day 6: the overlooked

Today is six days of the omer: yesod she’b’hesed. (Because of chag, I am posting this before the sixth day actually begins.)

I’m biased towards players who have spent their whole careers on one team. I like loyalty, by team and by player. I like the relationship between players and fans that can develop over that kind of time. I like watching a player improve and a city falling in love with him. I don’t even mind watching a player decline (as players do) but a city staying in love with him.

photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images/October 1965

So today I honor Minnesota Twin Tony Oliva, whose 24 years with the club — as both player and coach — saw him as AL Rookie of the Year, AL batting champion, AL hit leader, All-Star, and Golden Glove winner. He also has the distinction of being the only on-field team member to appear with all three of the Twins’ World Series teams: as star outfielder in 1965, hitting coach in 1987, and bench coach in 1991. I am also happy for the chance to honor someone from a good friend’s team: Rabbi Phil Bressler, this one’s for you! But first, two extraneous points (feel free to skip them if you’d just like to get to counting the omer):

Digression 1: A bonus of this pick is that I get to share a picture of Oliva with teammate Rod Carew, who is doubtfully Jewish. The safek stems in large part from Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song”: “O.J. Simpson? Not a Jew. / But you know who is? Hall of Famer Rod Carew! (He converted.)” (He didn’t.)

Digression 2: Phil is the one who gave me psak about wearing clothing from a team that is not your own. As for example: Phil and I are Twins and Astros fans, respectively; but we both lived in Boston for many years, and we both love baseball. My shaila: Can I go to a game Fenway Park and wear Red Sox gear (if my own team is not the opponent, of course)? Says Phil: The most important fan article of clothing is the hat; only your team should be on your head. In other words: A Red Sox t-shirt is OK; a Red Sox cap, certainly not.

But back to Oliva. Today’s sefirah is yisod (foundation, nurturing — or as Rabbi Art Green writes in Ehyeh, “shalom, the wholeness of inner peace”). Tony-O spent two-a-half decades in the employ of the Twins organization and the same amount of time as its informal fixture, making appearances to the delight of fans when the Twins were at their worst (and that club has had some pretty ugly years — and this Astros fan knows from ugly) and mentoring the Spanish-speaking minor leaguers during spring training. The Cuban native has resided in the same house since 1972, and now all 10 of his grandchildren live within 10 minutes of him and his wife of 50+ years. On an unrelated note, let’s put him in the Hall of Fame already, eh?

Here is a short, staid clip of Tony-O hitting a home run in 1965 WS Game 4, when Minnesota faced off against L.A. This series is more commonly remembered among Jewish audiences as “The One When Koufax Didn’t Pitch.” (Koufax didn’t pitch Game 1 but went on to pitch Game 2 and to throw shut-outs in Games 5 and 7 en route to the Dodgers’ 4-3 series win.)

In the meantime, let’s count day 6 in honor of a player whose love of the game is as rock-solid as his commitment to team and town.

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