The never-ending injury problems with the New York Yankees resulted in the arrival of outfielder Zoilo Almonte on June 19. He made a quick impression, going 6 for 10 with a home run and four RBI during three straight starts in left field.
This caused considerable conversation in the New York media over Almonte’s “catchy’’ first name.
Asked about “Zoilo,’’ Almonte was quoted as saying through an interpreter: “My father’s named Zoilo, and he gave me the same name, and my son is named Zoilo. It’s kind of getting passed down.’’
Austin Romine, a Yankees catcher, was asked about the name and said: “I think it sounds awesome. It just flows.’’
The New York Times had an item on Zoilo and said it means “life.’’ That’s better than a definition of Zoilo found on the Internet, which was, “malicious critic or censurer.’’
Neither of these applies to the definition of Zoilo to old-time Twins fans. To that group, Zoilo means “arrival of big-league baseball,’’ or “exciting youngster,’’ or “MVP,’’ or even “duck.’’
The only previous Zoilo to play in the big leagues was Zoilo Casanova Versalles, the young Cuban who opened Minnesota’s inaugural season as the shortstop and leadoff hitter in Yankee Stadium on April 11, 1961.
The newspapers were calling him “Zorro’’ then, a nickname that the Twins thought was clever considering the era, but also one that Versalles did not want. We also were years away from understanding that the “ll’’ was pronounced as a “y’’ in Spanish, so it wasn’t Ver-sall-eeze, after all.
Versalles was advertised as being 20 when he opened the 1961 season with the Twins. He had played a combined 44 games in Washington in 1959 and 1960, which would have made him 18 when he debuted on Aug. 1, 1959.
Later research put his birthdate at Dec. 18, 1939, not 1940. Whatever, the kid we called “Zorro’’ had amazing range on those young legs, particularly going behind second base. He also had a tendency to gun underhanded throws while on the move and scatter the customers sitting in the first-base boxes at Met Stadium.
In 1965, Zoilo hit 19 home runs with 77 RBI, stole 27 bases and led the league in runs scored (126), doubles (45) and triples (12). He was voted as the Twins’ first-ever American League MVP, beating out his teammate and fellow Cuban, Tony Oliva.
One popular theory for this was the success and publicity Versalles received playing against the Yankees that season: batting .342 with four home runs and 10 RBI, and dazzling at shortstop.
And now, 42 years after Versalles’ big-league career ended with 66 games in Atlanta, and 18 years after his death at age 55 in Bloomington, there is another Zoilo in the big leagues.
Almonte, a switch-hitter, was signed by the Yankees for $200,000 as a 16-year-old in the Dominican Republic in 2005. Joe Girardi, the Yankees’ manager, told the Associated Press: “He’s been on our radar for a while. The time has arrived.’’
Almonte played 640 games in the minors before making it to the Yankees. Versalles broke in when the minor leagues were classified from Class AAA down to Class D. He played 207 minor-league games – 124 in Class D, 83 in Class B – before playing his first game for the Senators in 1959.
POSTSCRIPT: Almonte batted sixth in the Yankees' 10-4 victory over the Twins on Monday. He had three singles in five at-bats. He scored once and drove in two runs, including the run that broke a 4-4 tie in the eighth. Zoilo is now batting .342 for the Yankees.