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Game 81: A Tony Oliva Biography

Seriously? The season's halfway over already? Goldang it. But it's never over for Tony O.

Baseball is Oliva's life . . . and there are far worse lives to have.
Baseball is Oliva's life . . . and there are far worse lives to have.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
First Pitch: 6:15 CDT. Vegas Line: KC -170/+155
Forecast: Clear, 80's, Mild Breeze, Perfect

The Twins sold out a trip to Kansas City for this series, hosted by Tony Oliva. It wasn't cheap, and tickets disappeared fast, because it's hard to imagine a better baseball guide. Thom Henninger has a recent bio, "Tony Oliva: The Life And Times Of A Minnesota Twins Legend." There's a good TwinsDaily review here. This is mine. It's longer.

On April 17, 1961, US-backed mercenaries landed at the Bay of Pigs, in Cuba, hoping to spur an-anti Castro revolt which had no chance of succeeding. (Guess what? Policymakers sometimes ignore spy intel which doesn't suit their plans.) The botched mini-vasion cemented what was already going to be a toxic US/Cuba relationship. And rescued Tony Olivia's baseball career.

Olivia, 22, had been in America less than two weeks. (Born Pedro Olivia, he used his brother Antonio's birth certificate to get a passport, as Pedro's certificate had been lost.) Now it looked like anyone who returned to Cuba would not be allowed back in America. Give up your entire world of family and friends, for a dream which didn't seem very promising? Olivia's first instinct was to go home. Twins minor-league lifer Minnie Mendoza helped convince Oliva to keep trying. (Mendoza helped a lot of immigrant players, not just those on his teams; Reds HOFer Tony Perez, to name one.)

At heart, Henninger's book is about the stress these decisions caused Olivia and other Cuban-born players in America. Older Twins followers or team history buffs will recognize names like Pascual, Valdespino, Becquer, Tovar, and more. While mostly embraced by fans (not so much in Jim Crow, minor-league towns), the struggles they faced were almost unimaginable, and Henninger explains a few. How about adjusting to the food? Cuban Twins players would make pilgrimages to Chicago for that exotic Caribbean culinary staple – black beans.

For those who want an overview of Oliva's career, Henninger nicely summarizes the crucial moments without getting bogged down in baseball-book minutiae (sometimes authors recap too many individual games or stat races.) Knowing little of Oliva's baseball talents, I was surprised to learn he cheated on off-speed pitches. His eyes and bat speed were so good, he could wait to crush slow stuff and still catch up to fastballs. (Most players then and now go about guessing pitches the other way 'round.)

And there's the typical baseball humor. An early thumb sprain which never healed properly made Oliva prone to bat-hurling. Harmon Killebrew, a good friend often ducking Oliva's bats in the on-deck circle, suggested tying a string to Oliva's bat and wrist (like a Wii controller.) One minor-league plane the Twins used was so barftastically unstable in flight, players called it the "Knuckleball."

Still, it's the challenges of being an immigrant which keep resonating here. One standout passage is about Zoilo Versalles, a Cuban teammate of Oliva's and onetime MVP. Versalles suffered from anxiety, depression, and OCD, none of which were alleviated by his cultural dislocation. (He tried to cope by buying the latest records from Cuban musicians, particularly opera; he sang arias frequently in the clubhouse.) Versalles sometimes lashed out when feeling cornered, causing some reporters to label him a Latin hothead (he bonded with Twins infielder/manager Billy Martin.) Olivia thought that deep down he was "the sweetest man alive."

Oliva seems to believe the best about everyone. It's an easy inference that Oliva's generosity comes from wanting to recreate what he missed at home (Oliva's North Dakota wife also came from a large farm family.) Yet Henninger doesn't go down that speculative phony psychology road. Some individuals are simply outgoing; others are more subdued. It's the way people are. (A photo in this book of Oliva laughing with Harmon's grandson on the train to Killebrew's memorial service is heartwarming.)

Henninger's final chapter argues Oliva's qualification for the Hall Of Fame; I have no expertise on these matters. It seems a convincing case to me – I wish the dang national baseball museum didn't enshrine players in the first place, as plaques tell no stories of baseball's cultural impact and history. Even without a plaque, Oliva seems like one of those players who'll long be remembered as some genial god's favor to the game, an ambassador maybe greater than any professional sport deserves.

Patrick Reusse provides a foreword to this book. I like Reusse most when he shares his experiences of older sports stories, but he's kinda bitchy here. "There was no Internet then." Really? No Internet in the 1960s? Illuminate me more, my cranky guru. I'm not sure what the point of that sentence is. Maybe to suggest how most changes in American culture since 1964 were for the worse, without actually saying this. Kinda lame. (Stephen King, in his "11/12/63," did a time-travel story celebrating what was good in the 1960s and since lost, while pointing out things from that era which completely sucked. It's not an impossible writing trick to pull off.)


Is it Mr. Mike or Dr. Pelful today? (I know that's backwards; I hate doctors.) Pelfrey's been absolutely walloped by hitters three of his last four starts; against the White Sox he was very lucky, giving up ten hits and three walks over 112 pitches in 6.2 innings while only on the hook for three runs. That's more like our old friend we know, not the handsome stranger we'd been waking up to for much of this season.

Yes, it's that Joe Blanton. He retired after two AAA starts in 2014, but changed his mind and is, digits-wise, having the best season of his 10 in the bigs. The only thing I can find from the digits is Blanton's K/BB splits. Over his career he's 3.08 against righties, 2.3 against lefties. This year those numbers are 14.0 & 2.3, FWIW.

When ERA H/9 BB/9 K/9 HR/9 OPS v. L/R FIP ERA+
2004-2013 4.51 9.9 2.4 6.2 1.1 .748/.779 4.23 92
This Year 3.14 8.2 2.2 8.2 0.9 .775/.592 3.36 128

Every Royal with more than six ABs against Pelfrey kills him, save Alcides Escobar. Joe Mauer did well against Blanton back when he was Joe Mauer. He did well against most pitchers in them days.

Lineups (note Herrmann in against righty-spooking Blanton today, rather than lefty Duffy tomorrow):

Need A Bullpen Have A Bullpen
Brian Dozier, 2B Alcides Escobar, SS
Joe Mauer, 1B Mike Moustakas, 3B
Torii Hunter, RF Lorenzo's Oil, CF
Plooouuufffe, 3B Eric Hosmer, 1B
Eddie Rosario, LF Kendrys Morales, DH
Some Young Guy, DH Alex Gordon, LF
Aaron Hicks, CF Salvador Perez, C
Chris Herrmann, C Alex Rios, RF
Daniel Santana, SS Omar Infante, also a star