Archive for the ‘Baseball Abroad’ category

Yomiuri Giants Sign Taylor Jungmann

January 16, 2018

It was announced today that the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s NPB have signed former Milwaukee Brewer Taylor Jungmann for $750,000 for 2018.  What is weird about this deal is that the Giants already have four foreign stars filling up their major league roster limit: Scott Mathieson, Arquimedes Carminero, Casey McGehee and Alex Guerrero.

The Giants have the money to afford to carry spare foreign players at the minor league level, even relatively expensive ones like Jungmann.  However, I am surprised that Jungmann would elect to leave MLB without a guarantee that he would be in the Giants’ rotation to start the 2018 season.

Jungmann was the 12th player selected in the 2011 amateur Draft.  He had a strong rookie season in 2015 at the age of 25, but has regressed badly since then.  However, he pitched extremely well in 15 starts at AAA Colorado Springs, a tough, tough place to pitch, in 2017.

When I first heard the Brewers had released Jungmann to join an unnamed NPB team, I thought the move made a lot of sense.  Jungmann was a great candidate to resurrect his career in Japan, with the possibility that if he succeeded greatly enough there, he could return to MLB in a year or two, as Miles Mikolas has done this off-season.

Yomiuri clearly thinks that with McGehee at age 35, Mathieson 34 and Guererro and Caminero both at 31, there are going to be injuries.  My guess is that Jungmann will bouncing back and forth between the NPB major and minor leagues like a ping pong ball, as the Giants’ roster needs of the moment govern.

I’m not sure why Jungmann would agree to this situation, except for the fact that the Brewers weren’t willing to offer him a major league contract (and probably wouldn’t have agreed to pay him more than $550,000 for major league service time).  Still, one would think that Jungmann could have found another NPB or KBO team that would have paid him more in 2018 and guaranteed him a spot in their rotation entering the 2018 season.  It’s likely that Yomiuri guaranteed his contract, however.

Needless to say, the four foreign player roster rule that NPB employs is subject to what amounts to cheating, as the wealthiest three clubs can stock highly paid foreigners at the minor league level waiting for someone in the majors to get hurt or become in effective.  Maybe it’s time to change the rules to allow for more foreigners at the major league level.

Advertisements

The Ten Best Players from Curacao and Aruba in MLB History

January 3, 2018

The islands of Curacao and Aruba have replaced St. Croix and St. Thomas as the tiny Caribbean islands that produce an oversized share of major league baseball players.  I have decided to combine players from Curacao and Aruba, because while both are governed more or less independently, both are part of the greater Netherlands, and they are part of the same island group, the Leeward Antilles.  Besides, it makes for a better list.

Curacao has produced at least 16 major league players, and Aruba has produced at least five.  To my knowledge, the third island in the group, Bonaire, has produced no major league players yet.  Almost all of these players have played recently so I’ll keep my comments relatively brief.

The first player from Curacao to play in the majors was Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens in 1989.  He didn’t have a great deal of success in the U.S. major leagues, but he had some strong seasons in Japan’s NPB, and also played professionally in South Korea and Mexico.  After his playing career, he became a batting coach, most recently for the San Francisco Giants.

The first player from Aruba to play in the major leagues was Gene Kingsale, when he entered a game as a defensive replacement on September 3, 1996.  Five days later Calvin Maduro became the first Aruban to pitch in the major leagues.

1. Andruw Jones (1996-2012).  The big knock on Jones is that he was one of the early 2000’s steriods boys, and when the Vitamin-S spigot got turned off, his game dropped off sharply almost overnight.  Still he hit 434 major league home runs, plus another 50 in Japan.  He’ll likely remain the best player from Curacao or Aruba until Andrelton Simmons and Xander Bogaerts approach the ends of their respective major league careers.

2.  Andrelton Simmons (2012 to present).  Operating under the assumption that each generation of major league baseball players is a little better than the one that preceded it, it is possible to argue that Simmons may be the best defensive shortstop that major league baseball has yet seen.  He also had his best year with the bat in 2017, although it was his age 27 season.

3.  Kenley Jansen (2010 to present).  Through his age 29 season, Jansen has a career 2.08 ERA and 230 saves.  ‘Nuff said.

4.  Xander Bogaerts (2013 to present)  Bogaerts is no Andrelton Simmons with the glove, but he’s a better hitter, and he’s three years younger.  His bat may be what keeps him in the game long enough to pass Andruw Jones.  He’s the first Aruban on my list.

5.  Didi Gregorius (2012 to present).  Gregorius was born in Amsterdam, where his father was playing baseball professionally in the Dutch League and also working as a carpenter (the Dutch League only plays a 42 game schedule, so even with international play for the Dutch National Team, ball players need to have another job).  Gregorius’ grandfather was a great pitcher in Curacao in the mid-20th Century.  Didi and his family moved back to Curacao when he was five.  Needless to say, both the Dutch pro league and the national team are disproportionately made up of players from Curacao and Aruba.

The only other two players of any note born in Holland, Bert Blyleven and Jack Lelivelt, have perhaps even less claim to being Dutch than Gregorius, as both moved with their respective families to the New World at the age of 2.

6.  Jonathan Schoop (2013 to present).  It is little short of amazing that so many great players have come from such a tiny place (Curacao’s current population is about 150,000) all at about the same time.  Schoop is a 2Bman who hits for power and turns the double play extremely well.  That’s a combination made in heaven for a 2Bman.

7.  Sidney Ponson (1998-2009).  When I first started this blog in 2009, Sidney Ponson, along with Milton Bradley, was one of my favorite whipping boys.  It had a lot to do with his arrest in Aruba during the 2004 off-season for punching out a Judge in a dispute over Ponson’s operation of a motor boat or jet skis, and even more to do with the two DUIs he picked up in the U.S. in 2005.  Ponson had a world of talent, but he ate and drank his way out of taking full advantage of it.

Nevertheless, Ponson hung around long enough to go 91-113 with a career 5.03 ERA.  I once wrote that when Ponson retires “he will become the poster boy for talent wasted.”  I stick by this assessment, but 91 major league wins is 91 major league wins.

