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Tony Oliva waited 45 years to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Now that he has, it may take him another 45 to acknowledge all the heartfelt adulation that the honor has unleashed.
I checked my telephone and I had 192 messages," Oliva said Monday as he basked in the applause of an in-person celebration at Target Field. "Today, they keep coming and I haven't had time to answer."
Not even the one from his former teammate and, following Sunday's locally electrifying announcement, present-day classmate in the Hall of Fame class of 2022. "I sent you a text, and I haven't heard back yet," laughed Jim Kaat, who took part online.
The occasion was an ersatz news conference with the new Hall of Famers, but really it was a jubilee for family members and former Twins greats to mark "a tremendous day in the history of our franchise," said team President Dave St. Peter, "a momentous day for our state."
And it recognized a pair of Twins who had nearly opposite profiles on the Hall of Fame ballot: Oliva the shooting star of a hitter whose case was built on eight spectacular seasons but was cut short by knee injuries, and Kaat the workhorse pitcher who rarely dominated but whose durability allowed him to play for a quarter-century.
"You just try to be the best player you can. Work hard, never stop working hard," Oliva said. "I'm proud of my career. When it ended, maybe I wasn't ready, but I said, 'I couldn't have been any better. I did the very best I could."
Though it took awhile for confirmation, it was good enough.
The election, with exactly the 12 votes necessary for each of them from a special 16-member committee, will increase from four to six the number of plaques in Cooperstown bearing the "TC" logo on the caps. Oliva and Kaat, both 83, will join the late Harmon Killebrew and Kirby Puckett and two living Hall of Famers, Bert Blyleven and Rod Carew, as Twins greats in the gallery of the nation museum once they are inducted in July.
"It's been an emotional 24 hours. This is a family," St. Peter said. "It means the world to our organization, to our employees, and obviously to our fans."
To the game of baseball, actually. Kaat, the Twins' all-time leader in wins, losses and innings pitched, said he had received congratulations from Hit King Pete Rose and Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley and Johnny Bench. The messages that Oliva, a three-time batting champion and 1964 AL Rookie of the Year, had listened to so far included cheers from Jim Palmer and Paul Molitor, the latter of whom sat nearby with Jack Morris, a couple of Minnesotans excited to welcome Kaat and Oliva to their exclusive fraternity.
Former broadcaster and New York Yankees infielder Tony Kubek "called and said, 'I'm glad they recognized the way you play the game. that's what they rewarded," Kaat said. "That's the best thing you need to hear from your peers, that they appreciated the way you played the game."
They are not so sure about how the game is played today. Asked what kind of player a 25-year-old Tony Oliva would be in 2022 — to which former Twins catcher Tim Laudner piped up from the crowd: "Rich!" — Kaat volunteered, "I can't imagine Tony being into launch angle and exit velocity. What was so good about Tony is, a pitcher would get him 0-and-2, and we'd say, 'He doesn't know it, but he's in trouble.' Because Tony in Cuba used to hit big wadded-up papers that broke off like breaking balls."
The new members were especially happy for each other, because their relationship traces back to Oliva's rookie season in 1964.
"When I started, [Kaat] was already a big-league ballplayer. He was a superstar. And he took care of me. Many times, it was he was babysitting me because I spoke [only] a little bit of English," said Oliva, a native of Cuba who came to the United States in 1960. "I'm so proud that he finally made it and we'll go together into the Hall of Fame. It's going to make everything a lot easier for me, because I'm a chicken. You know, I get very nervous."
Now those nerves won't be about whether he will be elected, but perhaps about making a speech at the July 24 induction ceremony. They will also reflect on people who have passed away and won't be a part of those celebrations. People like fellow inductees Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges, Buck O'Neil and Bud Fowler, the foursome who were also elected Sunday.
Kaat said he will be thinking about his father, such a big baseball fan that he drove from Michigan to Cooperstown in 1947 to see his hero Lefty Grove inducted, and also his daughter Jill, who died from cancer in March. "My son-in-law and my three grandkids, they'll be there and we'll have some sentimental times thinking about her," Kaat said.
For Oliva, the day will be, among other things, a tribute to Roberto Fernandez Tapanes, the Cuban outfielder who discovered him in tiny Pinar del Rio, Cuba. "He was the one person that, man, I'd like him to be around to share this moment," Oliva said. "Because I just think he was the best scout in the world. He signed me. Only me! And I'm in the Hall of Fame! One-for-one, he's hitting 1.000. That's unbelievable."