Oliva among Cuban greats thrilled by MLB tour
Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers' pre-eminent all-everything left-handed pitcher, was playing catch the other day with Jose Cruz behind a hotel in Havana -- just a little limbering-up workout.
Slowly, as MLB.com's Alden Gonzalez reported, a crowd of onlookers began to swell, and with each pitch by Kershaw, emotions swelled even more. With tears.
This was during the goodwill tour by Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association this week, baseball's first trip to Cuba since 1999. The doors to Cuba have swung open with the USA re-establishing long-broken diplomatic relations.
This little tour is just the beginning of what should be a superb baseball relationship. If details can be worked out, the Tampa Bay Rays will play an exhibition game there against the Cuban national team during Spring Training.
And who knows what comes after that, with the country such an enormous source for talent.
As I follow this tour -- highlighted by a few Cuban Major Leaguers who fled their country and their families for the Major Leagues returning to hold clinics and embrace the country's passion for baseball -- my mind keeps focusing on Tony Oliva.
Oliva is 77 now, but before he etched his brilliant 15-year career with the Minnesota Twins, he was one of the last baseball players to leave Cuba before Fidel Castro took over.
"It's hard to explain all the good things that can come from this for me and my family," said Oliva, who just missed by one vote being elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014. "It's what I've been waiting for all these years. This will be great."
Over the years, I've spent countless hours chatting with and interviewing Oliva. It's amazing how positive, how refreshing, he remains. He's come from being a dirt-poor farmer near Havana to an American baseball icon, popular throughout the game.
It wasn't easy. Oliva had to put up with loneliness, being broke, not speaking English and living in a segregated society with "colored" restaurants and poor rooming situations.
But Oliva told me: "I've been so lucky. At every stop along the way, I've been lucky, and I'm very thankful. This has been a dream. I believe God had a big plan for me."
When Oliva keeps saying how lucky he was, he quickly adds that he was one of the last players to leave Cuba before Castro put a halt to immigration. The Castro revolution had begun in 1959.
"I was very lucky to get out of Cuba when I did, in 1961," Oliva said. "Two weeks later, they had the Bay of Pigs invasion. If I had still been in Cuba, I wouldn't have been able to leave. I was in Mexico with the other guys when that happened. I had a visa for six months. The idea was to come here, play baseball for six months, and then go back.
"Then all 22 of us from Cuba went to the tryout camp with the Minnesota Twins at Fernandina Beach, Fla. They cut 11 of us, and I was one of them. I was so disappointed and didn't know what to do. I couldn't sleep -- or eat.
"So I then went to Charlotte to wait there before I went back home. But I was unable to go back home, so I stayed and finally got my big chance. I was lucky, because I became a big prospect."
But before that, Oliva says he was not only depressed, disappointed and heartbroken to have his dream smashed at the tryout camp, but he was stranded in a foreign country.
"I had no place to go but home then," he said. "I really didn't want to go back to Cuba, because I wanted to be a ballplayer. It was my dream. I cannot tell you how sad I was."
But Oliva stuck with it, never gave up and ...
Three times Oliva was the American League batting champion, eight consecutive years he was an AL All-Star, he won a Gold Glove Award in 1966, and he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1964 -- only three years after some Twins officials proclaimed: "He'll never hit in the Major Leagues."
Oliva finished with a .304 lifetime batting average.
"I think about that today and have to laugh," said Oliva, modestly pointing out for "five of my first seven years, I led the American League in hits."
Oliva was special because he had explosive power to go with his remarkable hit-to-all-fields swing.
It was a long way from Pinar del Rio, Cuba.
Oliva has three sisters and two brothers who live in Cuba. He said he visits the country occasionally, as recently as last year. He wasn't allowed to go back until 1971.
In 1973, Oliva did return to Cuba for a month. It was his first trip back since he first left and told his large family he'd be back in six months.
"It was a wonderful trip back," Oliva said. "I saw all my brothers and sisters, my mother and father, and other relatives.
During the 1960s, '70s and even into the early '80s, Oliva believes Cuba probably had the best amateur baseball talent.
Oliva says he enjoys returning to Cuba "about once a year to visit friends and family. My brother, Juan Carlos, played for the Cuban national team for many years. Now he is the pitching coach for Pinar del Rio's club."
Oliva said when he came to the United States in 1961, most of the foreign players in the Major Leagues and Minor Leagues were Cuban players.
Kershaw is the only non-Latin player on the goodwill tour, and he probably has the most objective view of the tour because of that.
As Kershaw watched the onlookers become so enthralled with his workout, he remarked: "It kind of put in perspective how important baseball is here. Just the passion the Cuban people have for baseball, and then maybe the significance of this trip, too."
Later, Kershaw told Gonzalez: "They keep saying, 'Baseball's the way of life,' but you don't really know what that means. Then you come here and you kind of understand. It's so important, and it's so new, too, this whole trip and what the people here can experience. …The excitement of being here is infectious."
In a way, that's something Tony Oliva has been saying for decades.
Until now, it hasn't been available to all of us.