Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He has been a Star Tribune sports columnist since 1988. His sportswriting credo is twofold: 1. God will provide an angle; 2. The smaller the ball, the better the writing.


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Zoilo, Danny Santana and courting in Cuba in '50s

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: March 13, 2014 - 10:44 AM

FORT MYERS, FLA. -- I’ve always assumed that Zoilo Versalles, the Twins’ first shortstop, was a few years older than his baseball age. His birthdate still is listed as Dec. 18, 1939, by Baseball Reference and other sources.

Tony Oliva, another of the Twins’ many Cuban signees of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, did have his age changed in baseball records when it was discovered his listed birthdate was that of a younger brother.

My inclination to doubt Versalles being as young as listed was a remembrance of the Twins’ first season, when Zoilo (we were calling him ‘’Zorro’’ then) left the team for a time. The reason was that his wife Maria still was in Havana, and the U.S. had started the travel bans with Castro’s Cuba.

“Zoilo told the Twins, ‘If my wife can’t come to Minnesota, I’m going home to Cuba,’ ‘’ Oliva said.

Eventually, Hubert Humphrey was able to pull some strings and get Maria out of the Cuba to join Zoilo.

My question has been: If Zoilo truly was 21, why was he already married? I asked this question of Oliva on Thursday morning, as the Twins were taking batting practice at Hammond Stadium before an exhibition vs. Boston.

“I think that was Zoilo’s real age,’’ Oliva said. “It wasn’t unusual then for Cubans to get married at 18, 19 or 20.’’

It wasn’t unusual in Minnesota, either, most often because parenthood was in the immediate future. The reason was slightly different in Cuba.

“There was no living with your girl before marriage,’’ Oliva said. “There was no ‘nothing’ with your girl before marriage.

“A Cuban boy could see his girl on Thursdays and Sundays, at her house, with her mother and father there. If you went to movies, her mother went along. If you went to a dance, her mother went along.

“That’s why a boy and his girl got married in Cuba at 18, 19 years old.’’

Oh, THAT.

How about Tony? Did he have a girlfriend in his home country before heading to the United States with Papa Joe Cambria’s last collection of Cubans signed for the Griffith organization in the spring of 1961?

“No, I was in a slump,’’ Tony said. “All I did was work during the week and play baseball on weekends.’’

This effort started with the intention to make a plea for the front office to give today’s Twins fans the same level of intrigue at shortstop as they gave us when team arrived in 1961:

We had Zoilo Versalles, 21 and slight, spectacular in range and wild with his throws. We loved having big-league baseball, of course, and we loved having this kid who was as swashbuckling in covering his territory as was “Zorro,’’ the TV hero of the late ‘50s.

On Thursday, manager Ron Gardenhire wrote down a batting order that looked like what can be expected at 3:10 p.m. on March 31, when the Twins open the season on the South Side of Chicago. The top eight did not exactly make your baseball heart go pitter-pat:

Hicks-8; Dozier-4; Mauer-3; Willingham-7; Arcia-9; Plouffe-5; Kubel-DH; Suzuki-2.

The interesting name was at the bottom of the order: Santana-6.

This would be Danny Santana, 23, out of Class AA New Britain and the Dominican Republic. Gardenhire has made it clear that the job will belong to incumbent Pedro Florimon, 27, if he soon returns to action and shows that he has fully healed from last month’s appendectomy.

Florimon will make most of the plays in the field. At the plate, it will be tough to differentiate the hacks of a fully-healed Pedro and those of a Pedro who still is hurting.

He batted .221 with an on-base percentage of .281. That’s it. That’s Pedro’s upside as a hitter.

Santana doesn’t walk. He does hit. He also ranges and has an extra-strong arm. He can launch some throws, Zoilo-like.

Zoilo was charged with 30 errors in 129 games as a rookie in 1961; Santana was charged with 32 in 131 games last season at New Britain. Zoilo was dealing with official scorekeepers more likely to charge an error in 1961. Santana was dealing with double-A quality infields, not one prepared as immaculately as did Dick Ericson’s crew at Met Stadium.

Call it an even tradeoff.

When will Santana be ready for the big leagues? “Now, if they want him,’’ Oliva said.

Come on, fellas. Go for it. Give today’s suffering Minnesota fans something. Give ‘em their own Zoilo on Opening Day.

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