8.  Jair Jurrjens (2007-2014).  Arm problems did in Jurrjens’ major league career, but he’s pitching professionally.  He pitched in Taiwan’s CPBL in 2016, pitched for the Dodgers’ AAA team in Omaha in 2017 until he was hit with an 80 game suspension for testing positive for exogenous testosterone.  He’s currently pitching effectively in the Dominican Winter League as I write this.  However, his chances of returning to the major leagues in the future seem slim, particularly if he still needs to serve out any portion of the 80-game PED suspension. Jurrjens went 53-38 with a career 3.72 ERA.

9.  Ozzie Albies (2017 to present).  Albies has had only 244 major league plate appearances, but he makes my list because he was only 20 years old last summer and slashed .286/.354/.456 in those 244 plate appearances.  Unless something really awful happens to him, he’s going to be a good one.

10.  Randall Simon (1997-2006).  Randall Simon could hit, batting .303 with 19 home runs for the Tigers in 2002.  However, he walked less than 5% of this plate appearances and that’s a problem for 1Bman.

Simon famously got in trouble during the Milwaukee Brewers’ “Sausage Race” on July 9, 2003.  He hit the Italian Sausage mascot with a bat hard enough to knock the female college student inside the costume down.  He was fined by the local authorities $432.10 for “disorderly conduct” and fined by his team (the Pirates) $2,000.  Simon later apologized to the young woman and gave her an autographed bat. Even better, the Curacao Tourism Board gave her a complimentary trip to the island for two.  The next time Simon played in Milwaukee, now as a Cub, he purchased italian sausages for an entire section of fans and during that day’s race, his teammates playfully held him back while manager Dusty Baker guarded the bat rack.

Jurickson Profar turns 25 in February and has hit well in the minors, so there’s still a chance he’ll become a major league star.  Wladimir Balentien flopped in the U.S. majors, but he’s become a huge star in Japan, setting the single-season NPB record with 60 home runs in 2013 and belting at least 30 home runs in five other seasons.

Valmy Thomas

January 2, 2018

I want to start this post with a shout-out to Rory Costello, who is the Society for Advanced Baseball Research’s (SABR) co-chairman and chief editor of SABR’s bio project, which has produced hundreds of biographies of retired baseball players which baseballreference.com links to its player pages.  Costello wrote all the biographies for Virgin Islands players, and I relied on heavily in producing my recent post, The Best 10 Players from the U.S. Virgin Islands in MLB History and this post.  I don’t know whether players from the Virgins Islands are great story tellers or whether Costello is simply a great interviewer — probably a little bit of both.

Valmy Thomas was the first player from the Virgin Islands to play in the major leagues, and he had a fascinating career.  He was born in Puerto Rico because his mother thought she’d better care there than in the Virgin Islands, and she and the newborn Valmy returned to St. Croix as soon as it was safe for them to travel.

Thomas grew up in the same St. Croix neighborhood as Alfonso “Piggy” Gerard, the first important professional baseball player from the Virgin Islands and the only Virgin Islander who played in the Negro Leagues.  Gerard was about a decade older than Thomas, but they later played professionally together for eight years for the Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers) of the Puerto Rican Winter League.

During Thomas’ youth in the Virgin Islands, the most popular sport was cricket, and that is what Thomas’ father and most of the fathers of the Virgin Islands’ first wave of major league fathers, with the notable exception of Al McBean‘s father O’Neal McBean, was one of the best pitchers in the Islands’ nascent amateur baseball scene.

By the time Thomas was a teenager, there were four amateur teams on St. Croix in which to develop young players.  However, Thomas did not quickly enter professional baseball.  Instead, he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 or 18 in 1943 and remained in the service through 1949.  He was stationed in the much larger Puerto Rico during this time, where he was able to continue playing amateur baseball at a level than that available on St. Croix.

One of his most memorable experiences during this period was an amateur competition in which he played for a Puerto Rican team in Cartegena, Columbia.  According to Thomas, while he was playing left field, a couple of what he calls “Indians” wearing loin clothes and with matted down hair, came to down to observe the game.  The “Indians” thew something over the fence, but Thomas could not see what it was.  When he investigated, it turned out to be a snake, and that was the last time Thomas was willing to play in the outfield that game.

Thomas’ Puerto Rican Winter League career began in the winter of 1949-1950, and Thomas played on five Puerto Rican Champion Crabbers’ teams during his 13 years with the club and thus in five Caribbean Series during those years.  In one game in the 1950-1951 season, he was spiked on the hand by Puerto Rican star Vic Power on a play at the plate (Thomas was by now playing catcher) and a couple of his teammates asked if Thomas thought the spiking was intentional or an accident.  If the former, Thomas claims, the teammates pulled out knives and showed Thomas where they intended to stab Power.

In the summer of 1951, signed to play for St. Jean, a town 20 miles outside of Montreal, in the Class C Provincial League.  St. Jean had a working relationship with the Pittsburgh Pirates, it was common in the early integration era for major league organizations to send newly signed young black and Latino players to play in Canada, where their presence on integrated teams was much less controversial than in the U.S.

Although Thomas played well in Canada, batting .296 and playing all over the field based on the team’s need, he quit after the season because of economic reasons.  According to Thomas, he made $400 a month in 1951, and Pirates General Manager Branch Rickey sent him a contract for 1952 offering only $350 a month.  Thomas “voluntarily retired” in order to protect his future eligibility, but what he actually did was spend the next three summers playing professionally in the Dominican Republic, where he was paid $1,100 a month to play fewer games each week.  Of course, Thomas also continued to play professionally during the winters in Puerto Rico.

Valmy Thomas split catching duties with Harry Chiti on the Santurce Crabbers 1954-1955 team, a team which Don Zimmer has called the greatest Winter League team of all-time.  The club featured Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Bob Thurman in the outfield and contained numerous other major league and former Negro League players.

In the summer of 1955, Thomas returned to St. Jean after the Dominican League switched to a winter schedule.  The Crabbers owner Pedrin Zorilla had a good working relationship with New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham and after playing back in the Pirates organization, the Giants selected Thomas in the Rule 5 Draft that winter.

In 1956, Thomas was initially assigned to the Minneapolis Millers, the Giants’ top farm team.  However, it was a cold spring in Minneapolis, and Thomas threatened to quit and return to the Caribbean.  Instead, Thomas was able to convince the Giants to assign him to their Albuquerque club in the lower level Western League.  There Thomas batted .366 with power.

