Big Papi still amazed as Hall of Fame induction looms

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FILE – Chicago White Sox outfielder Minnie Minoso practices running the bases at Comiskey Park in Chicago, June 1, 1955. Minosa will be posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, July 24, 2022. ( AP Photo/File)

PA

Six months after receiving one of the most astonishing phone calls in sport, David Ortiz is still amazed by his good fortune.

The former Boston Red Sox slugger, affectionately known as Big Papi, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday.

Perhaps then baseball’s highest honor will come into its own.

“I still can’t believe it. It’s like a dream come true,” Ortiz, 46, said. “I grew up hard, man. I grew up hard. My childhood wasn’t so easy, but I had great parents to guide me and keep me out of trouble.”

Ortiz hit 541 homers in 20 major league seasons and helped the Red Sox win three World Series. He is only the 58th player selected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in his first year of eligibility, and he has served as a designated hitter more than any previous inductee.

Six Era Committee selections are also part of the Class of 2022. Minnesota Twins teammates pitcher Jim Kaat and free swing slugger Tony Oliva, and the late Dodger great Gil Hodges, who coached the Mets from New York until their first World Series title in 1969, are among them.

Also getting their due: Minnie Miñoso, a star of the Chicago White Sox in the 1950s; Buck O’Neil, who played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues and was a tireless defender of the game; and Bud Fowler, a pioneering black player who grew up in Cooperstown in the 1860s and played in more than a dozen leagues.

It’s a class with three Latino players and two black players who helped pave the way for today’s stars, and three players with ties to the Twins.

Minnesota holds a special place in Ortiz’s heart because of the friendship he developed with Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett – No. 34, as did Big Papi – before Ortiz was traded to the Red Sox after six seasons.

“He was my guy,” said Ortiz, who survived a nightclub shooting three years ago in his native Dominican Republic.

Kaat’s trip to Cooperstown is quite remarkable. He was 1-4 in 1958 playing for Missoula of the Pioneer League, and he thought he was one start away from being sent home. Player-manager Jack McKeon gave Kaat a spot in the rotation every four days, and he finished the season 16-9.

“I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about throwing,” said Kaat, 83, who grew up in Zeeland, Michigan. “I feel bad for the pitchers today because that’s where you get your foundation.”

Using finesse instead of power, the 6-foot-4 southpaw pitched for 25 years before retiring in 1983 with 283 wins and 17 saves in relays with six teams. The last was St. Louis, and when the Cardinals won the 1982 World Series, Kaat became the only professional athlete in any major sport to play 24 seasons before earning a championship ring.

“It’s hard to let it sink in, but it’s pretty humbling (to be elected to the Hall of Fame),” said Kaat, who didn’t play organized baseball until he was 15. “I’m always grateful that I had a durable body and that I could last a while. I wanted to play this game for as long as I could.

Oliva, originally from Cuba, was part of the Twins powerhouse teams in the 1960s along with Kaat. Southpaw Oliva has spent his entire 15-year career with the Twins. He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1964. He led the league five times in hitting and became the first player in major league history to win batting titles in each of his two early seasons, finishing with a lifetime average of 0.304.

“It will be special to be able to enter the Hall of Fame with Jim Kaat after more than 60 years that we have known each other,” said Oliva, also 83. “I never thought about getting into the Hall of Fame. When I was a kid, I thought maybe I could play baseball in Cuba if someone gave me the chance. I just wanted to play the Game.

Oliva got her chance partly thanks to Miñoso, the Cuban comet.

He grew up on a sugar cane plantation and played ball on the weekends. He was a star with the New York Cubans in the black leagues from 1946 to 1948 before making his debut for Cleveland in 1949, becoming the first black Latino player in the major leagues, two years after Jackie Robinson entered.

Miñoso was a nine-time All-Star, led the league in triples and stole base three times apiece, and finished his career with 2,110 hits and a .299 batting average. He died in 2015.

“Miñoso is like the Jackie Robinson of Latin America,” Oliva said. “He was a great ball player. He should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago. The numbers were there.

Hodges, a hard-hitting first baseman, hit 370 home runs and 1,274 RBI to go with a career batting average of .273 in 18 seasons — all but the last two with the Dodgers. He retired in 1963 after two partial seasons with the Mets and five years later was hired to manage the Mets, leading them in 1969 to their unlikely World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles.

Hodges, who was 660-753 in nine managerial seasons, died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 47.

The honor for O’Neil comes nearly 16 years after his death, although the Hall of Fame dedicated a statue to him in 2008 and created the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. O’Neil served as the first president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

Less than three months before his death in 2006 at the age of 94, he traveled to Cooperstown to speak at the induction of 17 Negro League stars.

“I did a lot of things that I really enjoyed doing,” O’Neil said in his speech. “But I would rather be here, right now, representing the people who have helped bridge the chasm of prejudice.”

Two others will be honored on Saturday: Tim Kurkjian, winner of the BBWAA Career Excellence Award, and the late Jack Graney, winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for Broadcasting.

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About James K. Bonnette

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