Monday, March 02, 2015

White Sox great Minnie Minoso played with unbridled joy, passion

March 1, 2015
GLENDALE, Ariz. — First we lost Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. And now we’ve lost Mr. White Sox, Minnie Minoso.
Minoso, who died early Sunday in Chicago, reportedly was 90, and I’m going to say he lived a good, happy life. Banks was 83 when he died six weeks ago, and I’ll step right up and say he lived a good, happy life, too.
Both men were iconic, joyful, career baseball men who represented Chicago in ways that never can be matched. Ernie always wanted to play two. Minnie always wanted to play forever, which he nearly did, appearing in games for the Sox — no matter how briefly — in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Minoso always talked about coming to the plate at least once in the 1990s and — what the hell — the 2000s, too. He would have been in his mid- to late 70s by then, but his infectious joy was always that of an adolescent. Maybe he would have been too old to get out of the way of an inside pitch, but he wouldn’t have cared. Minnie led the American League in being hit by pitches 10 times. Just get on base and let ’er rip.
‘‘He didn’t care if he got hit by a ball,’’ Sox teammate Billy Pierce recalled. ‘‘He’d stand close to the plate. When he got on base, he’d always take the extra base. And in the outfield, he’d race anywhere to catch a ball. He gave you 100 percent at all times.’’
Player after player has said Minoso was the perfect teammate, with a love for the game that bubbled up like a spring.
‘‘When I die, I want to be playing baseball,’’ Minoso once said. ‘‘They don’t bury me without my uniform.’’
It would have been nice, in its way, to see him right there on the green grass of the Sox’ lovely spring-training complex when he took his last breath. And if he’s buried in his No. 9 Sox uniform,
so be it.
His accomplishments — he ran the bases like a gazelle, drove in 100 or more runs four times and hit .300 or higher eight times in an era when hitting was hard and steroids were unheard of — make him worthy of special honors. But the equanimity he showed while breaking into a sports world that was foreign and didn’t necessarily want him is the amazing part.
‘‘I know we are all going to go at some time, but I had gotten to the point where I really felt Minnie was going to live forever,’’ Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said. ‘‘I don’t think he ever had an unhappy day. If he did, he never let anyone know he was unhappy. He was always upbeat. He always had a smile. He always had something nice to say to somebody.’’
Minoso came to Sox games through the years, working officially as a community-relations ambassador but really just as a supercharged cheerleader, and his mere presence was a boost to everyone’s spirits.
He was especially important to the Cuban ballplayers who followed him. They all knew Minoso was the first black man to play for the Sox. He first played for them in 1951, four years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But Robinson didn’t have to deal with a language barrier, and that was another tough hurdle for Minoso.
I am reminded of what former Cubs outfielder Jose Cardenal, a Cuban who joined the majors as a teenager in 1963, once told me about not understanding the American language, culture or anything else: ‘‘I pointed to something on the restaurant menu for lunch. It was beefsteak. So that was one thing I could say. And that’s what I ate for a year.’’
Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez, also from Cuba, called Minoso a father figure.
‘‘He did so much for the Latin players, for the Cubans, for everybody,’’ Ramirez said. ‘‘When he arrived here, it was a tough time because of racism and discrimination. He wrote a huge legacy for all of us.’’
Indeed, he did.
As new Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija put it, sadly and succinctly: ‘‘What a great dude.’’
Let’s hope the man who should have been voted into the Hall of Fame long ago gets in now, voted in by the stingy, clubbish, often-foolish Golden Era Committee. It would almost be a shame, in a way, for him to be voted the posthumous award, just as it was for Cubs great Ron Santo, who died never knowing he was a Hall of Famer-to-be.
Yet it would be fitting and right. And it would help Minnie’s good cheer live on.
Twitter: @ricktelander

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