans.

“This organization is home for me,” Plouffe said. “Any time you have an opportunity to give back to the fans, I will jump to it because without them we really would not have a job. We know we have the best fans in baseball, so it is nothing to come out and give a little bit of time.”

“When the organization calls and asks you to go, you cannot say no,” Swarzak added. “I really love coming up here.”

In order to achieve the improvement that the organization seeks, the Twins will have to improve their starting pitching that ranked at the bottom of nearly every statistical category in 2013. General manager Terry Ryan has already inked free agents Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco to multi-year contracts as well as bringing back Mike Pelfrey to shore up the starting rotation.

“You really hope the additions help,” Blyleven said. “A lot of it is a mental approach of attacking the strike zone early in the game. There is no reason to throw 50 pitches in the first three innings. The starters need to get into the seventh or eighth innings.”

The other notable addition made by the team was the signing of catcher Kurt Suzuki, who will help fill the hole at catcher with Joe Mauer permanently moving to first base.

“I think it is a good decision,” Steinbach, a former catcher, said of Mauer’s move to first base. “We need Joe’s bat in the lineup. When you have arguably one of the top five hitters in the game, you want him in the lineup as often as you can.”

For Plouffe and Swarzak, the rides on the bus are a good time to pick the brains of the former players.

“The bus has been very interesting,” Swarzak said. “We have Bert and Terry who tell us a lot of pretty cool stories about their playing days. It is pretty interesting to hear how the aspect of the game changes from people older to younger.”

This year marks the 54th winter caravan for the organization and it has grown to include stops in 60 cities in nine days.

“Doing the caravan is a lot of fun,” Steinbach said. “Even though it is 20 degrees below zero, baseball is very passionate in the state of Minnesota, so when we are driving around it tends to spark things for the fans.”

“My first caravan was back in 1970,” Blyleven said of his experiences. “I have been doing this for a long time. It is a way for everyone in the organization to come out and say thank you to the fans for their support over the years.”

Tuesday’s stop in Bemidji included a time for fans to ask questions that ranged from instant replay in baseball, to offseason training, to the existence of bigfoot; as well as a raffle with prizes.

The caravan will wrap up Thursday before the annual TwinsFest this weekend. With the deflation of the Metrodome, this will be the first year the fan event is held at Target Field.

The Twins will report to Spring Training next month before beginning the 2014 season on March 31 in Chicago.

“We have to win more games,” Plouffe said. “We have got some pitching coming in and we need to be better offensively. Guys like myself need to step up and drive in more runs. I think these things will happen and it will be different this year.”