The media even helped fans fall in love with the early New York Mets. Had such an expansion team existed here in Minnesota? That's an interesting question because I'm not sure Minnesota could have even supported such a mediocre unit. Could Minnesota have supported a typical expansion team of that era? How much patience would big league baseball show for our team on the Upper Midwest windswept prairie? We got the Twins, of course.
A friend of mine once chatted with Jim Kaat who said: Our '67 team was even better than in '65. We had Dean Chance. Kaat himself pitched like Koufax in September, until finally, in desperation due to the closeness of the pennant race, the manager overworked Kaat's arm with consequences that possibly stretched over a long time. Had we won, the script of Twins history would be different. Chance and Kaat would have a position like Koufax and Drysdale.
And Sandy Valdespino? The little Cuban would be remembered much better. Fame in baseball can be painfully transitory. Valdespino signed with the old Washington Senators way back in 1957. Kaat once said that the "TC" on the Twins caps stood for "twenty Cubans." Of course it stands for "Twin Cities." The visionaries who brought the Twins here were walking on eggshells with sensitivity re. Minneapolis vs. St. Paul, in a way that I think seems quaint now. Today, any big league team gets so much of its profit from TV, the old parochial obligations are no big deal. The Twins had a logo that showed two generic Twins players shaking hands "across the river."
I suppose Sandy Valdespino cannot be considered an original Twin because he toiled in the minors. He plugged away, finally making an impression in 1964 with a spectacular showing with the Atlanta "Crackers." Sandy batted .337 for Atlanta, a city which like Minneapolis/St. Paul was able to lure the majors in the '60s. The Braves left Milwaukee for Atlanta. How could Milwaukee have let the Braves slip away? With Hank Aaron?
Valdespino hit 51 extra-base hits for Atlanta's minor league "Crackers" in '64. On came '65 and its scenario of destiny for our Minnesota Twins. We won the pennant for owner Calvin Griffith. We should have won at least one more pennant in the Griffith era. It was frustrating seeing the franchise come up short despite fine players.
Valdespino got established with our Twins for three seasons: 1965 through '67. Only in '65 did he produce adequate offensive stats. He batted a passable .261. In the next two seasons he struggled with averages of .176 and .165. But he wasn't totally insignificant in those last two seasons. He is remembered for making an absolutely spectacular outfield catch in '67. Kaat was pitching for that June 18 game. The big lefty took a 4-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth. The Cleveland Indians produced two run-scoring singles, and "Kitty" got the hook. The bases were loaded with two outs. Manager Ermer decided on a double-switch. Like the bunt, the double-switch has been oft criticized for being more trouble than it's worth. Anyway, the ploy had Ron Kline coming in to pitch and Valdespino getting sent out to left field.
(Thinking about the double switch gives me a headache. Managers in "old times" didn't want to think about it.)
Larry Brown came to bat for Cleveland. He crushed a drive to left. Sandy tore for the fence, his back to the field. It was like that famous Willie Mays catch. Sandy leaped, actually digging his spikes into the wall, and caught the ball over his shoulder in midair. Kline closed out the game with a perfect ninth inning.
As a footnote, let's remember that Kline, considered a premier relief specialist in '67, was a goat at season's end. Oh, I'm sure he was trying hard. Griffith spoke publicly of his frustration with the rather portly man. Oh, 1967: Not only was it a nightmare with how our superb team got edged at the end (in the days before divisional playoffs), it was the apex of the Viet Nam war. Those two "tragedies" of course cannot even be compared. I wonder how LBJ is reflecting in his afterlife.
Sandy Valdespino was a native of San Jose de las Lajas, Cuba. "Diminutive" surely describes. He stood a mere five feet/eight inches. A minor league manager nicknamed him "Sandy." His real name, as baseball card collectors of that time will remember, was Hilario. Sandy reminded the minor league league manager of Sandy Amoros, also diminutive.
Immediate impact in the majors
When finally Sandy arrived in the majors in '65, he reached base in his first four plate appearances. He was a pinch-hitting specialist initially. He got a start on May 19, 1965, and responded with a three-for-six showing including a double. He scored one of two Twins runs in the 12th in a 3-1 win over the Angels.
Valdespino appeared in 108 games for the '65 Twins. He drove in 22 runs. He appeared in five of the seven World Series games, going three-for-eleven including that hit off Koufax. Three-for-eleven was nothing to sneeze at against the likes of the Dodgers' pitching. (Amoros had played for the Dodgers.)
Valdespino became a journeyman after his three years with the Twins. He had 38 at-bats with the Seattle Pilots who had just one year of existence. The Pilots were of course grist for Jim Bouton's groundbreaking book, "Ball Four." I read the book more than once but, sorry, I don't remember Valdespino being mentioned. Former Twin Rich Rollins was on that team but I don't remember him being mentioned much either. Former Twin Garry Roggenburk was on that team too. I do remember him in some stories.
The '71 season would be Valdespino's last. With the Royals he hit .317 in 18 games for a nice little closing chapter. His last home run was on September 13, 1971, and it tied the score vs. the Athletics 1-1 in the fourth, and spoiled a shutout bid by Catfish Hunter. Hunter pitched ten innings that day to get his 20th win with a 2-1 score. Quaint: Hunter pitching ten innings. In the '60s, a complete game was a badge of honor for pitchers. "Hey, leave me in!" Today it can be foolish, as pitchers' arms are considered precious investments as well they should be.
I believe Mr. Valdespino is still alive and a resident of Las Vegas NV. Enjoy the glitter there, Sandy. We'll never forget that spectacular catch you made vs. the Indians, or your presence for that '65 pennant run. I was ten years old. The memories are golden.