Nonfiction: Sports

Tony Oliva

The Life and Times of a Minnesota Twins Legend

Written by: Thom Henninger

Published By: University of Minnesota Press
 

Reviewed by Melissa Minners
 

                It's that time of year again!  Baseball had returned and I realized that I had no baseball books on the bookshelves that I hadn't already read.  I was looking for just the right baseball book to get me in the proper stated of mind for the season when I saw an opportunity present itself - a new book about Minnesota Twins player Tony Oliva.  I jumped at the chance to check it out.

                Tony Oliva was one of those players that come on in a blast and leave baseball way too soon, lost to injuries that modern day medicine probably would have mended.  Instead, after injuring his knee in 1971, Oliva found that sports medicine at the time was severely lacking.  The only surgery available was invasive and often didn't solve the problem. 

                Oliva was a great batter, what some call a "natural" hitter.  He could pull balls to all parts of the field and hit pitches that most pitchers would consider "waste" pitches - things no one else would swing at, pitches that pitchers hoped batters would swing at and miss.  He was speedy on the bases and, in the field, Tony Oliva worked on his fielding until he became a force to be reckoned with.  One wonders what his career could have been had he not played with such severe injuries during his final years.

                Tony Oliva: The Life and Times of a Minnesota Twins Legend discusses Tony O's career from his humble beginnings in the little town of Piñar del Río, Cuba to his retirement from the field in 1976 to his career after baseball.  But that's not all it covers.  It explains how he almost didn't get to play American baseball when the Twins initially passed him up after a tryout.  It explains his emotional state after realizing that, though he hadn't been chosen by the Minnesota Twins, he couldn't go home either.  It was 1961 and the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion caused already strained relations between the United States and Cuba to go sour.  If Oliva gave up on his dream now and tried to return home, he could never go back...and that's if his home country would even allow him to return.

                Without the help of baseball men who believed in Tony O's talent, he may have never made it to the big leagues.  Lucky for him, he was given another opportunity to try out for the Twins after some time in the minor leagues.  Finally given the opportunity he needed, Tony ran with it, tearing up the pitching and quickly displaying his worth to the team.  But, though he had achieved his dream, Tony Oliva lived with mixed emotions - he was homesick and wondered if he would ever see his family again.  This sadness lived with him for much of his career, though he never let it show.  Imagine what it must have been like to try and concentrate on batting and fielding while worrying constantly about your family and a home you may never see again.  And yet somehow Tony did concentrate, becoming one of the best hitters in the American League at the time.

                I had some issues with the early stages of Tony Oliva: The Life and Times of a Minnesota Twins Legend.  There were moments when it seemed the book concentrated more on other players than Tony.  At times, the author focused more on other players' careers or how the Bay of Pigs Invasion aftermath affected other players.  And then there was the see-sawing back and forth between various points in Tony Oliva's career.  The author would have been better served keeping to a chronological order.  But once I reached the middle of the book, the author maintained a more chronological order and the book was more focused on Tony Oliva, as it should be.

                I came away from reading this book with the distinct impression that Tony Oliva made a tremendous contribution towards baseball and not just on the field.  Not only did Oliva work hard at learning how to become a better fielder and how to adjust his stance to hit better, Tony did a lot of things behind the scenes, like helping the up and coming players adjust to the Major Leagues.  After his playing days, Tony O became a coach and mentor and was, from all accounts, an all around great guy.  The author makes a compelling argument for Tony Oliva being elected to the Hall of Fame and I have to say, even without all of the charts and comparisons to those already inducted, I agree with him.  Tony Oliva was a very accomplished player and, when you consider that most of what he achieved was done while injured and in a injury shortened career, you realize he definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame.

                Though it started slowly and I wasn't sure if I would actually stick with this book, Tony Oliva: The Life and Times of a Minnesota Twins Legend turned out to be a pretty decent read. 

 


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