Thomas was apparently offered a September call-up to the Giants, but instead elected to return to Puerto Rico to prepare for winter ball, because Thomas said he didn’t want to sit on the bench in New York.  In the spring of 1957, he came into the Giants’ camp expecting assignment to AAA Minneapolis again.  However, a strong spring performance and injuries to catchers ahead on the team’s depth chart enabled Thomas to make the major league squad out of Spring Training.

Ever the sharp businessman, Thomas was irked when Stoneham’s son in law Chub Feeney tried to play a fast one on Thomas’ 1957 contract.  According to Thomas, the team’s major league minimum was $6,000, but a player automatically earned $7,500 if he made the team out of Spring Training.  Feeney represented the additional $1,500 as a “raise” even though Thomas had made the team out of Spring Training and the team was in Thomas’ understanding obligated to pay him the higher figure.  Thomas complained about it Horace Stoneham, and Stoneham offered to raise Thomas’s contract to $8,500.

Thomas was the Giants’ leading catcher during the team’s last season in New York.  He played in 88 games and slashed .249/.296/.390 and played his customary strong defense, throwing out 12 of 28 (43%) attempted base stealers. After the season ended, he returned to the Virgin Islands for a islands-wide Valmy Thomas Day to celebrate him as the first local player to reach and succeed in the major leagues.

However, Thomas was already 31 years old in 1957, and he became the back-up to the younger rookie Bob Schmidt in 1958, the team’s first season in San Francisco.  He played about as well as he had the year before in a more limited role, but he was traded along with Crabbers’ battery mate Ruben Gomez that off-season to the Phillies for Jack Sanford.  Sanford became a star for the Giants, winning 24 games in 1962, but Gomez and Thomas were reaching the end of their major league careers.

Thomas played 66 games for the 1959 Phillies, but only batted .200.  He only sporadically in the majors in 1960 and 1961, and 1962 was his last season in the MLB system.  It was a turbulent season for Thomas indeed.

Future manager Jim Frey was playing in the International League in 1962.  According to him, he was batting in a game in which Eddie Lopat‘s brother Ted was the umpire and was having trouble calling the high strike.  The ump called two pitches above the letters strikes and Frey complained.  Lopat told Frey to get back in the batter’s box and swing at the next pitch, because Lopat was going to call it a strike no matter where it was.  According to Frey, he responded, “If you do, I’ll take this bat and beat you to death with it!”  Valmy Thomas was the catcher while this exchange was going on.

Despite this threat on his life, Lopat did not eject Frey.  Later in the game, Thomas came to bat, and when Lopat called a strike on a questionable pitch, Thomas called Lopat an S.O.B., according to Frey, and was immediately ejected.  Thomas went ballistic, pushed the umpire and then hit him on the chin.

Thomas was sold by his team to a team in Rochester for which he never played, instead winding up on the Atlanta Crackers roster shortly thereafter, following a 30-game suspension imposed on Thomas.  Lopat resigned the next day in protest over what he thought was an insufficient punishment.

In Atlanta, Thomas became involved in a love triangle, and on August 21, 1962, the other man, 42 year old musician and mortician Cleveland Lyons, shot Thomas twice in the chest after Lyons climbed in threw a window of the building in which the shooting occurred.  Lyons then killed himself.

Despite being critically wounded, Thomas recovered quickly and was even able to play ball successfully back in Puerto Rico that winter.  According to Frey, the next time Thomas saw him, Thomas grabbed Frey by the throat and shouted at him, “You dirty S.O.B., you almost got me killed!”

The winter of 1962-1963 was Thomas’ last season of professional baseball however.  After his career, Thomas returned to St. Croix were he got a job with the Virgin Islands’ government Department of Recreation.  He arranged a Yankees-Red Sox exhibition game in St. Croix and brought down Hank Aaron and Lou Brock to clinics to teach young Virgin Islanders baseball skills.  He also worked as a promoter and brought Muhammad Ali to St. Croix for an exhibition in 1965.  He was also a supporter of horse racing on the islands and ran a sporting goods store there for many years.  He died in 2010, less than a week before his 85th birthday.

The Ten Best Players from the U.S. Virgin Islands in MLB History

December 31, 2017

Lately, the tiny island nation of Curacao (current population 150,000) has garnered a lot of attention for all the great baseball players produced there.  Before Curacao, the tiny Caribbean island nation (sort of) that produced a surprisingly large number of major league players was the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The first Virgin Islander to play in the major leagues was Valmy Thomas on April 16, 1957.  Thomas was born in Puerto Rico, where he later experienced the greatest share of his professional baseball success, because his mother didn’t trust the hospitals in the U.S. Virgin Islands and thought she’d get better care in Puerto Rico.  However, mother and baby returned to the Virgin Islands shortly after the delivery.  Joe Christopher was the first major league player actually born in the Virgin Islands when he broke in in 1959.

Including Thomas and Julio Navarro, who was also born in Puerto Rico but grew up on St. Croix, at least 16 Virgin Islanders have played in the majors.  Here is my list of the best ten:

1. Horace “Hoss” Clarke (1965-1974).  The starting 2Bman in the period immediately following the end of the New York Yankees’ multi-decade dynasty, Clarke was in his prime a terrific defensive 2Bman, leading the Junior for six consecutive seasons in assists (1967-1972), four consecutive seasons in putouts (1968-1971) and twice in double plays (1969, 1972).  He was also seen as a good lead-off man in his day, but he was definitely an old-school lead-off man who ran well and stole bases but didn’t really get on base enough for the role.

Clarke’s reputation in his own day was affected by the fact that the Yankees were no longer consistent winners, as one of the team’s best players in this era, he took a lot of undeserved heat for it.  He also had a reputation for not being tough on hard slides into second base to break up the double play, but as noted above, he did lead the AL twice in turning double plays and never finished lower than 5th (in a 10- or 12-team circuit) in this category in any of the seven seasons between 1967 and 1973.  He was also a polite but quiet man who preferred playing musical instruments to talking, something that probably didn’t endear him to sportswriters looking for good quotes and copy.

Like most Virgin Islands players of his era, he played many winters in Puerto Rico where V.I. players were more or less treated like locals, and like several other V.I. players Clarke took a Puerto Rican wife.  After his career, Clarke returned to St. Croix, where he taught children to play baseball and also worked for a time as a scout for the Royals.

2. Al McBean (1961-1970).  Al McBean is not at all well remembered today, because his nine year Pittsburgh Pirates career was played entirely between the 1960 and 1971 teams that were World Champions.  He won 15 games as a starter in 1962 and then was gradually converted to a reliever over the 1963.  The Pirates’ top reliever Elroy Face took McBean under his wing and taught McBean how to pitch in relief situations while having McBean over to his house to BBQ.

McBean went 13-3 with 11 saves in 1963, posted a 1.91 ERA with 21 saves (tied for 2nd best in NL behind Hal Woodshick‘s 23 saves) in 1964, and posted a 2.29 ERA with 19 saves (tied for 4th best) in 1965.  McBean wasn’t as good after that but remained an effective reliever and starter for the Bucs though 1968.

McBean had a hard sinker that was hard to elevate, and he threw from different arm angles to give hitters diverse looks.  He was known for his sense of humor and tried to put on a show for the fans, which sometimes got him called a hot dog.  He was also a flashy but stylish for the time (mod) dresser who became famous in Pittsburgh for a white suit, white tie and white shoes ensemble.  He sometimes drew comparisons to Muhammad Ali.

McBean also married a Puerto Rican woman named Olga Santos, whom he told the first time he met her that one day he’d marry her.  They married about nine months later in Pittsburgh.

Surprisingly, McBean never made an All-Star team, but he played in the one and only Latin American Players’ Game, the last game played at Manhattan’s old Polo Grounds on October 12, 1963, attended by 14,235 fans.  It was played for charity with NL and AL squads featuring Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, Luis Aparicio, Minnie Minoso and Tony Oliva among others.  The National League team won 5-2, and McBean was involved in the game’s most exciting play: a triple by McBean that drove in Tony Gonzalez but on which McBean was thrown out at home plate on a Minoso to Aparicio to Jose Azcue relay.  For what it’s worth, the players on the two teams were disproportionately Cubans, reflecting all the great players coming out of that country before the Revolution.

McBean finished his major league career with a 67-50 record, 63 saves and a 3.13 ERA.  He returned St. Thomas after his career, working in housing and recreation for the Virgin Islands government.  Needless to say, he thinks most of today’s highly paid stars are soft.

3.  Elrod Hendricks (1968-1979). Part of Earl Weaver‘s catcher’s platoons for many years, Hendricks played for much of the Orioles’ greatest period of success between 1966 and 1979.  Hendricks didn’t hit for much of an average (.220 lifetime), but he’d take a walk and hit not too infrequent home runs, two things that Earl Weaver loved.  In fact, Weaver discovered Hendricks while managing in Puerto Rico after several unsuccessful attempts by Hendricks to establish himself playing in the U.S.

Hendricks was also a fine defensive catcher who throw out 38% of attempted base stealers during his career.  He played in five post-seasons, four with the O’s.  He played 16 seasons of winter ball in Puerto Rico and was the Orioles’ bullpen coach for a remarkable 28 years.

He was also a great handler of the Orioles’ great pitching staff.  He caught Jim Palmer‘s no-hitter on August 13, 1969, and Palmer had great things to say about Hendricks, despite their sometimes contentious disagreements about pitch-calling while Palmer was on the mound.

The most famous play in Hendricks’ career happened in the 1970 World Series.  In Game 1 with the score tied 1-1, Reds pinch hitter Ty Cline hit a high chopper off home plate, which Hendricks grabbed with his bare hand.  Berno Carbo came charging in from third trying to score.  Hendricks lunged towards Carbo trying to apply the tag as umpire Ken Burkhart moved forward to call the batted ball fair.  Burkhart and Hendricks collided, spinning Burkhart to the ground as Hendricks tagged Carbo with his empty mitt.  Burkhart called Carbo out, and Carbo and Reds manager Sparky Anderson argued vociferously.  This was before instant replay replay reversal, but the instant replays on TV showed clearly, both that Hendricks had tagged Carbo with the wrong hand and that Carbo had completely missed home plate.  Carbo did not touch home until he did so unaware as he argued with Burkhart.  Here is the replay from youtube.

4. Jose “Shady” Morales (1973-1984).  Morales and Manny Mota were generally recognized as baseball’s best pinch hitters during the 1970’s.  Morales’ 25 pinch hits in 1976 broke Dave Philley‘s 1961 record (tied by Vic Davalillo in 1970) and lasted until John Vander Wal stoked 28 in 1995.

Jose Morales’ had started his professional career as a catcher because of his strong arm, but developed a reputation as a defensive liability there.  Becoming a top pinch hitter kept on major league rosters, and he later had success as part of a DH platoon for the Minnesota Twins.

Morales played professionally for more than twenty seasons, including two decades of Winter ball in Puerto Rico.  When he retired his 123 career major league pinch hits was third best all-time, and he still ranks 8th best all-time.  He then worked as a hitting coach and instructor and now lives in the Orlando area.

5.  Jerry Browne (1986-1995).  Known as the “Guv’nor,” Browne had his best season as the starting 2Bman for the 1989 Indians, when he slashed .299/.370/.390.  Despite being a fast base runner who got on base, Browne was inconsistent and wasn’t good at turning the double play.  Ultimately, he developed into a utility man who played 2B, 3B and all three outfield positions.  He’s done some couching for major league organizations and now lives in Texas.

6.  Joe Christopher (1959-1966).  Joe Christopher had one great major league season when he was one of the few bright spots on a dreadful 1964 Mets team.  He slashed .300/.360/.466 and recorded 10 assists as the team’s primary right-fielder.  As a pinch-runner for the Pirates, “Hurryin’ Joe” scored two runs in the 1960 World Series.

He was the fifth player drafted by the expansion 1962 Mets.  His most vivid memory of the 1962 season was teaching center fielder Richie Ashburn how to say “Yo la Tengo” (“I got it!”) so that he wouldn’t collide with Venezuelan shortstop Elio Chacon, only to have Ashburn get run over by the much larger left fielder Frank Thomas.

Christopher credited his hitting success in 1964 in part to a pamphlet written by Paul Waner, which Christopher sent away for for 50 cents based on an add in the Sporting News, and a meeting he had with Waner in 1961.  Christopher also played in Puerto Rico for many winters and married a Puerto Rican woman, although the marriage lasted only about six years.  After baseball, he went into advertising.

