Long after he has retired his glove and spikes, at age 72 Tony Oliva still dreams about his baseball career. Born in 1938 in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, Oliva went on to achieve major league stardom after humble beginnings growing up on the farm. As a young man, Oliva simply desired to follow in the footsteps of the Cubans that preceded him and play baseball. He never thought his journey would take him this far.
“I still dream about everything I achieved. I dream about my career, dream about playing baseball, meeting so many people, traveling so much,” Oliva said. “Coming from where I came from, a poor family working in the country, to being able to come here and meet so many wonderful people. I had a chance to touch so many people’s lives, visiting churches, schools, hospitals, and retirement homes. I never dreamed this would happen. I didn’t plan it this way, but this is the way the big chief wanted it.”
Just a few weeks ago, Oliva had another dream come true when the Minnesota Twins unveiled a statue of his likeness outside of Gate 6 on opening day at Target Field.
“Can you believe that? It’s in Gate #6, which was my number. I tell people, you never know, from the farm in Cuba to having a statue of you in front of the big league stadium. It’s unbelievable,” Oliva glowingly said during a recent appearance in New York City.
Returning to New York for the first time in many years brought back vivid memories for the eight-time All-Star.
“I love New York. I love to come here, to play here, the tradition here. I’ll never forget my first home run here was over Mickey Mantle’s head. The ball went inside the monuments,” Oliva recalled. “For me to come to New York, it was unique. There were so many Hispanic people here in New York. They used to come over in right field to say hello. Some would scream to me because I did good here in New York. It was nice to be a part of the history here and play in front of all of these people.”
Brought to legendary scout “Papa” Joe Cambria by Roberto Fernandez Tapanes in 1960, Oliva made the journey from Cuba through Mexico to the United States to make his debut with Class-D Wytheville of the Appalachian League in 1961. Oliva tore through the league, batting an astounding .410, and after hitting .350 at Class-A Charlotte the following season, he was summoned to the major leagues for a late September call-up. He would go on to play 15 seasons for the Twins, winning three batting titles in the American League in addition to his aforementioned eight All-Star appearances.
Now working as a special assistant for the team, 2011 marks the 50th year that Oliva has been involved in the Twins organization as a player, coach, and administrator. He is still amazed that he is with the same team he started with a half-century ago. He expressed his gratitude for the Twins ownership for blessing him with an opportunity to play.
“Mr. Griffith for me was part of the family, like a second father,” he said. “He did something for me that I will never forget. When I finished playing as a regular, he called me in and told me, ‘I want you to be in the organization as long as you want. I want you to be my hitting coach. How much do you want to make?’
“I knew how much the coaches were making; the coaches don’t make nothing. I told him, ‘Give me what you think is the right amount.'”
Oliva was more than satisfied with Griffith’s response.
“He paid me well; he gave me twice what the coaches were making. I didn’t have to ask or beg him for a job, he offered it to me. He told me I could work here as long as I wanted. I thought it was nice of him to call me in and give me almost a lifetime job.”
As one of the proud faces of the franchise, Oliva has embraced his role as an ambassador for the club.
“I didn’t believe something like this would happen to me. I’ve been with the organization for 50 years. I was supposed to be here only six months, 50 years later, I’m still here. I enjoy it more every day.”