Betsy Helfand is the beat writer for the Minnesota Twins at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In the past, she’s worked for MLB.com and covered minor league baseball (and other things) in Las Vegas for the Review-Journal. She chatted with The Big Lead about her path through the industry, the Twins’ story of success, and more.
Liam McKeone: Hi Betsy, thanks for taking some time to chat today. It’s your first year as the Twins beat writer for the Pioneer Press, so describe how you ended up there and how the gig is treating you so far.
Betsy: Okay, so I went to the University of Minnesota, and I majored in journalism there. I worked at the student newspaper, Minnesota Daily, for all four years, and covered pretty much every sport there was there. A little bit of everything, including baseball and softball. Baseball was always what I knew I wanted to cover. After my senior year, I did the MLB.com internship, and that was a really great experience. That took me about to the beginning of October, and I was freelancing for a while, looking for my next step. I didn’t think I was going to wind up taking another internship because I had done three or four of them at that time, but I decided to take one in Las Vegas at the Review-Journal, covering a Triple-A team [the Las Vegas 51s], just for three months. I went out there and did that and it turned into a full-time job.
So I was doing Triple-A baseball, the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate, and whatever sports came into town. I was there for about three years. Around the time the major league season was ending, the Twins beat writer at the Pioneer Press got a new job and he was leaving. I had interned for them when I was in college, so my former editor reached out to say he was leaving and gauge my interest in it, and we went from there. I was pretty interested; Minnesota was a place I had been pretty familiar with, and it was a very exciting opportunity. So far, everything’s been great. The team has obviously been really good and that’s been really fun to cover. It’s been a really enjoyable experience so far.
McKeone: What was your experience like as a reporter covering minor-league baseball?
Helfand: It was interesting because I don’t think a lot of papers cover Triple-A teams as extensively as we did in Las Vegas, because not as many people are interested or there’s a lack of resources to do so. That was a really good experience because we covered every single game, and we were basically doing it like we were covering a major league team: pregame notes, features, and a game story every day.
Triple-A is an interesting level because you got a lot of guys going back and forth who don’t necessarily want to be there, and then you’ve got some prospects who just came up from Double-A who are excited to be at the next step in their journey. It was really fun because I got to see a bunch of the young Mets who are now playing for the Mets and making an impact. It was a fun level to cover.
McKeone: How did you navigate that mishmash of personalities in the clubhouse as you tried to do your job as a journalist?
Helfand: Luckily, even if they were frustrated to be there, nobody ever outwardly showed that to me. Everyone was pretty good to me. So that was nice on my end. But it was interesting because last year, there were a couple of guys who, just after a game, just retired. There was one guy, he gave up 12 or 14 runs or something, and after the game, the manager just said, “He’s done. He retired.” It’s kind of shocking and not what you’re expecting. So that was a little weird. But everyone was generally pretty good to deal with.
McKeone: Was there anything in particular that stood out to you when you were working as a GA [General Assignment] reporter?
Helfand: It was just a pretty good experience to do a bunch of other things. I did some curling, which I found to be kind of fun. And Las Vegas is an interesting place because a lot of things roll through there. So I did the rodeo, which was definitely something I had no experience with, so that was kind of a different world to be thrown into. Same with NASCAR. I helped out with NASCAR coverage a couple of times. Some college basketball, and a little bit of college football, rugby… It was just interesting getting a different look at everything that was going on.
McKeone: Transitioning to the Twins, Jake Odorizzi has had a stellar season. What do you think he changed from last year to this year to become a top pitcher in the league?
Helfand: It was interesting because Jake… I think he only pitched once at the main field during spring training. So we didn’t get a good chance to look at him during spring. He had come in and had gone to the Florida Baseball Ranch, he said he went twice a week starting in October. He went down there and was working really hard this offseason. He came in and he said mechanically he felt better than he had all of last year. He felt really good.
The one outing he did make at Hammond Stadium on the main field, he kind of got rocked. He was like, “I’m not worried about it. I’m not concerned. It doesn’t mean much to me.” He went down and got his work in on the minor league side, so we didn’t see much of that. He comes up and he’s been spectacular this whole year and he keeps saying he feels better mechanically now than he did at any point last season. It’s the product of that hard work he put in this offseason.
McKeone: Rocco Baldelli has had, to say the least, a great rookie season as a manager so far. From your perspective, how is he contributing to the team’s success?
Helfand: One of the things Rocco did at the winter meetings, someone asked him what a Rocco Baldelli-managed team was going to look like. And he said something to the effect of, “I want them to be having fun and be loose and comfortable. Because if you’re not, you’re not going to see the results you’re looking for.” I think a lot of what he’s brought is that type of environment. There’s a lot of emphasis on rest and recovery, so a lot of days where guys get a day off and days where they don’t take batting practice.