Tony Oliva is my all-time favorite athlete. I’m probably not alone in that club, whether we’re talking fans, media members or players who have encountered him as a teammate, a coach or now a grandfather confessor in the clubhouse.
Tony gets in uniform before games at Target Field, hangs out at batting practice, and then gets back in civilian clothes to watch from the stands or join Alfonso Fernandez for the team’s 50 Spanish-language broadcasts.
Pregame, Tony often can be found talking about his favorite topic — hitting — with younger Latin players such as Oswaldo Arcia, Kennys Vargas and Danny Santana. The last time I saw this in a clubhouse, Oliva and Arcia were talking fast in Spanish for several minutes.
It’s good to have Tony Oliva, a three-time American League batting champion, around for such occasions, but Tony is now 76 and very much a part-time presence.
Tony does not serve the need the Twins have for a strong, full-time, Spanish-speaking figure on the big-league staff, and neither does Bobby Cuellar, a 62-year-old Texan who spends games in the bullpen.
Baseball can offer all the rhetoric it wants about the need to restore the game as an attraction for young black athletes in this country, yet that share of the workforce is destined to stay modest.
The present of this game, and even more so the future, is tied to the phenomenal talent being produced in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Cuba. The Cuban portion of that immigration will only get larger when the USA and Tony Oliva’s homeland get around to a normal relationship.
We don’t know if Terry Ryan will be back as general manager. We don’t know if Ron Gardenhire will be back as manager. Even if those two men stay in place, there has to be change.
There has to be a true recognition of the game’s increasing Latin influence in this organization — from the major leagues through the top tiers of the minors, for sure.
It’s my contention that this team desperately needs a coach (or a manager) of similar background who can relate to a combustible young talent such as Arcia. This isn’t merely about hitting suggestions; rather, it’s about knowing what makes him tick on a daily basis.
If there had been such a presence here a half-dozen years back, the frustrations with Carlos Gomez might have not built to the point the Twins traded a still-young player of such skills.
There’s a good chance that within a couple of years, eight of the Twins’ 12 or 13 position players could be from Latin America. You could have an infield of Miguel Sano at third, Santana at shortstop and Jorge Polanco at second, with Vargas and Joe Mauer sharing first base and DH.
Arcia should be in the outfield, and Jose Berrios should be in the rotation, and there are others from the great baseball nurseries of the Caribbean on the way.
There were 28 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters from Latin America. If you look at the low minors, that percentage will be in the mid-30s in a few years.
The Twins have made an accommodation in the low minors. The rookie team in the Gulf Coast League is mostly Latin teenagers, and there were three Spanish speakers on the coaching staff. It’s a step up to the rookie team at Elizabethton, Tenn., and Henry Bonilla was the pitching coach.
And then you get the four full-season teams: Class A — Cedar Rapids and Fort Myers; Class AA — Chattanooga, as of last week; and Class AAA — Rochester, N.Y. There were 12 coaches with those clubs in 2014 and only one Latin American: Ivan Arteaga, the pitching coach at Cedar Rapids.
The crossroads between career minor leaguers and the big leagues is Class AA. If a player succeeds there, he’s going to at least get a shot in the big leagues.
Jeff Smith has been the Twins’ manager at Class AA for five years. I started asking people about Smith (including former players) last year, after he had a run-in with Sano that resulted in a suspension for the top prospect from the Dominican.
From what I heard, Smith sounded more like a manager who belongs in Class AAA with the retreads, and not as the gatekeeper for prospects at Class AA.
The Twins have to put together coaching staffs — starting in Minnesota — that can nurture the Latin American talent to the fullest. Those young men have become the Twins’ present, and even more so, they are the future.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org