Patrick Reusse: Oliva a legend rooted in Minnesota

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2011 - 12:32 AM

The Twins will honor all-time great Tony Oliva on Friday when they unveil a statue of his likeness at Target Field.

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Tony Oliva

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Gordette DuBois brought her boyfriend, Tony Oliva, home to the burgh of Hitchcock, S.D., for the first time over the Christmas holiday in 1965.

"There was a movie around that time, 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,'" Gordette said. "A couple of our grandchildren saw the movie for the first time the other day. I told them, 'That was Tony and me 45 years ago.'"

Gordette laughed and said: "Truthfully, it was never an issue in my hometown once people met Tony. Who doesn't love Tony?''

The only possible answer would be: pitchers employed in the American League from 1964 through 1971, before Tony O's right knee was destroyed making a diving catch in Oakland.

Gordette and Tony were married in Hitchcock in 1968.

"All my relatives were there, which means the whole town was there,'' she said.

The Olivas bought a house in Bloomington from Tony's teammate Sandy Valdespino, who is also Cuban. In 1972, the Olivas moved a few blocks to another house in Bloomington and remain there today.

"We have many of the same neighbors,'' Gordette said. "We have a great neighborhood. We love it here.''

The Olivas have three children and four grandchildren, age 3 through 20. "Our kids and the grandkids all live within 10 minutes of us,'' Gordette said. "You won't meet a person where family is more important than with Tony.''

This is both with the immediate circle of Olivas in Bloomington, and with the family he left behind -- unknowingly -- when he came to the United States to play baseball in the spring of 1961.

He was born in 1938 as Antonio Oliva Lopez (maternal name), the third-oldest child and oldest boy among 10. When he got to the U.S. his paperwork was changed to reflect the name and birthdate of his brother Pedro Jr., born in 1941.

"That's the way the scouts did it then,'' Gordette said. "The thought was if a team felt it had a younger player, they were more likely to keep him.''

The Twins saw Oliva among a group of Cubans sent by scout Papa Joe Cambria. They were mortified by his outfield play and released him. A man named Rigelberto Sanchez intervened. And Phil Howser, who ran the Charlotte franchise for Calvin Griffith, took up the cause and Tony was sent to the low minors at Wytheville, N.C.

"He tore the cover off the ball,'' Gordette said. "He has a silver bat for that, for hitting .410.''

When he first came to the U.S., Oliva figured he would be back in Cuba for the winter, playing winter ball and being with his family. Except, Fidel Castro shut down the country and through the decades it took much paperwork for Tony or his family to visit one another.

"For quite a while now, Tony has been able to go in once a year,'' Gordette said. "We go the first two weeks in February.''

There are six surviving siblings and dozens of nieces, nephews and other relatives.

"How much family? I took 61 little gifts with me this time,'' she said.

"We fly to Havana, spend a day with family that lives there, then we go to Rio del Pinar, the area where he grew up. Tony has a smile on his face for the whole two weeks, seeing the farmland, being with family.

"Tony's dad worked in the tobacco factory and was famous for rolling the leaves to make the best cigars. I'm sure, if he was permitted to stay that long, Tony would spend a couple of months in Cuba, until it was time to go to Fort Myers and be with the Twins' minor leaguers.

"Tony would never miss being part of that. He loves being with the young Spanish-speaking players that are new to baseball here. Tony is a godfather to them.''

It has been easy to be a legend attached to the Twins in this decade, with the winning seasons and now with Target Field. It wasn't so easy from 1993 through 2000, during those eight wretched summers of losing inside the Metrodome. And yet Tony was there, to mingle with fans, to make P.R. appearances for a team that had almost nothing going for it.

"It's 50 years right now since Tony became part of the Twins' organization,'' Gordette said. "The Twins have been great to Tony, but it's a two-way street. He has been great to the Twins.''

For sure.

And that's why the unveiling of the Tony Oliva statue this morning near Gate 6 at Target Field will be in honor of a great hitter but also a great godfather, family man, neighbor and Minnesotan.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN.preusse@startribune.com

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