Former Twin Oliva partaking in third Minnesota All-Star Game

July 11, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS – There he was, a 25-year-old rookie, standing among some of the best to ever play the game.

Willie Mays. Roberto Clemente. Mickey Mantle. Harmon Killebrew. Hank Aaron.

Somehow, some way, Tony Oliva wedged his way into that elite group. His numbers more than validated his selection to the 1964 All-Star Game, but the Cuba native and Twins outfielder still couldn’t believe he was among the best and brightest in Major League Baseball.

“That was a dream, to be able to be in that group of people as an All-Star,” Oliva said. “Really, you don’t know if you’re an All-Star, if you belong there. I know my numbers was great. I had great numbers that year for the All-Star (Game). But as a rookie, you never know if they’re going to pick you out for the All-Star or not.”

Not only was Oliva an All-Star that year, but he was also the American League Rookie of the Year. He finished his rookie season with a league-best 217 hits, 109 runs and a .323 average, which earned him his first of three batting titles.

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Though Oliva went 0-for-4 in his first All-Star Game, he was elected as a starter. Oliva twice faced Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale. Batting second, he hit right in front of Mantle, the Yankees legend.

Admittedly, Oliva was a bit star-struck, even though he was also an All-Star.

“Oh yeah, especially as a rookie,” he said. “To be there, that’s something that you never expected to be with that group of people, that group of All-Stars, and be able to be there with them and be able to participate.”

That 1964 game was the first of eight straight All-Star appearances for the Twins legend. The following season was almost as special as his first All-Star Game, as the 1965 Midsummer Classic was held at Metropolitan Stadium in Minneapolis — the same field where Oliva had quickly become a fan favorite.

Oliva fell just shy of winning the AL MVP that year, finishing second behind Twins teammate Zoilo Versalles. He did win his second straight battle title with a .321 average. But one of the highlights for him in 1965 was once again being able to rub elbows with the game’s greats, this time at his home stadium.

“That was great. That was great to play here in Minnesota, too,” Oliva said. “There was a whole bunch of guys from my team who was on the club for the All-Stars that year. That was a big celebration. It was a big thing for Minnesota.”

Nearly 50 years later, the All-Star Game returns to Minnesota, and Oliva will be watching from up close. He was there in 1985 as Minnesota’s first base coach when the game was held at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the Twins’ home for 28 seasons before moving to Target Field.

Oliva still wears his Twins uniform as proudly in 2014 as he did in 1964. While many players try to distance themselves from baseball after retiring, Oliva has never left. Following his 15-year playing career, Oliva transitioned into a role as coach with Minnesota, beginning as a player-coach in his final year in 1976.

He’s remained in Minnesota all these years, staying close to the team that gave a kid from Cuba a chance to be an All-Star. Oliva said he owes much of that to former Twins owner Calvin Griffith. If not for Griffith and the support from Minnesota’s front office, Oliva would have had to return to Cuba to try to find work.

“Griffith come out to me and give me the opportunity to say, ‘I want you to be on my coaching staff. You can be as long as you want here.’ I think that was very nice to do for me. Very nice for the organization,” Oliva said. “And Carl Pohlad told me the same when he bought the club. He said, ‘Tony, you’re part of the organization. You’re part of the team. You can stay here as long as you want.’ . . .

“There were a lot of players that after they finish playing baseball, especially Spanish players, they have a hard time to survive because in the ’60s and the ’70s, we no make enough money. The only thing we know is play baseball.”

Oliva — whose No. 6 was retired by Minnesota in 1991 — now works as an analyst on a Spanish radio station, calling a handful of Twins games a year. When he’s not on the radio, he can be found around the batting cages during batting practice at Target Field, talking with Minnesota’s hitters. He’s also a minor league hitting instructor, and the Twins’ Latin players are drawn to Oliva whenever the 75-year-old strolls through the clubhouse. Though they never watched him play, they certainly know of his eight All-Star appearances and various other achievements.

Though he was born and raised in Cuba, Oliva is now an adopted Minnesotan, having spent the majority of his life here. Because his ties with his former team still run so deep, Oliva says he’s excited for “everything” that will be taking place during All-Star weekend.

“For me, it’s super, super special. I’ve been able to be here and see the three All-Star Games played here,” Oliva said. “I think the Met was a great ballpark for us to play, for the people to come and to watch the games, to tailgate in the parking lot. It was beautiful. The Dome?”

Oliva pauses.

“The Dome was one of the best things that happened to us, because if it wasn’t for the Dome, we no have Minnesota Twins here in town because they was ready to go. We got the Dome, we got new life, coming to the Dome. We won two World Series in the Dome. That led us to building this beautiful stadium. This is a beautiful stadium. This stadium, if you have the opportunity to go and tour and see everything here in this stadium and see it’s the best stadium in the league.”

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