7.  Midre Cummings (1993-2005).  Cummings moved to Florida for his final year of high school and became a first round draft pick for the Twins (29th overall in 1990).  He developed a reputation in baseball, perhaps unjustly, as a player with a lot of talent but who had a bad head in that he was too lackadaisical in his training and work habits.  He was never able to establish himself as an everyday player at the major league level, but he eventually established himself as an effective pinch hitter, leading his league several times in pinch hits.

The highlight of Cummings’ major league career, perhaps, was the 2001 post-season, where like Joe Christopher before him, he was used primarily as a pinch runner and scored three runs, two of them in the World Series, including the tying run in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7.  Cummings now lives in Tampa and coaches children.

8.  Jharel Cotton (2016-2017).  Cotton came to the U.S. at the age of 16.  He went 9-10 with a 5.58 ERA as a rookie starting pitcher for the A’s in 2017.  He’s got a live arm, but he will be 26 in 2018, so we’ll see where his career goes.  On August 9, 2016, Cotton fell one batter short of pitching a perfect game in the AAA Pacific Coast League, allowing a triple to the 27th batter with two outs in the ninth.

9.  Calvin Pickering (1998-2005).  Pickering also moved to Florida for his final year of high school.  Although a 35th round draft pick, he showed both a tremendous ability to hit and to hit for power as soon as he started his professional career.  Alas, weight issues (he reported to Spring Training at least one year weighing 300 lbs and never played at much less than 260) and the injuries that came with them prevented him from becoming a major league star.

Pickering hit 35 home runs at AAA Omaha in only 379 plate appearances during his age 27 season and played for half a season in South Korea’s KBO two years later.

10.  Valmy Thomas (1957-1961).  My next post will be devoted to Valmy Thomas, who had a very interesting professional career.

The Ten Best Panamanian Players in MLB History

December 28, 2017

Continuing on to Panama, a country between Colombia and Nicaragua which also has a long baseball tradition.  At least 58 Panamanian-born players have played in the majors league.

The first was Humberto Robinson, when he pitched a third of an inning for the Milwaukee Braves on April 20, 1955.  Hector Lopez started his successful 12 year major league career on May 12, 1955, and Webbo Clarke, who pitched for many years in the Negro Leagues, made all seven of his major league appearances for the Washington Senators in September 1955, following a 16-12 record in the Class A Sally League that year, the same league in which Robinson had won a record-setting 23 games the year before.

Both pitchers were long and lean, and Robinson went 8-13 with three saves and a career 3.25 ERA over parts of five major league seasons.  It’s likely that both pitched in the Panamanian Professional Baseball League, which played continuously between 1946 and 1972, after their U.S. careers were over.

Robinson died in Brooklyn in 2009 at the age of 79, while Clarke died at the relatively young age of 42 back in Panama.  Robinson also notably reported a bribe offered in the amount of $1,500 to throw a baseball game in 1959.

The relative success of the PPBL is surely one of the reasons so many Panamanians have played in MLB, despite a population of only 3.75 million currently. The current version of the PPBL, Probeis, has been playing continuously since 2011.

1. Rod Carew (1967-1985)(HOF).  Carew was one of the great pure-hitters of all time, a terrific base runner who stole home plate seven times in 1969, tying Pete Reiser‘s 1946 Post-World War II record.  Ty Cobb stole home eight times in 1912 and 50 times for his career.  During their mostly lively-ball era careers, Lou Gehrig stole home 15 times and Babe Ruth did it 10 times.

Carew moved to New York City after two years of high school in Panama.  He did not immediately begin playing high school baseball, because he was spending all of his time studying, working and learning English.  In 1964, he began to play with an organized team, and he reaches the majors three years later.  He worked as a hitting instructor and coach for many years after his playing career.

Carew married Marilyn Levy, a woman of Jewish ancestry, in 1970, as a result of which Carew received death threats.  They had three daughters, but divorced after 26 years, shortly after the death of their 18 year old daughter Michelle to leukemia when doctors were unable to find a matching bone marrow donor due to her unusual ancestry.  Carew subsequently performed extensive charity work to increase the number of bone marrow donors.

Carew chewed tobacco for 28 years before developing mouth cancer in 1992.  In late 2016, Carew had heart transplant surgery, but he’s still alive as of this writing.

2.  Mariano Rivera (1995-2013).  With an all-time best 652 saves, Rivera will make the Hall of Fame shortly.  He played recently enough and burned brightly enough, that no one reading this needs anything further from me to remember Rivera.

3.  Carlos Lee (1999-2012).  He bounced around a bit, but he had five seasons with 30 home runs, six with 100 or more runs batted in, and four seasons with at least 100 runs scored.  A left fielder with an exceptionally effective throwing arm, Lee is now a wealthy rancher in Texas and Panama.

4.  Ben Oglivie (1971-1986).  Oglivie took a long time to develop, but he became a fearsome slugger for Harvey’s Wallbangers during the American League Milwaukee Brewers’ great period of success from 1978 to 1983.  He led the Junior Circuit with 41 home runs in 1980 in a tie with Reggie Jackson, becoming the first player born outside the United States to lead the AL in HRs. He hit 34 regular season long flies and two more in the post-season for the Wallbangers’ team that lost the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games.

After MLB, Oglivie had two successful seasons in Japan’s NPB at the ages of 38 and 39.  He finished his playing career with two games in the Texas League at the age of 40.

Oglivie also moved to the United States (Bronx, NY) when he was in high school.  Bill Lee described Oglivie as the”brightest guy on the club” when they played together on the Red Sox, and he attended college in Boston and Milwaukee while he played.  He’s worked for years as a hitting coach since his playing days ended.

5.  Manny Sanguillen (1967-1980).  One of the batting heroes, along with Roberto Clemente and Bob Robertson, of the 1971 Pirates who came back from two games down to win the World Series against the Orioles.  Sanguillen made the National League All-Star three times and received MVP votes in four seasons.  Sanguillen didn’t have much power, and, a notorious bad ball hitter, he didn’t walk much either, but he had a .296 career batting average and threw out 39% of the 820 men who tried to steal bases against him.

Sanguillen played in the post-season six times for the Pirates, including driving in a run for the Pirates’ last victorious World Series team in 1979, when he was 35 and nearing the end of his career.  Sanguillen married a Pennsylvania woman, Kathy Swanger, had two kids, and still lives in the Pittsburgh area, hosting Manny’s BBQ behind center field at PNC Park.  Sanguillen says his greatest baseball accomplishment was catching Bob Moose‘s no-hitter on September 20, 1969.

6 (Tie).  Roberto Kelly (1987-2000) & Hector Lopez (1955-1966).  Kelley was a center fielder who played well for the Yankees between 1989 to 1992.  Lopez was a jack-of-all-trades guy who played at least 175 games in each of LF, RF, 3B and 2B, playing most often in left field and at third base. Lopez’s best seasons were for the Kansas City A’s and the Yankees between 1955 and 1960 and he played on five consecutive World Series teams for the Yankees from 1960 through 1964.

Lopez also sported the nicknames “The Panama Clipper” and “Hector the Hit Collector.”  Playing for Kansas City, Lopez roomed with former Negro League star, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, who got the nickname because he wore size 13 shoes, which a sportswriter wrote looked like suitcases.  After his playing career was over, Lopez became the first black, let alone Panamanian, manager of a AAA team, when he managed the International League’s Buffalo Bisons to a 7th place finish.

Roberto Kelly coached and managed for the San Francisco Giants organization for nine years until 2016, after his playing career ended.

8.  Omar Moreno (1975-1986). Today, Omar Moreno is primarily remembered as a light-hitting stolen base threat, and he was known as the Antelope, but he was also a really good player for the 1979 World Champion Pirates, leading the Senior Circuit with 77 stolen bases (in 98 attempts) and in putouts by an outfielder (489, 64 more than Gold Glove winner Garry Maddox of the 4th place Phillies) and also scoring 110 runs.  Moreno finished 15th in the NL MVP vote that year and was almost certainly more valuable than that.

In 1980, Moreno stole 96 bases (in 129 attempts) being edged out of the league lead by Ron LeFlore with 97, and again led NL outfielders in putouts, but he didn’t bat as well and only scored 87 times while making more than 500 outs on offense, even more than he prevented on defense.   Moreno stole 487 bases on his major league career at a 73% success rate.

After his playing career, Moreno and his family returned to Panama, where he started a foundation to help poor kids to play baseball.  In 2009, he became Panama’s Secretary of Sport where he represented Panama internationally and oversaw the country’s athletic programs.  After he left office, he returned to working with under-privileged children.

9. Bruce Chen (1998-2015).  Chen is a Panamanian of Chinese descent who amounts to the best starting pitcher Panama has produced.  Another bright guy, Chen studied civil engineering at Georgia Tech during his playing career.

Chen won 13 games for the Orioles in 2005, and won 12 back to back for the Royals in 2010-2011.  He was a consistently affordable bottom of the rotation starter who ate up a lot of innings by today’s standards and pitched well enough to hold onto that role for an astounding 17 seasons.

He finished his career with an 82-81 record, tying him with Mariano Rivera for most wins by a Panamanian-born pitcher, and a 4.62 ERA.  Chen came out of retirement to pitch for Team China in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

10.  Juan Berenguer (1978-1992).  Berenguer went 11-10 with a 3.42 ERA as the World Champion Detroit Tigers‘ fourth starter in 1984, but didn’t pitch in the post-season, when Jack Morris, Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox got all the starts.  He then became an effective reliever  (32 career saves) for the Giants, Twins and Braves, ending his major league career at the age of 37.

Known as “Senor Smoke,” “El Gasolino” and the “Panama Express” because of his high-90’s fastball, Berenguer went 8-1 as a reliever and spot starter for the underwhelming Twins team that went on to win the 1987 World Series.  After his playing career, he returned to and still lives in Minnesota.

Berenguer retired with a 67-62 career record and 3.90 ERA.  He was the all-time Panamanian wins leader until Mariano Rivera passed him in 2008.

Honorable MentionsRamiro Mendoza, Rennie Stennett, Carlos Ruiz and Randall Delgado.  Panama has produced enough major league players that some pretty good ones don’t make the top ten.  The 1970’s Pirates, during their best run of the post-WW II period, had three Panamanians in Sanguillen, Stennett and Moreno who were key starters on winning teams.  I remember Stennett as being one of the worst free agent signings in SF Giants’ history, although five years for $3 million sounds like peanuts today.

Carlos Ruiz deserves to be in the top ten for the six seasons he had for the Phillies from 2009 through 2014, and he was the starting catcher for the World Champion 2008 Phillies, the last period when the Phillies were consistent winners.  Randall Delgado is entering his age 28 season in 2018, so he’s certainly got a chance to break into the top 10 one day, although he missed most of the second half of the 2017 season to an elbow injury, for which he received platelet rich injections in his elbow as recently as late September.

A majority of Pananian born baseball players are Afro-Panamanian with many coming from in and around the heavily Afro-Caribbean city of Colon.  However, my personal observation spending 16 days in Panama around January 1, 1999 was that a large percentage of the population in greater Panama City appeared to my surely untrained eyes to be some admixture of European, African and Indigenous Panamanian ancestries.

The Ten Best Colombian Players in MLB History

December 27, 2017

I enjoyed writing my recent post on The Ten Best Nicaraguan Players in MLB History, so I though it might be a good idea to write similar posts on the best players from other countries, particularly those that are not well known for generating major league players.  Without much further ado, below is a list of of the ten best players from Colombia, a country with a richer baseball history than many people realize.

Baseball has long been popular in Colombia, but mostly in the cities along the Caribbean coast.  The first Latin American player in MLB during the 20th was in fact born in Colombia, Luis “Lou” Castro, who played 42 games as a middle infielder for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1902.  He replaced HOFer Napoleon “Nap” LaJoie, when a Pennsylvania Court ruled that LaJoie couldn’t play for Philadelphia after jumping his contract with the National League’s Philadelphia Phillies to play in the new American League in 1901.  LaJoie was released from his contract with the Athletics and promptly signed with the Cleveland Broncos, who later came to be known as the Indians.

Like many Latino baseball players of baseball’s early days, Castro came from a wealthy background. He came to New York City at the age of 8 to get educated and to make the kinds of contacts that could be expected to benefit him later in life.  The story is similar for Estaban “Steve” Bellan, a Cuban who was sent to NYC for an education, who became the first Latino major leaguer playing parts of three seasons in the old National Association, baseball’s first all professional league, before returning to Cuba and becoming instrumental in the eventual establishment as Cuba’s most popular sport.  Unlike Bellan, Castro spent the rest of his life living in the United States.

1 & 2.  Edgar Rentaria (1996-2011) & Orlando Cabrera (1997-2011).  Two shortstops who played at the same time, it’s hard to talk about one without mentioning the other, because of their Colombian heritage and their similar career stats.  Rentaria’s career batting numbers are a little better, and he is likely the better player solely based on the fact that he got on base a lot more than Cabrera (.343 OBP compared to .317).  The raw defensive numbers suggest that Cabrera was a slightly better fielder.

3. & 4.  Jose Quintana (2012-2017) & Julio Teheran (2011-2017).  Two pitchers also linked by heritage, career periods and stats: Quintana has a career record of 57-57 with a 3.53 ERA, while Teheran is 58-53 with 3.59 ERA.  Fangraphs, whoever, says that Quintana’s career has been more than twice as valuable ($181 million to $85 million) than Teheran.

5.  Ernesto Frieri (2009-2017).  The all-time saves leader among Colombian born major leaguers with 73.

6.  Jolbert Cabrera (1998-2008).  Orlando Cabrera’s older brother, Jolbert wasn’t nearly as good.  Jolbert was a useful jack-of-all-trades guy who played semi-regularly for the Indians in 2001, the Dodgers in 2003 and the Mariners in 2004, as part of an eight year major league career.  He also played a couple of seasons in Japan’s NPB and finished his summer baseball career in Mexico at the age of 39.

7. & 8.  Donovan Solano (2012-2016) & Jackie Gutierrez (1983-1988).  A couple of light-hitting middle infielders, Solano played semi-regularly for the Marlins mostly at 2B from 2012 through 2014, while Gutierrez was the starting shortstop for the 1984 Boston Red Sox.  Solano is still playing at AAA, so he still has a chance to move up the list.  Gutierrez’s father represented Colombia in the 1936 Olympics as a sprinter and javelin thrower.

9.  Jorge Alfaro (2016-2017).  Alfaro is a 24 year old catcher/1Bman for the Phillies who hasn’t done a whole lot in MLB so far, except show a lot of promise with his bat.

10 (tied).  Orlando Ramirez (1974-1979) & Giovanny Urshala (2015-2017).  Another light-hitting middle infielder, Ramirez was the first Colombian player of the post-World War II era.  However, he never hit at the major league level and finished his five year major league career with only 53 hits.  Ramirez is also Jackie Gutierrez’ brother in law.

Urshala is a 3Bman who hasn’t hit much in two seasons with the Indians.  He’s young enough, though, that he still has a chance to knock Orlando Ramirez out of the top ten.

At least 20 Colombian-born players have played in MLB.  They have disproportionately been middle infielders.

The Ten Best Nicaraguan Players in MLB History

December 25, 2017

I recently had dinner with the Nicaraguan side of my second family.  Not surprisingly, I have been inspired to identify the best ten Nicaraguan Players in MLB history.

1.  Dennis Martinez (1976-1998). He has been the most famous Nicaraguan baseball player for a couple of generations now, so much so he’s mentioned in the 1983 Nick Nolte/Gene Hackman movie Under Fire.  Small wonder — he went 245-193 in his 23 year major league career.

Martinez led the American League in innings pitchedm (292.1) and complete games (18) in 1979 for the World Series losing Baltimore Orioles; led the AL in wins in a four-way tie with 14 in the 1981 Strike season; and led that National League in ERA (2.39), complete games (nine) and shutouts (5) as a 37 year old Montreal Expo in 1991.  He was the first and still the best Nicaraguan player ever to play in MLB.

Here’s an interesting factoid from wikipedia about Martinez: “On September 28, 1995, a wild pitch by Martinez broke the jaw of Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. This would be Puckett’s last official game of his career, retiring in 1996 due to glaucoma in his right eye, a problem unrelated to Martinez’s pitch.”  Puckett batted right-handed, so the pitch probably hit him in the left-side of the face.

I don’t think of Dennis Martinez as quite being a Hall of Fame pitcher.  However, his 245 career wins are going to look even better to Veteran’s Committee members (or whatever MLB calls them now) as time passes.

2.  Vicente Padilla (1999-2012).  Padilla was a successful right-handed starter who finished his major league career 108-91.  Padilla signed his first contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks a month before his 21st birthday, which is old for a Latin American prospect, after working with Dennis Martinez in Nicaragua to improve his change-up.

I remember Padilla as having a reputation as a bean-ball artist.  The stats bear out my memory.  Padilla led the AL in HBP with 17 in 2006, and he plunked at least 15 in a season three other times.  Padilla is 67th all-time in hitting batters (109), and Dennis Martinez is tied for 50th all-time (122) in many more games and innings pitched.

Pitchers will always doctor baseballs and throw at batters, if they can get an advantage by doing so.  A pitcher coming out of a hard-scrabble place like Nicaragua (only Haiti and Honduras have lower per capita GNP in the Western Hemisphere), you’re going to do what it takes to win ballgames.  By my calculation, Padilla made at least $54 million playing professional baseball around the world, so his pitching style clearly worked for him.

3.  Marvin Benard (1995-2003).  Benard was born in Bluefields, Nicaragua and moved his family to the Los Angeles City of Bell at the age of 12.  He was generally beloved in San Francisco, although he really only had two great major league seasons, his age 27 and 28 seasons.  Then he got old fast.  The Giants signed him to a three-year $11.1 million for the next three years (2001-2003).  Benard was hurt much of 2002, the Giants surely didn’t get their monies’ worth in the final year of the deal.

Marvin’s son Isaac Benard is a 21 year minor leaguer for the Tampa Rays, who didn’t hit great at the Rays’ A- team in 2017, the Hudson Valley Renegades of the New York-Pennsylvania League.

4.  Albert Williams (DeSousa) (1980-1984).  Albert Williams was a top starter on three bad Minnesota Twins’ teams from 1981-1983 and started the Twins’ season opener in 1984.  His career story is especially interesting.

