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Tony O still not a hall-of-famer

December 22, 2008

by Matt Kane

Every year at this time, when winter barges into our lives, memories of summers gone by come to the forefront of all baseball minds.

Early December annually marks the time when the results of the ballots cast by the National Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee are announced. And, it seems, every year Twins fans end up disappointed.

Disappointed that Antonio Lopez Hernandes (Javique) Oliva, better known as Tony Oliva, did not receive the required 75 percent of the vote to earn an induction.

This year, none of the 10 players listed on the post-1942 ballot received the necessary percentage. The only player the Veterans Committee voted into the Hall of Fame was former New York Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon, who was voted in by the pre-1943 committee.

There is no doubt Twins fans are biased when it comes to Oliva, and for good reason. He played all of his 15 major league seasons in Minnesota, and, despite growing up in the Caribbean, the Cuban-born 70-year-old stayed in Minnesota, and is still seen representing the Twins around Twins Territory.

Oliva’s Spanish accent is as thick as ever, but fans who have met Oliva have found out how personal and genuine he is.

Of course, a player isn’t voted into the Hall of Fame by the fans he played in front of, and he isn’t voted in based on his personality. Getting inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame has a lot to do with numbers and some to do with a player’s importance during his career.

Oliva’s importance to the Twins is not debatable. As for his numbers, judge for yourself.

Oliva finished his 15-year career (1962-76) with 1,917 hits, 220 home runs, 947 RBIs, and a .304 career batting average.

He was a three-time American League batting champion — 1964 (.323), 1965 (.321) and 1971 (.337) — won one Gold Glove, was named the 1964 rookie of the year, and was an eight-time all-star.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, Oliva is most comparable to Carl Furillo, Gus Bell, Andy Pafko, Pedro Guerrero and Bob Watson. No offense to any of those other players, but I’ve never heard of Furillo and Pafko. And I don’t think any of them is hall of fame-worthy.

Not too many baseball fans from Twins Territory believe Kirby Puckett should not be a hall-of-famer, but many question if he was that much better of a player than Oliva.

Again, you be the judge.

In his 12 seasons (1984-95), Puckett accumulated 2,304 hits (387 more than Oliva), 207 home runs (13 less), 1,085 RBIs (138 more), and a .318 average (14 points higher). He was a one-time batting champion — 1989 (.339) — won six Gold Gloves, and was a 10-time all-star.

Three things Puckett has on his resumé that Oliva does not are an American League Championship Series MVP award (1991), and all-star game MVP award (1993), and, of course, two World Series rings.

Puckett was not the rookie of the year in 1984, and he won two less batting titles, but, to me, it’s obvious Kirby had the better career.

I will admit, it would be neat to have Oliva join Killebrew and Puckett as a Twins’ representative in the Hall of Fame, but I just don’t know if Oliva’s numbers impress me that much. Those numbers obviously don’t impress enough of Oliva’s peers who make up the Veterans Committee.

Three batting championships is impressive, but I don’t think that should be enough to get a player elected into the greatest of all baseball fraternities. The National Baseball Hall of Fame is for the best players to have played baseball.

Not the good ones or even the very good ones — the best.

Don’t get me wrong, if Oliva is voted in someday, I will have a big smile on my face.

If you are a Twins fan frustrated at Oliva’s annual omissions, save some of that frustration for another four weeks. The results of the writers’ votes are revealed in January. That’s when we can all vent about Bert Blyleven’s omission.