Perhaps the most interesting thing of all about this year's bizarre American League pennant race is that just when things look awful for one team they suddenly get much worse for another. Late last Saturday afternoon the excellent Chicago White Sox pitching staff accomplished the improbable feat of blowing a 3-0 lead with one out in the ninth inning and losing 7-3 to the Detroit Tigers. People assumed the loss would be a death blow to the Sox and the victory the inspirational one that the Tigers had been looking for all season. Less than 20 hours later the dead White Sox scored five runs in the first inning, the inspired Tigers failed to collect even one small, uninspired hit off Chicago's Joe Horlen, and the four-team race continued merrily on. Boston's exciting young Red Sox split the first two games of a weekend series with the New York Yankees, of all people, and fell behind in the first inning of each of the other two but rolled back to win both and press close to the top. Only one team, the Minnesota Twins, made steady headway, and they did it by beating the now prideless Baltimore Orioles four games out of five. And the man who did much of the damage—just as he has all year—was a ubiquitous citizen with the unlikely name of Cesar Tovar.
Last Thursday evening, before he went to work on the Orioles, Cesar Tovar had to ask his daily question. But first he stood in the middle of the Twins' clubhouse at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and readied himself as a concert pianist does before walking from the wings to center stage. Tovar cracked each of his knuckles, made a series of quick fists, slowly rubbed a towel across the tops of his spiked shoes and then, his cap held in his left hand, walked to Manager Cal Ermer's office and knocked. "Where I play tonight, Skeep?" asked Tovar. Ermer looked up from the lineup card he was making out and smiled. "Tonight, Cesar," said Ermer, "you play third base—at least to start with."
Some four hours later Cesar Tovar, the 27-year-old son of a career handyman in Caracas, Venezuela, came to bat in the top of the eighth inning with the Twins and Orioles tied 2-2. As he did, a cheer arose from a group of Twin fans seated behind the first-base dugout. "Hail, Cesar!" they shouted. "Hail, Cesar! Hail Cesar!" and Cesar promptly tripled to right center field to set up the winning rally that kept the Twins in first place.
Of all the players in this madcap and changeable race Cesar Tovar is the only one who has played every day. Sometimes he plays third base and other times short, second, left, center and right field. Only in the last few weeks has Tovar begun to receive the attention he deserved right from the start of the year. "Cesar," says Pitcher Jim Grant, "is like a winning fullback that everyone searches for but no one ever finds—the one who can run, block and catch passes." At 5'9" and 155 pounds Cesar The Fullback is, if not the shortest, the smallest man on any of the contenders.
During the past six weeks the Twins have spent more time in first place than any of the other three clubs chasing after the pennant, even though for most of that period they have been holding on to it by their fingernails. Minnesota is the team that so many thought so highly of in spring and so poorly of by mid-season. At different times the Twins have played like the pitching-and-speed Los Angeles Dodgers of 1965, the powerful New York Yankees of 1961—and even the Amazin' Mets of 1962. They have excellent starting pitching; four men have already worked more than 200 innings. They have Harmon Killebrew, who is not only hitting home runs again but who is running bases and sliding like a runaway earthmover. And they have Tony Oliva, the 26-year-old hitting marvel who has been dormant for most of the year but who last week pounded out 15 hits in 21 times at bat, including nine in a row.
There is another act that the Twins have, which is as thrilling to watch as their power, pitching and speed. Once the Minnesota defense starts to throw a baseball around, not even a 24-second clock could stop it. When the Twins' fielding goes bad you can hear the iron gloves clang, and on real sour days they resemble softball players at a picnic game who are already halfway through the second keg. Yet, everywhere you look, Cesar Tovar seems to be doing some small thing to start something good or stop something bad. Without him Minnesota would be sixth or seventh instead of fighting for its second pennant in three years.
In the middle of May the Twins were one-half game removed from 10th place, and Oliva (lifetime batting average .318) was hitting .164. Jim Kaat, a 25-game winner in 1966, had a 1-7 beginning, and everyone in the league knew that the easiest way to handle the Twins was to walk Harmon Killebrew. Harmon began to collect walks in clusters (by the end of this season he will have close to 130, more than anyone since Eddie Yost in 1959). Early in June, with the Twins still in sixth place, Owner Calvin Griffith pulled the trigger on Manager Sam Mele and replaced him with Calvin Coolidge Ermer, a 42-year-old career baseball man who had managed Minnesota's Triple A farm at Denver for 2½ years and who had handled many of the younger Twin players. On his first night in a Twin uniform, Ermer was greeted with an 11-2 loss.
