COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Tony Pedro Oliva Lopez — that's what was on his plaque — stepped to the podium and looked out at a crowd of about 35,000 baseball fans. Then he noticed the rolling fields surrounding the Clark Sports Center and began thinking about home.
"I can't believe I'm here," Oliva said. "I'm looking to the left. I'm looking to the right. And it is bringing memories.
"This place right here looks like my home in Cuba where my father built a field where the kids were able to play baseball. Exactly like."
That was where the former Twins great began to invest in the game. And the game repaid him many times over. It just took a while to cash in. A while ... as in 45 years.
Finally, Oliva has joined his contemporaries and peers as a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Oliva was inducted Sunday as part of a class that included a former Twins teammate in Jim Kaat; a former protégé in David Ortiz; a fellow Cuban in Minnie Minoso; as well as Gil Hodges, Buck O'Neil and Bud Fowler.
Oliva's journey ends a ridiculously long candidacy in which he spent 15 years on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot without getting the 75% of votes needed for enshrinement. His case then moved on to various veterans committees — smaller groups of former players and executives who considered his candidacy. In his eighth try, in 2014, he fell short by one vote. It didn't appear as if Oliva would ever get in.
The Hall of Fame's Golden Era Committee met in December and if Oliva, now 84, wasn't elected then, he believed he would never get in despite being one of the most dangerous hitters of his generation.
This time, Oliva got the call.
His long wait over, Oliva and the other inductees had 10 minutes each to deliver their speeches. Sunday's program also was accelerated by the threat of late afternoon storms. So brevity was a plus.
Not for Oliva. He waited too long for this.
He spoke about being spotted by a Twins scout and leaving Cuba to pursue a dream, then getting released by the Twins after four days. He ended up being stuck in North Carolina because unrest in Cuba made it difficult to return home. After a few days, a general manager of a team in Charlotte reached out to Twins owner Calvin Griffith, and Oliva was re-signed. He hit .410 in the Appalachian League for rookies at age 22.
"Everyone here knows, the rest was history," Oliva said. "I hit .410. After that I was Superman."
Oliva debuted with the Twins in 1962 and went on to bat .304 over 15 seasons with 220 home runs. His career was curtailed because of a series of knee injuries. He ended up with 1,917 career hits, when recording 3,000 would have helped him get voted in sooner. He hit 220 career home runs, when 300 would have helped his cause.
Consequently, his case dragged on. Oliva's class and infectious smile, fortunately, endured. He later coached for the Twins and he still makes public appearances for the club — a 61-year employee.
Twins bring the party
The Twins showed up in force for the ceremony, as the organization also had ties with Kaat and Ortiz. The group included former players Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Dan Gladden, Mike Pagliarulo and LaTroy Hawkins. Twins owner Jim Pohlad appeared despite being on crutches after tearing two knee ligaments in a bicycle accident.
The team threw a lavish party for Oliva and Kaat on Saturday night, with a cigar bar in honor of Oliva.
Oliva's speech included many stories with heaping helpings of "thank you" on top as he recognized the people most responsible for his success. He drew laughs when he told the story of when he met his wife, Gordette, who was from a small town in South Dakota. He didn't know English and she didn't know Spanish.
"The entire conversation was, 'What? What? WHAT?' " said Oliva, now married to Gordette for 54 years.
Oliva had blown past the recommended speaking time that also included a section in Spanish. By the time he was done, his speech was 18 minutes, 5 seconds long.
Can you blame someone who had to wait 45 years for this moment? Oliva went off script within 30 seconds of his speech because he just wanted to talk, which is what makes him such a treasure to fans.
"It's what I felt, you know," he said after the ceremony. "From my heart."
After 45 years, Oliva absorbed every moment Hall of Fame weekend.
"I was having fun," Oliva said, "because tonight, I'll be able to sleep."
Kaat made right decision
James Lee Kaat — again, see his plaque — had not thrown a pitch in the majors in 39 years. His wait for the Hall of Fame wasn't as long as Oliva's, but the lefthander benefited from a seminal moment before his career even started, when, in 1957, he was ready to sign for the Washington Senators for a $4,000 bonus as a teenager to begin toiling in the minor leagues.
The White Sox stepped up with an offer of $25,000. According to the rules at the time, that made Kaat a "bonus baby," meaning he would be placed on the major league roster for two seasons.
His father, Haans, ordered Jim to take the lesser Senators offer. Why? Because he wanted his son to learn the game.
"My dad made $72 a week in 1957," Kaat said. "You can do the math, figure out what he sacrificed so his son could start his career at the right level."
Father knew best. Kaat debuted in 1959 with the Senators, who moved to Minnesota in 1961, Kaat's first full season in the major leagues. He broke through in 1962 as an All-Star, then had his best year in 1966, when he went 25-13, the last of his 25 victories coming on a home run by Oliva in the ninth inning at Met Stadium to beat Detroit 1-0.
Kaat was durable and consistent, winning 283 games over 25 major league seasons with five teams, the first 15 of those with the Twins. He was a finesse pitcher who never threw as hard as he could, like so many of today's pitchers do. As a pitcher and, later, a broadcaster, Kaat continues to articulate the game better than most.
He is also human. He needed all the focus mechanisms he used as a player to get through Sunday's appearance in Cooperstown.
"Today, I probably was more nervous than I was before Game 7 of the '65 World Series," Kaat said. "And I talked to Jack Morris and it's just anxiety. Let's just get it started."