All-Star Game: Tony Oliva relishes role of mentor to young Cuban stars

July 17, 2014

jea 1191 warm ups

One by one they have come through Target Field the past few seasons, wide-eyed young players making their first visit to the Twin Cities.

Each time, the same kindly septuagenarian has been there to receive them, to offer a friendly greeting and a few carefully chosen words of advice.

Twins legend Tony Oliva was welcoming them into the club.

Not in terms of Minnesota baseball, but in terms of wondrously talented hitters born in the troubled island nation of Cuba.

So, it was only fitting this week, as Yoenis Cespedes repeated as Home Run Derby champion and Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu each made their all-star debuts, that Oliva was here to welcome them to an even more exclusive group: Cuban all-stars.

“I absolutely know the story of Tony Oliva,” Abreu, the rookie first baseman for the Chicago White Sox, said through a translator. “As Cubans we all know Tony Oliva and his story, his success here in the big leagues. He’s one of those people who, if it wasn’t for him, as Cubans, we couldn’t be here.”

Oliva, a Twins special assistant, made eight straight all-star games from 1964 through 1971. That included the 1965 game at Metropolitan Stadium, where Oliva hit a leadoff double in the ninth inning off hall of fame right-hander Bob Gibson.

“When I first came up to Minneapolis (for a series against the Twins on June 20-22), I was able to meet him and talk with him for a while,” Abreu said of Oliva. “He told me some things that would help me as a ballplayer.

I just appreciate that I had an opportunity to meet him and share some stories with him.”

White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez, also making his all-star debut this week, pushes the number of Cuban-born all-stars to 29.

Of those, Minnie Minoso leads the way with nine selections between 1951 and 1960, but he had the benefit of doubling up in his final two all-star seasons. In terms of individual all-star seasons, no Cuban player has ever had more than Oliva’s eight.

That’s one more than both Tony Perez, the hall of fame first baseman, and right-hander Camilo Pascual, who counted two 20-win seasons (both with the Twins) among his 174 big-league victories.

“I was one of the first ones,” Oliva said. “Cubans had played in the big leagues for a long time. Starting in the 1950s, they had more chances to play. In the ’60s, they closed.”

Oliva, who turns 76 on Sunday, ranks fourth in home runs (220) among Cuban-born major leaguers. Only Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco and Perez hit more.

Oliva is sixth in hits (1,917) and doubles (329) and fifth in runs batted in (947), but his .304 career batting average ranks second among all Cuban-born players with more than 26 at-bats in the big leagues.

Only Puig, hitting .314 through his first 725 big-league at-bats, has a higher average.

Asked about meeting Oliva this week, Puig’s expressive face brightened.

“Yes, you’re right,” the Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder said through a translator. “I met him in May when we were here in Minnesota. He gave me great advice, advice on how to do well in the big leagues and continue to do well. I’m thankful to him and I hope to see him here.”

Puig also mentions Twins designated hitter Kendrys Morales, who left Cuba in 2005 and ranks fourth in slugging among that nation’s products, as an inspiration.

Cespedes, meanwhile, has been a sensation in the Oakland A’s outfield since his arrival in 2012. He already has been through Target Field three times, including the Twins’ home-opening series this season.

Judging from his 28-homer showing in claiming Monday night’s Home Run Derby, he’s already quite comfortable at the Twins’ home. Seeing Oliva on each of his visits has only added to that comfort level.

“Every one of the times I’ve been here in Minnesota, I’ve talked to Tony,” Cespedes said through a translator. “He has come up to me and he’s given me some very good advice, and this is something I appreciate very much.”

Cespedes has learned more about Oliva since coming to the U.S., but he is thankful for all of those Cuban talents that blazed a trail to the major leagues.

“All of those players that came before me, all of us admired them because they opened the doors for all of us here in the major leagues,” Cespedes said. “They did play a big part in what we’re doing today.”

Oliva, who has helped ease the transition for Morales since his June 7 signing, understandably takes pride in this modern wave of talented Cuban sluggers.

“Guys (from Cuba) didn’t have chances to play in the big leagues for 45 years,” Oliva said. “The last 10 years, you’re seeing more Cuban players defect and come over here to play. Now you see those power hitters come, a lot of power hitters that played in semipro ball, and a lot of good pitchers.”

Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, making his third straight all-star appearance, gives Cuba five players at this year’s game.

“Before, they were scared to defect,” Oliva said. “Cuban people are very sensitive. They would worry too much about what their friends and family would say if they stayed here and played baseball. Now there’s more freedom. Everybody is more open. It’s OK. If you decide to come here and play baseball, people won’t say anything. People realize it’s a job.”

In prior generations, great Cuban hitters such as Orestes Kindelan and Omar Linares never made the dangerous leap toward defection. It was Linares who famously said at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “I’d rather play for 11 million Cubans than $11 million.”

Major league salaries have spiraled much higher than that in recent years, and done so at the same time conditions in Cuba have continued to worsen. The result has been a new wave of talented defectors.

Cespedes signed in early 2012 for $36 million over four years. Puig signed later that same year for $42 million over seven seasons, and last winter the bidding for Abreu went all the way to $68 million over four years.

No wonder baseball commissioner Bud Selig, an outspoken proponent of an international draft, chose his words carefully Tuesday when asked about the Cuban revolution in the majors.

“It has been a fascinating story,” Selig said, “but where it goes from here I have no idea.”

That remains a matter for the State Department, Selig suggested, as the world waits for the post-Castro era to open.

Oliva, who signed with the Twins in 1961 and was in the majors by September 1962, knows where he hopes this story eventually goes.

“It would be nice if the U.S. and Cuba could have a relationship where Cuban players would be able to come here and go there without having to defect,” Oliva said. “Believe me, nobody wants to defect. Everybody wants to do things the right way.”

Follow Mike Berardino at

Previous post:

Next post: