Brotha on Baseball

Viva La Revolucion!

 

This is the start of a very important month on the calendar. Today is the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. The influence of the Hispanic community on baseball cannot be overstated.

While Jackie Robinson rightly receives credit as the first African-American player in the modern major leagues, the story of Luis Miguel Castro is a lot less widely known. He played one season for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1902. A .245/.265/.336 triple-slash line over 151 plate appearances in 45 games makes him a bit harder to track down. The fact he had to go by the name Lou Castro in order to obscure his Colombian heritage further illustrates how far he had to go in order to play Major League Baseball.

Castro may have been the first player, but Roberto Clemente was the first undeniable Latin star. He was originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954. The Pittsburgh Pirates selected him in the Rule 5 draft later that same year. Dodgers fans of a certain age can still wonder what might have been. Once with the Pirates, Clemente embarked upon what would become a Hall of Fame career. The native of Carolina, Puerto Rico finished his career with a .317/.359/.475 triple-slash line. While being the preeminent defensive right fielder of his era, he hit 240 home runs, and in a statistical oddity, he is the only Major League player to end his career with exactly 3,000 base hits. Clemente the baseball player was just a small part of who he was. He was one to always give back and help others. It is widely known he died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, on an aid mission to assist people affected by an earthquake in Nicaragua. The Roberto Clemente Award is given annually to the Major League player who best embodies Clemente in his service to his community. His greatness as a player and person led his being inducted into the Hall of Fame in a special election prior to the conclusion of the standard five-year waiting period.

The Hispanic diaspora has brought the game stars of many stripes. Older Dodgers fans will remember Fernandomania. This was caused by former pitcher Fernando Valenzuela. His 173-153 career record does not do his cultural impact justice. Starting in his Cy Young and Rookie of the Year season of 1981, every one of his starts in Los Angeles was an event. Having a Mexican star in a city with such strong Mexican roots awakened a long-overlooked portion of the local fanbase. With his unique delivery whereby, he would look to the heavens before delivering his famous screwball, Fernando, as he was affectionately referred to by the fans, was one of the top left-handers of the decade. His impact is still felt today as he is revered by the fans of the team, and a cultural icon across Los Angeles.

On a per-capita basis, the Dominican Republic perhaps produces the most professional baseball players of any country. Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez was a key ingredient to the Boston Red Sox ending their 86-year curse and finally winning the World Series in 2004. From about 1997 through 2003 a convincing argument can be made that Pedro was simply the best pitcher in baseball. The three Cy Young Awards he won during that time attest to that. Pedro was one of the guys who made pitching cool during one of the best offensive eras the game has ever seen. He did it all with his infectious personality, which belied how fierce of a competitor he was when it was his turn to pitch.

The best closer of all time was Panamanian Mariano Rivera. As much as it pains me as a Mets fan to write, Rivera is in a class by himself when it comes to closing out the end of ball games. Using just a cut fastball, he was able to end his career with 652 saves. He finished more baseball games than anyone. When Metallica’s Enter Sandman came on and the bullpen door opened, it was goodnight for the other team. He is the only player who was unanimously inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Tony Perez is a player who has been lost to time a bit. He was at the heart of the order for the Big Red Machine teams of the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s. He was a seven-time all-star who finished with a line of .279/.341/.463. He retired with a 122 OPS+, which means he was 22% better than the average player over the course of his career. For a bit of comparison, his OPS+ is the same as Ernie Banks or Manny Machado. The Cuban-born Tony Perez was a low-key star.

There are plenty of Hispanic stars whose stories have not yet been completely written. The chase is on for Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera as he approaches 3,000 hits in his career. He will join a very select club that will have 500 home runs and 3,000 hits in their career. Guys like Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, and Eddie Murray. While often compared to his contemporary in Dominican Albert Pujols, Cabrera already ranks among the greats of the game.

To close on a bit of a somber note, I have often wondered might have been had Cuban Jose Fernandez lived to see out his career to completion. He was a joy to watch. He brought a big fastball, and bigger breaking ball, and the biggest smile one could find on a baseball field. This light of Miami was extinguished far too soon.

I feel completely certain we will look back in awe at the things young players like Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., or Fernando Tatis Jr. will be able to accomplish over the next 20 years, or so. I did feel it was useful to think back on the Hispanic players who have come before.

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