Williams was originally signed by the Pirates’ organization in 1975 and he played two years in the low minors in their system.  However, in 1977, he couldn’t get a visa from the Nicaraguan government to play in the U.S., so he was forced to remain in Nicaragua, where he joined the Sandinistas and fought against the Somoza dictatorship for 16 months.  He then was “smuggled” out of Nicaragua to pitch for the Panama franchise in the Inter-American League in its sole season of 1979.

The Inter-American League had six teams in four countries plus Puerto Rico, but didn’t make it through a full schedule, with teams playing between 72 and 51 games for the season before the league folded.  An interesting idea, but travel expenses must have been great.

Williams then signed with the Twins’ organization.  He also pitched six winters in the Venezuelan Winter League including the 1983 Caribbean Series for the Tiberones de La Guaira.  However, Williams’ didn’t have great stuff, and it looks as if his pitching arm gave out, based on the fact that he last pitched in the MLB system in 1985 at the age of 31 after a rapid descent.

5.  Wilton Lopez (2009-2014).  Like Williams above, Lopez was a good pitcher whose MLB stardom only shown briefly.  The middle four years of his major league career, he was a strong right-handed reliever, who went 16-15 with 11 saves.  He fell apart the next season, and last pitched in the MLB-system in 2015, his age 31 season.

According to recent reports from La Prensa as of late September 2017, reports are that Lopez’s wing has recovered enough from whatever was afflicting it two years ago for him to have signed to play baseball professionally in Nicaragua and play on the Nicaraguan National Team.

6.  Everth Cabrera (2009-2015).  The National League’s leader in stolen bases in 2012 with 44, the lowest total to lead the Senior Circuit since Craig Biggio’s 39 in 1994, Everth Cabrera was a good major league player only two seasons, that year and the next.  Cabrera is probably most famously remembered outside of San Diego for his 50-game suspension arising out of the Biogenesis PED scandal, which came down late in the 2013 season.  He was never the same after that, and his 2017 performance at AAA Syracuse at the age of 30 makes it unlikely he’ll play in the MLB-system in the future.

According to La Prensa, Cabrera is also playing professionally in Nicaragua this Winter and on the National Team.

7.  Erasmo Ramirez (2012 – present).  Now we get into the players who are active in MLB now.  Erasmo Ramirez is a 27 year old sometime starter, sometime reliever, who has a career W-L record of 30-35 with three saves.  Ramirez was an effective No. 3 starter for the 2015 Tampa Rays, going 11-6 with a 3.75 ERA.

Ramirez also pitched well in 11 starts for the Seattle Mariners after being acquired from the Rays near the 2017 trade deadline and is apparently going through the salary arbitration process with the M’s.  mlbtraderumors.com projects him to make $4.7 million in 2018.

8.  Cheslor Cuthbert (2015 – present).   Cheslor Cuthbert is a 3Bman going into his age 25 season.  If Mike Moustakas does not re-sign with the Kansas City Royals, Cuthbert should be first in line to take that job and with it the opportunity to become a major league star.  His defense is not good, but major league adequate.  He hit well as a 23 year old rookie in 2016, but not at all in his 2017 sophomore season.  He’s hit at AAA Omaha and he’s young enough that you have to think the odds are reasonably good if he enters the 2018 season as the Royals’ regular third-sacker.

9.  J.C. Ramirez (2013 – present).  Since the Anaheim Angels selected Ramirez off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds in late June 2016, his performance has been eye-opening, first in relief in 2016 and then as an unexpected starter in 2017.  He went 11-10 last year with a 4.15 ERA over 147.1 IP.  However, he was shut down in late August after experiencing forearm pain, he struck out only 105 batters, and he’ll be 29 in 2018, so there are no guarantees going forward.

10.  David Green (1981-1987).  Green arguably had a better major league career than J.C. Ramirez or Chestlor Cuthbert has had to date, but I’m fairly confident the latter two will finish their major league careers ahead of Green.  Green could hit a little, but in his two seasons as an MLB regular, he walked less than 5% of his plate appearances.  Although he had the arm and speed to play right field and back up in center field, he mostly played 1B in the majors, a defensive position he didn’t hit well enough for.  He was part of the infamous Jack Clark trade in February 1985, which ultimately netted the Giants only Jose Uribe.   That’s definitely going to hurt his all-time rating with this Giants fan.

Green later played for part of a season (1986) in Japan’s NPB, as Vicente Padilla did in 2013.  Green does not appear to have played professionally since his age 30 (but more likely age 31) season in 1991.

Green’s back story is interesting.  His father Edward “Eduardo” Green had been one of the great players in Nicaraguan baseball history.  Eduardo originally though this first some Eduardo Jr. would follow in his footsteps.  However, Jr. didn’t have the talent, while younger son David did.  Eduardo Sr. shifted his attentions to David when the latter was about 15 years old, and was reportedly an abusive instructor.

Green signed a contract with the Milwaukee Brewers in June 1978 for a $20,000 signing bonus. The Brewers scout Julio Blanco Herrera pulled out ten $100 bills from his pocket and paid Green a “down-payment” at a time when due to the Nicaraguan Revolution it was extremely difficult to get cash because the banks and businesses were all closed and food had to be paid for in cash.  Eduardo Sr. died of a series of heart attacks while David was playing in the MLB minors.

On the eve of breaking through to the majors, Green was regarded as one of the best prospects in baseball.  However, he was isolated from his family in Nicaragua because of the war, and he may have started to develop an alcohol problem.  Green’s mother died during Spring Training 1984, which may have deepened his problem with alcohol, and perhaps cocaine, which was sweeping through major league baseball at that time.

Green briefly went into rehab in 1984, but left to resume playing baseball without having kicked his habits.  His drinking problem resurfaced in an ugly way after his playing career, when he was convicted of driving while intoxicated following an accident in St. Louis in which an elderly woman ultimately died. He likely served less than a year in jail based on the jury’s recommendation of six months of incarceration.

10 of the 14 Nicaraguan born players to play in the major leagues have been pitchers.  Nicaraguan major leaguers have disproportionately been Afro-Nicaraguan players.

As a final note, all of Cabrera, Cuthbert and the two Ramirez’s played on Nicaragua 2013 National Team that failed make the World Baseball Classic after getting blown out in qualifying games against Columbia (8-1) and Panama (6-2).  It tells you how good even the second-tier Latin American National teams are now.