Major League Baseball came to Minnesota in 1961 and there were six Cuban-born players who were with that team: shortstops Zoilo Versalles and Jose Valdievielso, first baseman Julio Becquer and pitchers Camilo Pascual, Pedro Ramos and Dagaberto Cueto.
It was one year later when our greatest Cuban player, Tony Oliva, first played for the Twins.
This franchise’s legacy with Cuban players is such that when the oldest living big-league player, Connie Marrero, died in April at age 102 in Havana, the news articles told of his exploits for the Twins’ ancestors, the Washington Senators, in the early 1950s.
Oliva was in the last large group of Cuban players to be brought to the United States by the Griffith organization in March 1961. The Bay of Pigs invasion took place on April 17, and dictator Fidel Castro shut down the departure of ballplayers from Cuba.
It would be 30 years before pitcher Rene Arocha defected, and started the current era: Where Cuban players defect, hang out on other shores to stay ineligible for the amateur draft, then sign with the team of their choice.
There are now horror stories of the financial agreements some prominent Cuban defectors have been forced to make with gangsters to get their passage through Mexico.
The Twins have not been a factor in the signing of the coveted Cuban defectors. General Manager Terry Ryan could only recall Deinys Suarez as a defector signed directly by the Twins. He was a pitcher and was released in 2011 after one season in the high minors.
On Sunday, designated hitter Kendrys Morales became the second big-league veteran and Cuban defector to sign with the Twins. The other was pitcher Livan Hernandez in 2008.
“Morales can hit,” Oliva said Sunday. “He will hit.”
There has never been a Latin American player who failed to receive an endorsement from Tony O., but in this case, he speaks the gospel.
The switch-hitting Morales put up huge numbers for the Angels in 2009 and into 2010, before breaking his left leg at home plate in the celebration for his game-winning grand slam on May 29.
He missed the entire 2011 season, then came back to hit another 45 home runs over the past two years in Anaheim and Seattle.
Morales was a free agent stuck with draft-pick compensation for this season. Teams waited for last week’s draft to be completed and compensation to disappear before bidding for Morales.
The Twins made the best offer: a $12 million, one-year contract that prorates to $7.56 million for the final 102 games on the schedule.
Morales went directly to the big-league roster after passing his physical Sunday morning. Immediately, Twins followers started complaining, mostly because this is what brings the most enjoyment during the decline that started in 2011.
Complaint A: The Twins should have signed Morales to a minor league contract and let him work on his swing for a week before being put on the big-league roster.
Complaint B: There was no reason to sign a veteran hitter because the Twins are destined to finish as also-rans for a fourth consecutive season.
The responses from here would be: A) There was competition for Morales, and the Twins acted to sign him quickly and without complications; and B) After all the abuse the Pohlads have taken as owners for being “cheap,” we’re really going to moan that the Twins have brought in an established bat in the hope of remaining competitive over the long baseball summer?