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A Last Lick for Minnie

Would it hurt to give Minnie Minoso one more at bat?

There has been no hearing. There has not even been a personal message. The word simply is "no," and Minnie Minoso cannot understand this. What did he do wrong? What is the big deal? He looks at the trim little baseball field in Pompano Beach, Fla.—the grounds crew watering the infield dirt in preparation for tonight's game—the way a good man would look at heaven. But the gates somehow are closed.

"I'm not trying to insult the game," he says softly. "I have given my life to the game."

He is not trying to make a joke. Is that what they think, whoever they might be? He is not blind or deaf. He is not enfeebled or even 68 years old, the age The Baseball Encylopedia gives him. He is 66. A good 66. How old is that General Schwarzkopf? Fifty-six or something? Well, that's not so young, either. The government can not only send an older man to a dangerous war, but also have him lead America's troops in that war. Minnie Minoso can't play in a game of baseball?

"I don't even wear glasses," he says. "The other day, my neighbor's wife said she thought I wore contacts. I had her look close into my eyes. No contacts. No glasses. I went to the doctor because I thought maybe I should be getting glasses. The doctor told me to go home because my eyes are perfect."

The perfect eyes are now under a blue baseball cap of the Miami Miracle, a team in the Class A Florida State League. The 66-year-old body is in a white Miracle home uniform. Mike Veeck, son of the late maverick major league owner Bill Veeck, runs the team, and the plan was that Minnie would appear in this evening's game against the Fort Lauderdale Yankees and become the first man to play professional baseball in each of six decades. The plan has gone sour.

The murmurings from commissioner Fay Vincent's office have been about dignity and propriety and a supposed worry that an old man could hurt himself playing against those young and sometimes wild minor leaguers. The one-day contract that Minoso coveted has not been approved. The drip of baseball pomposity, stronger every day, has trickled down to the low minors.

"You know what my father would say?" Veeck says. "He always called me McGilicuddy, after his hero, Connie Mack [nè Cornelius McGilicuddy]. He'd say, 'McGil, nothing's changed. The stuffed shirts are still stuffed.' Maybe we should have Minoso sing the national anthem and play Roseanne Barr in rightfield. Maybe that would be all right."

Minoso owes his record of playing in five decades to Bill Veeck, when Veeck owned the Chicago White Sox. Saturnino Orestes Armas Minoso retired from the majors in 1964 after playing for four different teams in the '40s, '50s and '60s. He figured he would find a job as a coach. This did not happen because at that time there were no black coaches and no black managers, and he is black. So he went to Mexico and played there for 10 more years. In late '75 Veeck bought the White Sox, and in his first month running the team, he named Minoso a coach. Minoso played in three games for Veeck in '76 (his fourth decade) and in two games in 1980 (his fifth).

"I remember he hit a ground ball in 1976, a pitiful, routine ground ball," Mike Veeck says. "It was one of the greatest things I've ever seen. Ask anyone who was there. He ran out that ground ball with such a passion, with such a pride. It was stirring, inspirational, just to see him run. The fans gave him a standing ovation."

Wouldn't the sight of a 66-year-old Minoso doing the same thing be even more inspirational? The White Sox tried to activate him a year ago and were told no by Vincent. Now there is this second rejection. Minoso says it broke his heart.

"I can play," he says. "I go to old-timers' games, and I am the only one who is running around, sliding into bases, throwing the ball all day. I play as many innings as the games last. Other guys go in and out. I play. They say, 'Minnie, you'll be sore in the morning.' I am never sore. I go out afterwards and dance the cha-cha-cha. I only weigh four, maybe five pounds more than I did when I quit playing in 1964. I eat well. I quit smoking a long time ago. I practiced my hitting in Sarasota, at the White Sox camp. Eighty-four-mile-an-hour pitches from the machine. I could hit. I am good."

He looks good, as if he has stepped from an old baseball card. The uniform fits nicely, not with that embarrassing stomach sag so many coaches possess. In a pregame exhibition, Minoso swings the bat with an unforgotten malice. He hits one to the warning track and certainly does not look foolish.

He coaches a bit at first during the game, an 8-7 Miracle win in 10 innings. He signs some autographs. He talks with the young players on the team, giving advice and encouragement. The worry is supposed to be about the dignity of the game? He is the dignity of the game, a walking, talking, 66-year-old Peter Pan. He would like to talk more, but says he has to meet his 31-year-old wife and two-year-old son.

Two-year-old son?

"Two years, five months," Minoso says. "My other children are 38, 32 and 25, and my son now is two years, five months. I might be too old to play in a game, but I'm young enough to start a family."

A wicked smile crosses his baseball-card face. What is the big deal? The faraway pooh-bahs of baseball suddenly seem very silly.