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 2� 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."