All the strife and turmoil and confusion, however, did not affect little Cesar Tovar. By the time the team had reached the All-Star break Cesar had changed position 37 times and was leading the league in doubles and hits while having batted anywhere from first to sixth in the lineup and between .285 and .305. He stood at bat with his elbows out over the plate and was hit by pitches again and again. Often he would use his speed to make sweeping turns going from second to third so that a throw might hit him and bounce away, letting him get an extra base.
It was not until just before the All-Star break that the Twins began to make efficient use of their own ball park, Metropolitan Stadium, and the way they have used it has pushed them to where they are today. "The Met," as Twin fans call it, is a somewhat psychedelic contraption seemingly built by piling one afterthought on another. Unlike most of the newer stadiums in the major leagues, it has a bizarre charm: hitters have a genuine chance there. The omnipresent threat of the home run causes good pitchers to bear down almost all the time and bad ones to cry. Beginning on June 23 the Twins, in three home stands, won 23 of 29 games. Their pitchers gave up only 12 homers in that stretch, a remarkable display of pitching discretion. Because of their excellence at home the Twins are looked on as a team incapable of playing on the road, and yet this seems to be a fallacy. Their road record is only one game below .500, and in recent weeks they won 15 of 21 games away from The Met. Again, much of the credit goes to Cesar Tovar.
Tovar is a man with extremely high cheekbones who sings songs few people understand and who loves to shadowbox, though only with teammates weighing more than 200 pounds. Tovar speaks in English that is amazing and carries with him a letter from Pepito, "the close friend in Caracas who is he who wants the 40 tickets for the World Series because he is going to bring the flag of Venezuela and put him up on pole so when band plays whatchamacallit and players they hold hats over heart I have something proud to look at."
For 12 years Tovar shined shoes in Caracas and played baseball with older boys and men. One day in 1958 a knock came on his door and he was told that "a man who from the major leagues wants to work you out." Tovar put on a uniform and went to the local park and fielded ground balls in front of Gabe Paul, then the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Paul signed Tovar to a contract for exactly nothing.
He played in the minors for six seasons and then was traded by the Reds to Minnesota in December 1964. Twin fans remember vividly how Tovar came to them for the 1965 season and what brief and negative contributions he made to that pennant-winning team. Minnesota was supposed to have been a strong contender in 1964, but those two Twin maladies, defense and a failure to win one-run games, plummeted Minnesota into a tie for sixth place. Calvin Griffith was pressed to make some trades, but Griffith is not easily pressured and the only trade he would make was the one for Tovar, whom he got for Pitcher Gerry Arrigo. The transaction was hardly a headline writer's dream.
But the Twins knew quite a bit about Tovar. Although still the property of Cincinnati in 1963, he had played on option at Minnesota's farm club in Dallas-Fort Worth and had collected 41 doubles and 115 runs while batting .297. Even so, Cesar's performance with the 1965 pennant winners was discouraging. On Opening Day he dropped the easiest of pop flies with two out in the top of the ninth inning to allow the game to be tied. He eventually singled home the winning run in the 11th inning, but, a few days later, in his fourth starting game, he kicked a grounder at second base that let in the winning run in a 2-1 loss. Shortly thereafter he was shipped back to Denver. He contemplated quitting but finally walked into the manager's office (the manager's name was Cal Ermer) and asked, "Where I play, Skeep?"
Last season, back up with the Twins, Tovar did an excellent job at second base and hit .260. But this spring rookie Rod Carew took over the second-base job. Tovar, undiscouraged, stood in front of a wall at the Orlando spring-training camp of the Twins and for 20 minutes every day bounced a ball off it to sharpen his fielding. On Opening Day he was in center field, and at the end of last week Tovar was leading Minnesota in hits, doubles, triples, stolen bases, sacrifices and being hit by pitches, and was second to Killebrew in runs scored. "The thing about Tovar," said Coach Billy Martin, "is that every time somebody knocks him down he pops back up like a little bantam rooster and says, 'O.K., big boy, here I am again.' "
The consistency of Tovar and the fact that Killebrew, Oliva and Bob Allison all have come to life are most encouraging to Twin fans. The pitching has been good all year, and with the development of Jim Merritt, a 23-year-old left-hander, it now looks better than ever. In August, Detroit got Eddie Mathews from the Houston Astros to fill in when Third Baseman Don Wert was hurt, and the Tigers won 17 of their next 25 games. Earlier the White Sox had picked up Ken Boyer and Rocky Colavito, and at the end of August, Boston signed on Ken Harrelson after Charlie Finley fired him from Kansas City. These veterans were used to plug gaps, and they did the job well. But all of them may not prove to be enough to combat the Twins, who have had the greatest gap-filler of them all—right from the beginning—in little Cesar Tovar.