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Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva Set for Hall of Fame Induction


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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — A humble little baseball sits at the underside of a display case for David Ortiz on the third floor of the Hall of Fame. No hologram, no elaborate markings. In thick black ink, slightly below the red-seam horseshoe, someone scrawled “First HR.” Under that, in lighter pen: “Big Show.”

The Big Papi Show was still in preproduction that day, Sept. 14, 1997, when Ortiz swatted the primary of 541 home runs on his technique to first-ballot induction here on Sunday. His years with the Boston Red Sox made him a transcendent star, but when he hit that first homer, he was playing for the Minnesota Twins.

The opposite inductees this weekend took the great distance here, elected through a small-committee vote in December: Bud Fowler, Gil Hodges, Minnie Miñoso, Buck O’Neil and the 2 other living members, Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva, who will represent the Twins — the identical franchise that released Ortiz in 2002, just before his Boston breakthrough.

“I’m not going to be getting many endorsement opportunities like Big Papi,” Kaat said recently, “unless they’ve, like, Duracell Battery for long life.”

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Kaat and Oliva were born in 1938 and spent a combined 30 seasons with the Twins’ franchise. Their induction implies that five Hall of Famers played for the Twins from 1970-73, including Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew and Bert Blyleven.

Based on research by the Hall of Fame, no team has had greater than five Hall of Famers without delay within the division-play era. Besides the Twins, the others with five are the 1970 Chicago Cubs, the 1980 Boston Red Sox and the 1982 and 1984 Milwaukee Brewers. None of those teams won the World Series, as Ortiz did 3 times with the Red Sox, however the 1970 Twins, who were 98-64, had the perfect regular-season record of the group.

“You needed to play rather well to beat them,” said the Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, whose Baltimore Orioles swept the Twins in a best-of-five American League Championship Series that fall, repeating their feat from 1969. “That they had really good balance — power, a bit little bit of speed, well-managed, and great fans within the old ballpark.”

Kaat played his first two seasons for the unique Washington Senators, who moved to Bloomington, Minn., about two weeks after Bill Mazeroski homered for Pittsburgh to beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the World Series. It was the beginning of the expansion era and a part of a surge of franchise movement.

“I reported to the clubhouse in the educational league on Oct. 26, 1960 and I had Senators across my chest — and by the top of the day, it was Twins,” Kaat said. “That was the day that the Washington Senators became the Twins.

“We, as players, thought it was a fantastic move because we remembered what a positive move it was for the Braves to go from Boston to Milwaukee. Little things, like we’d hear they get these deals to get a automotive to drive for the season, stuff like that. So coming up here with M.L.B. being recent, being welcomed with open arms, I mean, the performance was secondary. Fans here were just completely happy to have big league baseball.”

After a 90-loss debut season, though, the performance was extraordinary. The Twins won 817 games from 1962 through 1970, greater than every other A.L. team except the Orioles. Kaat was among the many era’s top pitchers, winning 146 games in those seasons, trailing only Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal.

Oliva arrived for good in 1964, winning the Rookie of the 12 months award and the primary of three batting titles. He was one in all several Cuban players signed by the Senators/Twins scout Joe Cambria, including the 1965 winner of the A.L.’s Most Helpful Player Award, shortstop Zoilo Versalles. The environment helped the transition for Oliva, who never played for one more team.

“I remember Jim Kaat told me, ‘You’re going to feel like home, because one-third of the ball club is Cuban,” Oliva said. “I used to be so completely happy to be here with the Minnesota Twins, since it made me feel like home. In those days I didn’t speak one word of English, and so they took care of me, they babysitted me. They were very nice, all those Cubans.”

Knee injuries robbed Oliva of the longevity of lots of his contemporaries; he finished with a .304 average, but just one,917 profession hits. He was not a singles hitter, either, once leading the league in slugging percentage and ending with 220 homers, greater than 13 members of the three,000-hit club.

“Everybody says, ‘What’s the highlight of your profession, the shutout against Sandy Koufax within the World Series?’” Palmer said. “I’ll tell Tony, ‘No, the day I struck you out twice.’ Wally Bunker used to say, ‘Tony Oliva — oh, leave us alone!’”

Oliva hit .344 for his profession against Palmer (though he never homered off him) and punished one other Hall of Famer, Catfish Hunter, for a .333 average and eight homers. He hit .314 in three postseason series.

Before the 2 A.L.C.S. defeats to the Orioles, the Twins fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers within the 1965 World Series. Kaat beat Koufax in Game 2 (after Koufax had refused to pitch the opener since it fell on Yom Kippur) but lost to him in Games 5 and seven.

“I used to be pretty realistic in ’65 — I mean, to attempt to get a pair runs off Koufax, we were fortunate to get two of them in Game 2 and one in all them was unearned,” Kaat said. “So it’s not like we blew the series or anything like that. After which in fact I believed we’d get back. Once you’re in your 20s and also you’ve got a great team: ‘Oh, we’ll get back.’”

The Twins declined within the early Nineteen Seventies, even with all those Hall of Famers, and waived Kaat in 1973. He revived his profession with back-to-back 20-win seasons for the Chicago White Sox under the pitching coach Johnny Sain, then bounced to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Yankees and, finally, the St. Louis Cardinals.

There, in 1982, Kaat earned a championship ring when the Cardinals beat the Brewers and their Cooperstown quartet of Paul Molitor, Ted Simmons, Don Sutton and Robin Yount (closer Rollie Fingers was injured). By then, everybody else from the 1965 World Series had retired.

“That 17-year wait was the longest any player’s had to attend to get back to the World Series,” Kaat said. “After which getting that World Series ring — I discovered this out from the Elias Sports Bureau — no athlete in any skilled sport has played 24 seasons before getting a championship ring. In order that’s what made that ’82 season definitely worth the wait and really rewarding.”

The Twins would finally win the World Series in 1987, with Kirby Puckett leading the way in which, and again 4 years later. But those teams couldn’t match their early-’70s predecessors for membership within the Hall of Fame, where Kaat and Oliva — that long-life duo — will now have plaques without end.

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