You don’t have to look far, Jim Kaat said the other day, to discover the key to the success of the great Minnesota Twins teams for which he pitched in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Just look above the bill of the cap that the Twins wore.
“The logo on our hat is TC,” Kaat said. “And fans and visiting players used to ask, ‘What’s that stand for?’ I said, ‘It stands for Twenty Cubans because we had a scout named Joe Cambria and he signed (Camilo) Pascual, Pedro Ramos, Julio Becquer, Tony Oliva, Zoilo Versalles — we had all this Cuban talent and it all kind of came together in 1965. And that’s the reason we got to the World Series.”
On Sunday afternoon, in the village of Cooperstown in upstate New York, Kaat and one of his great Cuban teammates — three-time batting champion Tony Oliva — will enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame together. Both of their plaques will be adorned with caps bearing the logo which in actuality stands for the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Both Oliva and Kaat have waited decades for this moment.
Oliva retired in 1976 at age 38. His career impeded by eight knee operations that prevented him from accumulating the kind of career numbers that almost certainly would have hastened his Hall of Fame induction.
Kaat pitched until he was 44, retiring in 1983 after 25 MLB seasons in which he pitched for five teams. He recorded 283 victories and won 16 Gold Gloves as one of the best-fielding pitchers of all time, and he pitched long enough to face both Ted Williams, who retired in 1960, and Julio Franco, who retired in 2007.
But after his Twins fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games in the 1965 World Series — Kaat was outdueled by Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax 2-0 in the finale — he would wait until 1982 before returning to the Series, this time as a reliever for the victorious St. Louis Cardinals.
A 25-game winner in 1966 when he pitched a career-high 304 2/3 innings (19 complete games!), Kaat was involved in one of baseball’s greatest pennant races in 1967. With only three days left in the season, four teams were separated by just a game and a half. The “Impossible Dream” Boston Red Sox ultimately prevailed, sweeping the Twins on the season’s final weekend.
Kaat came tantalizingly close to authoring a different ending with a remarkable September run in which he went 7-0, tossed six complete games and posted a 1.51 ERA.
“I just found a little magic,” Kaat said. “It was exciting being a part of that pennant race because there were no playoffs. So, really, every game I pitched in September, I felt like you were pitching for the pennant, which we were, and I really enjoyed that. I mean, that’s what you play for.”
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Kaat was on the mound in Fenway Park for the season’s penultimate game and had a 1-0 lead in the third inning. He struck out the first batter he faced in the third, but after recording 197 outs in 30 days, his left arm could not take any more.
Kaat left the game, and the Red Sox rallied to win, eliminating the Twins the next day.
“Yaz and Hawk Harrelson have been so kind to me,” Kaat said, referring to Boston’s Carl Yastrzemski, who won the Triple Crown in 1967, and fellow slugger Ken Harrelson. “They’ve said, ‘You know if you didn’t hurt your arm, there may not have been a Red Sox Nation. That part was disappointing, but I guess I could say on the flip side, I’m happy that I pleased a lot of Red Sox fans.”
Oliva, who was named the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 1964 when he hit .323 to win the first of his three batting titles, is a beloved figure in Minnesota, where he has been a player, a hitting coach, a bench coach and an eternal ambassador for the club.
Among those planning to be in attendance for his induction on Sunday will be his brother Juan, who, through the intercession of the Twins and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, was granted a visa to come to the U.S. from Cuba to attend the ceremony.
“I waited so long for this,” Oliva said. “And when I heard, I couldn’t believe it, even though I was hoping this would happen for so long.”
Oliva regrets that a fellow Cuban — pitcher Luis Tiant — is still on the outside looking in. In his 19-year major-league career, Tiant amassed more wins (229) than 27 Hall of Fame pitchers, a higher winning percentage (.571) than 26 Hall of Fame pitchers and more shutouts (49) than 48 Hall of Fame pitchers. Of the 25 big-league pitchers who’ve thrown the most shutouts, Tiant is the only one not in the Hall of Fame.
“Luis Tiant should (have been) in the Hall of Fame a long time ago,” Oliva said. “He was one of the best pitchers in the American League. Everyone knows that. I don’t know why .. he’s waiting. Sooner or later, he will go in the Hall of Fame. But it’s so nice to be in the Hall of Fame when you’re still alive.”