Neal: It’s the most Minnesota weekend ever at baseball’s Hall of Fame

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – A mostly Minnesota-bred Hall of Fame class will be presented on Sunday on a field near the Clark Sports Center, with luscious swaths of green grass and trees forming a backdrop worthy of a Rockwell painting.

It will be there that Tony Oliva's and Jim Kaat's long wait to enter the Hall of Fame will end. It will be where Bud Fowler, Minnie Minoso and Buck O'Neill receive the recognition they deserved while still alive. It will be where Twins and Red Sox fans will form an unholy alliance as they join forces to applaud David Ortiz's plaque unveiled among the other titans of the sport.

The East Coast muscle here is real, as thousands of Red Sox fans have used their proximity advantage to travel to Cooperstown. Twins fans already have mumbled about lopsided availability of Boston memorabilia over Twins gear.

But the Red Sox will be unable to match the Twins this week in the number of players who represent various checkpoints in local baseball history — that's Twins history as well as state baseball history.

"This is the most Twins-centric class we have had at the Hall of Fame," Twins President Dave St. Peter said.

Before this year's class, the 2001 class was considered the most pro-Minnesota group. That class included Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield, one a longtime Twins star from Chicago, the other a St. Paul youth legend who played two of his final three seasons in Minnesota. And there was also Hilton Smith, a longtime Negro Leagues great who was called "Satch's Shadow," because he was every bit as good as the great Satchel Paige but was overshadowed by him. Late in Smith's career, he spent a year playing for the Fulda Giants.

Fowler is this year's connection to Minnesota baseball of yesteryear. He is considered a Black baseball pioneer who played for various teams, when he wasn't a barber. He spent 1884 playing with an unsuccessful club in Stillwater. Winfield will deliver Fowler's induction speech Sunday.

Oliva, Kaat and Ortiz are part of the ties that bind the Twins from their early years in the 1960s through the contraction threat in 2001, to the start of their AL Central dominace in 2002 and, perhaps, will form a bridge before a certain catcher becomes eligible for the 2024 ballot.

Boston fans wearing Ortiz's No. 34 jerseys swarmed Main Street in Cooperstown on Saturday, as they should. Ortiz hit 58 homers over parts of six seasons with the Twins and had a more-than-respectable .809 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. But then came the Great Release of 2002, when the Twins parted ways with Ortiz before he was eventually signed by the Red Sox.

With Boston, he became a colossus, slugging 483 home runs with a .956 OPS and defusing any conflict among voters who had problems supporting a designated hitter.

As Red Sox fans reveled Saturday, a group of Twins fans, including Julian Loscalzo of St. Paul. looked on and reminded a few Boston fans of the Twins' role in unleashing Big Papi.

"We proudly note how we helped them by letting Ortiz go," said Loscalzo, who operates Ballpark Tours and has a group in town for the event. "We usually get a nod of appreciation."

Ortiz met with the media on Saturday and expressed how happy he was for Kaat and how thrilled he was for Oliva to get in.

"Tony was always there with us, telling us what to do," Ortiz said. "He always wanted the best for us. So it's amazing. I'm very surprised, you know, that I'm going into the Hall of Fame exactly the same day that Tony and Mr. Jim Kaat [are].

"We had a blast at dinner, talking and remembering things. And also talking about Kirby, who was big mentor to me."

Kaat is an original Twin from the 1961 team who watched Oliva go from missing fly balls in the outfield to winning a Gold Glove. Kaat watched Oliva become one of the more feared sluggers in the league. Kaat pitched on the 1965 team that reached the World Series.

Kaat has witnessed the ups and downs of the franchise. Including the contraction scare in 2001 after the Twins were a candidate to move to North Carolina. The Twins avoided contraction and relocation, and in 2002 they won the first of six division titles over a nine-year span.

When it didn't look like Oliva or Kaat would ever end up in the Hall of Fame, the Golden Days Era committee came through. Now not only are fans rejoicing this weekend, but Twins Territory could also be in for another day in Cooperstown when Joe Mauer appears on the writers' ballot for the first time, in 2024.

"I'm sure glad that the Twins didn't lose their franchise," Kaat said, "and I'm able to go in as a Twin."

As the hours pass until the induction ceremony begins, Kaat is pretending he's back in the clubhouse, preparing for his next start.

"That day and night before I start, particularly, it was an important one," the lefthander said. "That's usually the one you don't get as much sleep. So I'm trying to use the experience that I have as a player and kind of slow things down and not get too amped up about."

A slightly husky sportswriter was looking at a display at Otesaga Hotel on Friday night when someone with a thick accent snuck up behind him and barked, "Are you ready to boogie!"

Oliva, Mr. Twin, flashed a wide grin while sporting a party shirt and he headed to the hotel lounge to meet his family. Oliva is basking in the glow created by long-awaited induction into The Hall. His brother, Juan Carlos — who was able to obtain a visa to travel from Cuba to be with his brother for the event — laughed it up with his big brother as they talked.

It took Oliva 45 years to get to Cooperstown. Rod Carew pushed for Oliva's induction in committee meetings and stumped for Oliva on Twitter. Perhaps it worked.

"I tell everybody I was his babysitter when he first come to the big leagues," Oliva said of Carew, "because he was so young."

Now Oliva and Kaat will join Carew, Harmon Killebrew and Bert Blyleven as members of the 1970 Twins team to reach the Hall of Fame.

Of all the inductions on what will be a Made-for-Minnesota day, Oliva's likely will be the most emotional. And he will never forget how long the journey to Cooperstown was.

"We were on the bus [Friday]," said Paul Molitor, another St. Paul great enshrined in the Hall of Fame. "Someone asked Tony how long his speech was.

"Tony said, 'Forty-five minutes. One minute for each year they make me wait."