The love that the fans and now the media have for Willians Astudillo is great. It is fun, inspiring, laughable and also good baseball. Out of nowhere Astudillo has risen to mythic levels for his speed, his body, his smile, his hitting skills, and his ability to play everywhere. It got me thinking – who else has had this unique position on the Twins roster – beloved for the style and character that they bring to the team.
Puckett was a similar build and a similar smile. If we forget the off the field issues we see Puckett in that ambassador of baseball position. Of course Puckett was also a HOF centerfielder and hitter who would have been great even if he did not smile so much. But his HOF ballot was stamped with a collective smile and laugh. He was beloved within the game and brought joy – one stat that still cannot be measured.
Hrbek enjoyed his life and gave us a lot including some professional wrestling moves on the field, but he cannot rank with the two above.
Going back in history I am reminded of the great Piranhas. Thanks to Ozzie Guillen for this wonderful label. The Piranhas were four players who were all fast and played the kind of ball that Ron Gardenhire really enjoyed – as did the fans. The names are not exceptional in Twins history – Jason Bartlett, Jason Tyner, Luis Castillo and the head piranha – Nick Punto. Guillen said, "All those piranhas -- blooper here, blooper here, beat out a ground ball, hit a home run, they're up by four. They get up by four with that bullpen? See you at the national anthem tomorrow. When I sit down and look at the lineup, give me the New York Yankees. Give me those guys because they've got holes. You can pitch around them, you can pitch to them. These little guys? Castillo and all of them? People worry about the catcher, what's his name, Mauer? Fine, yeah, a good hitter, but worry about the little [guys], they're on base all the time.”
Punto was an all-around utility player who did not have the same charisma with the fans as he did with the manager, but he lasted a long time on the skills and work ethic that he did possess.
Going to the early days of the franchise it was Cesar Tovar that everyone loved. Cesar played everywhere and he played better than Punto and any other Jack-of-all-trades player in team history. He is the first Twin to have an every position day and he did it well.
César Leonardo Tovar, nicknamed "Pepito" and "Mr. Versatility", was a Venezuelan professional baseball player. He also played for the Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers, Oakland Athletics, and New York Yankees. He shined shoes in Venezuela before signing as a ballplayer at age 19. Billy Martin called him “my little leader” and used Tovar to motivate the team. In twelve years the 5’ 9” Tovar hit .278 with 46 homers and 226 stolen bases. The Twins got him because Pete Rose came up for the Reds and took the position that Tovar was going to have. ony Oliva said, “Tovar plays the game hard. He runs, he chases down groundballs, dives at the ball, steals bases. And he sure can hit.”
When Carl Yaztrezemski missed getting a unanimous vote for MVP in 1967, it was Max Nichols, beat writer who gave Tovar his vote. ““He played six positions for the Twins and I saw him win games for them at all six positions. We didn’t have the best of player relations on our club, but Tovar never got mixed up in any of the clubhouse politics. He kept plugging away, no matter where they put him, and to me he did a tremendous job. If I wanted to be a ‘homer,’ I would have voted for Harmon Killebrew. But Tovar was my choice and, if I had to do it all over again, I’d vote for him again.” Billy Martin said he would have had his vote too!
Five times he got the only hit to ruin no-hitter bids. Then he was traded to Philadelphia where they wanted him to keep 3B warm until Mike Schmidt took over. Then Billy Martin took over for the Rangers and said get me Tovar, “I didn’t want him back just because I had him before. That’d be foolish sentiment. I wanted him because of his leadership and his hustle and his ability. He’s always played for me – given 100 percent – and I know he will. The little guy can beat you so many ways – his bat, his feet, his brains, his hustle.”
Will Astudillo have a career to match Tovar? I know that like Punto and Tovar that when he is given a chance he will hustle and produce. Like Hrbek and Puckett he can be a winner.