Oliva proud of 'incredible' Cuban impact on ASG
Five 2014 All-Stars from island nation are most since 1968
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's 10 minutes after the end of the SiriusXM Futures Game on Sunday, the end of his afternoon as an honorary coach for the top prospects in the game, but Twins legend Tony Oliva doesn't want to leave the dugout.
He's standing on the top step with his hands on his hips and his chest out, proudly displaying the World logo embroidered across his jersey and the tiny Cuban flag patch stitched on the uniform near his heart.
Oliva's staring into the outfield and scanning the infield. He looks into the clouds.
"You can stay as long as you want Mr. Oliva," a security guard says. "You don't have to go anywhere. Just stay there and watch this celebrity softball game. You can do whatever you want, Mr. Oliva."
Oliva chuckled because he knows the security guard was right. The former player is in his 53rd year with the organization and he's a living legend in Minnesota. Oliva even has an entrance gate in left field named after him at Target Field.
Forty-six years ago, Oliva was one of six Cuban players to participate in the 1968 All-Star Game at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. It was a record for Cubans in the Midsummer Classic. This year, there are five players from Cuba in Tuesday's 8 p.m. ET All-Star Game on FOX, the most since 1968, and Oliva took a few extra minutes on the top step of the dugout to take it all in.
"It's incredible. Those players getting here and succeeding the way they have," Oliva, 75 said. "You can't deny the impact of Latinos in the game. Not just Cuba but also Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Panama and all of the countries around the world. They are stars. If you are not good, you are not going to play in the Major Leagues and they are stars."
Joining Oliva in 1968 were Cleveland first baseman Joe Azcue, Oakland shortstop Bert Campaneris, starting pitcher Luis Tiant, Cincinnati's Leo Cardenas and slugger Tony Perez.
This year's crop of Cuban stars is made up of Dodger outfielder Yasiel Puig, who is starting in the outfield for the National League, Cincinnati reliever Aroldis Chapman, White Sox teammates Jose Abreu and Alexei Ramirez and Oakland's Yoenis Cespedes.
"This is a proud moment for Cubans and I know we have had several proud moments in the past," Abreu said. "I know we are all happy to be here and I know Cuba is happy to look up and see all of our names on this list. It's a blessing for all of us to be here."
The number of Cuban players that have contributed to the America's pastime is staggering.
Overall, there have been 183 players from Cuba play in the Major Leagues, and 94 since Fidel Castro took over the country in 1961.
There's been a boom in the last decade with 33 players coming from the island. There were 19 players from the island on Opening Day rosters this year.
"One of the really cool thing about our game is that it doesn't matter what race you are, what color you are, or where you grew up because if you can hit or pitch, you have chance," said Indians manager Terry Francona, one of the American League coaches. "That's just what part of makes our game so special."
Abreu and teammate Adrian Nieto, Dodgers' infielders Alex Guerrero and Erisbel Arruebarruena along with Seattle's Roenis Elias all made their debut this season. San Diego pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne, who pitched in his first big league game last month, is the most recent player from Cuba to make his Major League debut.
More could be on the way. Heralded Cuban outfielders Rusney Castillo and Yasmani Tomas could hit the market soon. Teenager Yoan Moncado, a top infield prospect, could sign with a team sometime this year.
"We are having resurgence even bigger than before," Chapman said. "Us being here proves that we are doing a good job and contributing to this game. We belong here."
It's impossible to ignore the contributions from the top Cuban players this season. Abreu has already hit 29 home runs and is a favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year. Cespedes is part of the reason the A's have the best record in baseball.
Puig is arguably the most talented and polarizing player in all of baseball and Chapman's 100-mph fastballs are equal parts legendary and scary.
Ramirez, a first-time All-Star, continues to solidify his reputation as one of the best all-around players in the AL.
"To be surrounded by all these superstars is a dream come true," Ramirez said. "And when you think that five Cubans are considered among those superstars is unbelievable. We've all worked hard to get here and you are seeing what we bring to this game. I can't wait to play."
Oliva can't wait, either. He'll be somewhere near the dugout with his chest out and reliving history.