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At Home With Minoso and Oliva

by Camille Pepe Sperrazza 

For information on how to sail with baseball legends, contact Camille. 917-562-4410 

M.S.C. Opera, February 2006: 

Minnie Minoso may have missed getting into the Hall of Fame, but he scored a grand slam with us aboard a recent MSC Opera baseball cruise. 

We spent the week "at home" with Minoso; and with Tony Oliva, batting champion and Rookie of the Year 1964; Stan Bahnsen, former Yankee pitcher and 1968 Rookie of the Year; Darrell Evans, slugger who was on base when Hank Aaron beat Babe Ruth's homeroom record; Bill Russell, the Dodger who later became their manager; and Dave Campbell, ESPN broadcaster. 

While cruising the Caribbean, we attended activities that included question and answer sessions, an interactive pitching clinic, a base running conference, and Storytelling Time during which players revealed some secrets the tabloids and Jim Bouton missed. 

Like when the then-single Bahnsen found a young woman with a suitcase waiting for him beside his car. He had to break the news that it wasn't he who had written to her for months, suggesting that they get together. It was an unfunny prank put in motion by some of his less scrupulous teammates. 

Or the time Oliva was caught in the shower when he was supposed to be at bat as the Designated Hitter. Hey, these new rules were confusing. He thought he had been the Pinch Hitter. 

At the autograph session, players signed baseballs as well as photographs taken by the ship's photographer. Not only are these great remembrances, they are likely to increase in value which is a lot more than can be said about the usual T-shirt souvenirs. 

While all the events were fun, nothing beat simple pleasures like getting in a few words with Russell while waiting for the dining room to open, or running on the treadmill beside Evans. 

Our cabin was only doors away from Oliva's room so we would bump into him in the corridor, and recognizing us, he'd greet us with, "How you doin' today?" 

We also seemed to be on the same exercise schedule as Oliva as we'd see him in the ship's fitness room, too. Perhaps this is one reason why we found Oliva to be the friendliest and most down-to-earth player of the bunch. He enjoyed talking with fellow cruisers, without pretense, a sharp contrast with so many of today's players who don't want to bothered with fans. 

Oliva and Minoso shared stories about their humble roots. Both men were born in Cuba, and played ball as kids. When Oliva was "discovered," he thought he would play in the United States for about six months, then go back to Cuba. "If they told me I would never return, I wouldn't have signed on," he said. 

As it turned out, The Bay of Pigs is responsible for keeping him here. Oliva said he wasn't picked up by a professional team immediately, and was supposed to return home. But he couldn't be sent back to Cuba, so he ended up joining the Minnesota Twins. 

Minoso's story was similar. He grew up on a farm, without electricity. In 1949, he was offered $30,000 to play ball. "I had never seen a $100 bill in my life," he said. But it wasn't about the money. Both he and Oliva said they never imagined they would become professional players. They simply loved to play baseball. 

How refreshing to hear these two professional players express their appreciation to our country and to their fans. It renewed my interest in the sport. 

There were laughs, too, as Russell and Evans liked to trade banter, frequently knocking the other's performance. As the cruise progressed, we felt comfortable joining the act. When my friend, Howie, told Evans that Russell, who apparently spent a few games warming the bench, had "more splinters in his butt, than Woody Woodpecker," Evans roared. "I'll have to remember to tell him that," he said. 

Howie and I laughed all week about how we had felt the wrath of Bahnsen. It started on the first night when our table mate mentioned that she had received an invitation to a cocktail party to meet the players. She was headed there right after dinner, and it was suggested that we join her. We did. We were there only a few minutes, mingling with the players and this small group of insiders, when Bahnsen (we had no idea who he was at the time) said he couldn't find our names on the guest list. 

"This is a private party," he said. We were promptly sent back to the bleachers. 

There was much reminiscing about how the game had changed. Oliva noted that, "There are not too many inside pitches these days," because umpires warn pitchers so multi-million players are protected. He laughed and said in the old days, players, "used to take out insurance before facing guys like Nolan Ryan who pitched 130 mph. They knew if they got hit by one of those guys, they'd get hurt." 

Campbell talked about stealing bases, and said you "wouldn't dare take a lead off of second base" when players like Johnny Bench and Steve Yaeger were on the field. "Those guys would chop your head off," he said. The best base runners are not necessarily those who are the fastest, he said, but those who "anticipate and think." 

They talked about the importance of team work and the need to respect all players. While the outstanding hitters get the glory, Evans said, "Defense is a big part of the game. It's not emphasized enough." Yet, it's vital to a team's success. 

I was somewhat reluctant to attend the pitching session as I feared public humiliation, and perhaps some embarrassing heat from Bahnsen. It didn't help that the kids went first, and some of them were 3 for 3. Surprisingly, I managed to get one pitch over home plate, but I still felt the sting from striking out with Bahnsen at the cocktail party. 

The cruise wasn't all about baseball, of course. We ate, lounged by the pool, played Bingo, ate some more, and saw some of the best shows I've seen in 20 cruises. We visited the ports of Puerto Rico, St. Maartin, and the Dominican Republic. 

At the latter, we stumbled across a baseball field, and I took photos of enthusiastic young people at bat. Perhaps I got a shot of the next big player, as our tour guide told us kids are taught, "You either get a college education, or you learn to play baseball." 

MSC plans additional baseball cruises, and Bahnsen organizes the events, recruiting players to attend. I confessed to one of his handlers that I've been in love with Tom Seaver since I was 11 years old, and when was he sailing? I was thrilled to learn he is expected to join a future cruise.

Players such as Ralph Kiner, Amos Otis, Bert Campaneris, and Ron Swoboda were on recent sailings. Vita Blue and Tommy Davis are two of the six players expected to be aboard an April 22 cruise. 

As past participants, we're now on Bahnsen's mailing list. We'll be informed of future baseball cruises, and can expect an invitation to the next private cocktail party with the players. If you send me an e-mail, I'll let you know when it is, but it would be an "error" to attend without an invite as Bahnsen will throw you right out the game. 

Tips: Bring your own baseballs. They were selling on board for $25 each. If you have any baseball cards or photos, bring these as well. A group photo of all players was sold on board for $20. 

For more information or to book a trip, 
contact "Commodore" Camille today. 

This article was accurate when it was written, but everything in life changes. Enjoy the journey! 

Copyright: Camille Pepe Sperrazza