Matt Wallner fulfilled a dream this spring.
The Forest Lake native put on a Minnesota Twins jersey and played in three games for the team he grew up idolizing. The three games came in spring training and were played at the Twins’ spring training complex in Fort Myers, Florida, rather than Target Field. But it still was a surreal moment for Wallner, who was selected by his hometown team in the first round of last year’s draft.
“That was pretty cool,” Wallner said of donning the jersey for the first time. “It would be even more cool to do that during the regular season, but I got a little taste of that. Being on the field in Fort Myers in a Twins uniform was pretty special.”
Making his first taste of spring training even sweeter was the three-run homer he clobbered in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Twins’ come-from-behind 5-3 victory over Tampa Bay on March 6.
“I tried to enjoy the moment – but I told myself I needed to remember to touch all the bases,” he said.
Hitting home runs is not a new experience for Wallner, who in 2016 was named Mr. Baseball for the state of Minnesota as a senior at Forest Lake. He hit 10 home runs that season and batted .382 while posting a 7-1 record with a 0.95 ERA and 95 strikeouts on the mound.
He focused mostly on hitting in college at Southern Mississippi, where he had a career .337 batting average and hammered 58 homers while driving in 190 runs in three seasons before the Twins selected him with the 39th overall pick in last year’s draft.
Last summer Wallner played in 53 games for the Elizabethton, Tennessee, Twins of the Appalachian League, an advanced Rookie League squad. There he hit .269 with six homers and 28 RBIs to earn a late-August promotion to Cedar Rapids of the Class A Midwest League, where he had just 44 at-bats in 12 regular-season games before playing for the Kernels in the Midwest League playoffs.
So that made Wallner’s first spring training experience with Minnesota something he tried to take advantage of.
“I just wanted to learn from everyone in the organization that I was around – both coaches and players,” he said. “It was fun to do different drills and learn every day. And it was cool to be around some of the big-league guys, especially for a hometown boy like me.”
Wallner collected two hits in five spring training at-bats for the Twins before camps were shut down in mid-March amid fears surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. When the spring training facilities closed, Wallner made the nine-hour drive to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to work out at Southern Mississippi.
Two weeks later he realized the crisis would not be solved quickly, so he came home to continue preparing for a season put on hold. Wallner has been working out with fellow Forest Lake alumnus Zack Raabe, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a place where I can hit,” Wallner said. “I’m just working out, doing things like running to stay in shape. The strength and conditioning people with the Twins gave us a good plan to work with. And I’ve talked with the coaches every so often via Zoom to plan on other things to do.”
Wallner said he gets asked frequently about the status of the professional baseball for the season.
“I would love to know, too,” he said. “I think they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do on the Major League side first, then figure out what to do with the minor leagues. I think there’s some optimism for a solution on the major-league side, and we’ll see what happens after that.
“I really don’t see any way that we’ll have a normal minor-league season, though. Maybe we’ll all go to Fort Myers and work out there.”
If this were a typical spring, Wallner said he would expect to return to the Kernels to begin the season. Cedar Rapids is the Twins’ Class A affiliate; Wallner hopes to climb the ladder and advance to Advanced Class A Fort Myers, followed by Class AA Pensacola, Florida, and Class AAA Rochester, New York, before reaching the major leagues.
“There was nothing for certain, but it would make sense for me to start this year where I finished off last year, which is Cedar Rapids,” he said. “I hoped to have some success and move up quickly to Fort Myers.”
But this is not a typical spring by any measure. Instead of sharpening his skills and working to climb the ladder with the hope of wearing a Twins uniform at Target Field, Wallner can only continue to work and hope the season begins soon.
“I’ve been doing my best every day to get better, but it’s just not game reps,” Wallner said. “The good thing, selfishly, is that nobody else is getting game reps, either, so no one is getting a leg up on me. I feel good where I’m at, but it stinks that we’re not playing games. There’s only so many things you can work on in the batting cage and in the weight room.
“I wish we were playing right now. It’s a tricky situation, and I’m just trying to make the best of it.”