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Doug Wolter: West wrestlers do the best they can; Oliva, Kaat counted among the best

Question: What does the Minnesota West wrestling team have in common with former Minnesota Twins Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat? Answer: All three are mentioned in this column.

Doug Wolter photo
Doug Wolter

Question: What does the Minnesota West wrestling team have in common with former Minnesota Twins Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat?

Answer: All three are mentioned in this column.

Bluejay blues

We begin with the Bluejay wrestlers and the unique situation they find themselves in during this 2021-22 winter campaign. There are several good wrestlers on this team, and if head coach Randy Baker still had the recruits he expected to have in camp, they’d be competing more often and they’d be winning dual meets, too.

Those expectations have vanished, however, because some wrestlers who’d planned to compete decided later, for one reason or another, that they would rather sit out the season.

The point here is not to question anyone’s motives. Wrestling is a tough sport, and it demands a serious commitment. Sometimes a guy feels burned out after high school, and some other times he chooses to focus entirely on academics.

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But Worthington area wrestling fans are understandably anxious to see a return to the good ol’ days of Minnesota West wrestling. The sport had suffered in recent years, prior to Baker’s tenure, and last season was another less-than-glorious campaign due in part, at least, to Covid. Baker, who last coached at Jackson County Central High School, has had amazing success in the high school ranks, and I can’t think of a better mentor to return the Jays to prominence. I still think he’ll do it, too. But this year’s season shapes up as a mixed bag.

Some other two-year colleges, unfortunately, find themselves in the same boat. St. John’s, which was scheduled to compete in February at Minnesota West, has canceled its plans. It turns out that St. John’s lacks lightweights this year. Since West lacks wrestlers in the upper weights, there was no real dual meet to plan for.

“It hurts, because you don’t sell your program, because you don’t have local events. It’s frustrating,” said Baker on Sunday.

Other events are also suspect. West will not compete this year at the National Duals in Kentucky next month. With only six wrestlers on the team, the Bluejays would be giving up 24 points in each dual.

Besides that, there are other considerations Baker and the college must think about. For instance, is a trip to Kentucky financially reasonable? Think of how much would need to be spent on hotel rooms, and the fuel required for two vans, for a two-day tournament where the team would have to forfeit several weight classes.

Thankfully, Baker did manage to send his team to the Dragon Open at Moorhead last weekend, where 165-pounder Damon Ashworth won his weight class by getting a fall in the finals. Jacob Vogel, at 141 pounds, placed sixth by going 2-2 with a bye. He wrestled well, said Baker, against some outstanding opponents. Two West 149-pounders, Kyler Grams and Ryan Fierro, each went 0-2. Aiden Reinhart also failed to place at 133.

Incidentally, former Worthington High School standout Jacob Prunty, who’s competing for Concordia, finished third at 141 pounds.

Oliva, Kaat finally in Hall

On Sunday, Minnesota Twins greats Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat finally got the call. The Golden Days Era Committee of the Baseball Hall of Fame informed them separately that they’d been selected to be enshrined in the immortal club.

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Every Twins fan should be jumping for joy. Tony-O and Kitty Kaat are now in the same place as other former Twins Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett and Bert Blyleven, and everyone who remembers Oliva and Kaat’s careers should be saying, in unison, “It’s about time!”

The two newest Twins Hall of Famers were stars of the Sixties. Oliva’s career was spent entirely with the Twins, from 1962-1976, and it was a career cut short due to knee problems, but in his heyday he was one of the best hitters in baseball in an era chocked full of great hitters. If he had been a New York Yankee instead of a Twin, he’d have been in the Hall 40 years ago. Thank goodness he wasn’t forgotten this year by the Golden Days committee.

Kaat won 283 games in 25 major league seasons, and he won 16 Golden Gloves, too.

I’d been saying over four decades that Oliva deserved to be in the Hall. He not only was a great player, but since his retirement he’s been an outstanding ambassador for the game. The Cuban native has always been classy, modest and grateful just for the opportunity to play.

He said upon his selection: “My mother, my father, my brothers, some sisters, they never saw me play. I wish they had this opportunity to be here today, but they’re in heaven right now, my father and my mother. They would have been very proud that a little country boy from Cuba is in the Hall of Fame today.”

Perhaps the best part of all of this is that both Oliva and Kaat are alive to enjoy it. Both are 83. The other four new Hall of Famers -- Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges, Buck O’Neil and Bud Fowler -- are no longer with us.

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