Tony Oliva turned 75 on Saturday. There will be a column on Tony in Sunday's Star Tribune. It is written with full admiration, for Tony O. hits quite an exacta with me: As a fan in the '60s, he was my favorite Twins' player, and as a sportswriter on the Twins' beat starting in 1974, he was the best guy I ever covered.
Cuban players defecting are much in the news again, what with Yaziel Puig's arrival with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Yoenis Cespedes' performance in the Home Run Derby, and pitcher Miguel Gonzalez, who figures to sign the biggest contract yet for a Cuban defector in the next week.
And when I saw a note in Charley Walters' column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, that Tony was about to mark his 75th birthday, I wanted him to again tell me about being discovered in the countryside of Cuba, and making his way here in the last-ever group of players to leave Cuba in April 1961.
After that group of 22, all other ballpalyers to be raised in Cuba and to make their way to American baseball have been defectors.
We had lunch at the Monte Carlo on Friday. The young woman bussing dishes was Hispanic. Tony started talking Spanish with her. She had no idea this was a famous Minnesota athlete, but a wide smile came across her face.
"She's from Ecuador,'' Tony said. "She's going to try to find me a Cuban coffee. A place called Mon-tee Car-low has to know how to make a Cuban coffee.''
The espresso was served by our waiter Margaret. She also was in her 20s and, as we were leaving, said to Tony: "My father is a big fan of yours, Mr. Oliva. Could I get a photo with you?''
She had a 100 percent chance to get that photo ... not only because Tony is that sort of fellow, but also the fact that chatting up and drawing smiles from ladies is something he does as well as he did hit a baseball.
Tony has been wonderfully married to Gordette, the gal from Hitchcock, S.D., for over 40 years, and yet he remains the king of the schmooze -- in Spanish or English.
We talked Cuba, and how his baseball career in this country basically was rescued from early termination by the Bay of Pigs, and then by a couple of Cuban infielders, Minnie Mendoza and Nestor Velazquez, who were in Charlotte when Tony was sitting in limbo there in the spring of 1961.
Mendoza played forever in Charlotte for the Twins'organization and out of loyalty, he was given some time in Minnesota in 1970. But Nestor Velazquez?
"He was a young shortstop; great with the glove,'' Oliva said. "He hurt his shoulder and couldn't throw like he did before that. Otherwise ... Nestor would've played a long time in the big leagues.''
Tony looks great at 75. The second knee transplant took in Tony's right knee. The left knee is also artificial. The knees that cost him a cinch trip to the Hall of Fame are fixed.
He's at the ballpark in uniform for home games, schmoozing in the clubhouse, schmoozing at batting practice. He talks hitting with players.
"I talk about it; I don't coach,'' Tony said. "Bruno [Tom Brunansky] is the hitting coach. We get along great. I just ask a hitter, 'What were you thinking on that pitch?' ''
Tony admits that the new philosophy of many hitters -- Twins and hitters all over MLB -- in taking 2-0 and 3-1 pitches in the search for a walk is a puzzle for him..
"Joe Mauer can do that, because he's such a good two-strike hitter,'' Oliva said. "But there aren't many Joe Mauers. I say, 'If it's 2-0 and they are going to throw you a fastball down the middle, a Cuban sandwich right here, swing the bat.' ''
Tony O. put a flat hand at his waist before using his description of a juicy fastball:
The guy kills me. Happy 75th, Senor.
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