As Tommy Watkins rose from the minor leagues to the big leagues as a Minnesota Twins coach, so did Max Kepler as a player.
The two recalled a scene from almost a decade ago, when Kepler, then 16 and holder of a learning permit but not yet a license, put the car he was driving into park before coming to a complete stop as a stunned Watkins sat in the passenger seat.
Watkins, a 1998 Riverdale High School (Fort Myers, Fla.) graduate and Fort Myers native nicknamed “the Mayor”, helped Kepler learn how to drive. Now, Watkins will help Kepler, Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton further improve as outfielders in the big leagues.
Watkins, 38, received a promotion from manager of the Twins Double-A affiliate Chattanooga (Tennessee) Lookouts to the majors as the team’s first-base coach in December. He will focus on coaching outfielders, bunting and, along with third-base coach Tony Diaz, baserunning.
“Every spring training you come in here, it’s different,” Watkins said. “Having a chance to come to big-league camp in 2016 as a coach and last season as a coach, it’s always special.
“I think as we get going this spring training, and getting closer to time to break camp, I think it will really start to settle in. I’ve never been a part of a big-league opening day. So I think it will be very special to be a part of it.”
Kepler, now 25, said as he grew as a player, he sensed Watkins growing as a coach.
“I met Tommy back in ’09,” said Kepler, who signed July 11 of that year out of Berlin, Germany. That fall, Kepler attended South Fort Myers High School (Fla.) while living in a hotel. “He was one of the first guys on the staff I got to work with. He also drove me to school a couple of times.
“I spent a lot of time when I first came here with Tommy, on the field and off the field. It was a couple of years after he got done playing for the Twins. It was great timing.”
Kepler said he was excited for Watkins reaching the big leagues again, this time as a coach.
“It’s awesome,” Kepler said. “I think he’s going to fit right in. It’s going to be great, having him around in the outfield for us. He’s outgoing. He’s funny. He’s always laughing, smiling. He’s very understanding of everyone and very easy to get along with.”
Watkins also serves as a substitute teacher in the Lee County School District.