/* Style Definitions */
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
Last weekend, the Hall
of Fame opened a new exhibit, Viva Baseball, which chronicles the history of
Latin Americans in the game. Hall of Fame first baseman Orlando
Cepeda, a native of Puerto Rico and one of 11 Latinos currently enshrined in Cooperstown, attended the exhibit opening. During a wide-ranging
conversation with Mark McGuire of the Albany-Times Union, Hall of Fame researcher
Bill Francis, and me, Cepeda talked about his father, Negro Leagues shortstop Perucho
Cepeda, his own experiences playing in San Francisco, and his relationship with
fellow Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente. Humble in discussing his own
accomplishments, Cepeda lavished praise on a number of lesser known Latino
standouts, including Minnie Minoso, Ruben Gomez, and Hector Espino.
McGuire: What do
you think, looking around this exhibit, seeing your dad’s stuff [on display]?
Awesome. Awesome. Incredible. You know, he never saw me play [in the major
leagues]. You know he died one day before I played my first pro game. He died.
I remember like in 1952, I was 15 and I got my knee operation. He had to talk
to the doctor and asked him, “Do you think my son will be able to play ball?”
My father always had it in his mind that someday I would be a ballplayer.
McGuire: Who was
better, you or him?
Cepeda: He was
McGuire: When you
look at the state of Latin players, we think of them as one big group,
regardless of what country they come from. Do you notice different styles of [Latino]
players from different countries? Or is it pretty much the same?
Cepeda: The same.
Baseball is [played] one way. They [the Latino players] are the same. So many
great players, from the Dominican, Venezuela, from Cuba, they never had the
opportunity to play in the big leagues–they never made the Hall of Fame–but
they were as good as people who are in the Hall of Fame. So many great Latino
players, like Minnie Minoso, they opened the door for us. He was the first
Latino star in the big leagues, Minnie Minoso. There was also Vic Power, Ruben
Gomez, so many great players that never made it to the Hall of Fame, but they
were very good players.
McGuire: What do
you think of the idea that you’re part of an exclusive club here in the Hall of
Fame of Latino players, but it’s pretty much going be doubled [in membership] soon.
Cepeda: Yeah, it
is. We’re so proud that we were the first ones in the Hall of Fame. A day like
today will live forever. So that’s why I say thank you to Hall of Fame
president Jeff Idelson for thinking about putting this [exhibit] together. It’s
a great day for Latinos.
kind of strange how you growing up couldn’t necessarily have dreamed of playing
in the major leagues [because of skin color], but with Albert Pujols, Jose
Reyes, Johan Santana now, you really can’t picture baseball today without
Cepeda: Al Kaline
told me last year that if it weren’t for the Latino player, baseball would have
been dead by now because there are just so many great Latino players today.
Earlier, Juan Marichal talked about how you and Felipe Alou helped him when he
first came to the big leagues with the Giants. Who helped you when you first
arrived in San Francisco?
Gomez. Ruben Gomez. In 1958, I lived with him. You need somebody to work with
you. And that’s what we did with Juan in 1960. We made him feel welcome right
Markusen: Of all
the major league cities you played in, which was the most receptive to Latin
Cepeda: Oh, San Francisco. San
Francisco, because they had so many people from different backgrounds, so much
diversity. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Central Americans. So they welcomed me
right away in San Francisco.
Francis: Can you
talk about how the Giants embraced the Latin American player? It seems like the
Giants had a lot of Latin Americans. Was it because of Alex Pompez [the scout]?
Cepeda: No, it
wasn’t Alex Pompez. The guy who signed me–his wife is here today– was Pete
[Pedrin] Zorrilla. Pedrin, he was very close to Horace Stoneham, the Giants’
At one time, the Giants had like 30 Latinos in the minor
leagues. Manny Mota, Jose Pagan, me. From 1954 on, a lot of Latinos.
Francis: Can you
talk about the Alvin Dark incident? Was that the worst experience you had in major
about that, he told me a few years back that he was very sorry that happened.
He didn’t know the Latino heritage, that for a Latino to come here and do well,
was very difficult. He was very sorry for that.
must have been tough.
very hard, very hard. Because baseball is a tough game in all aspects, and now
you had to deal with Dark and you had to deal with the pitcher. You had to deal
with the game every day; it was very hard.
close were you with Roberto Clemente?
Cepeda: Well, I
knew Roberto since 1950. He played for my dad, you know, for a couple of games,
but didn’t make the team. In 1955, we came here to the states. He came here in
1954, to Montreal.
In ’55, we flew together to Florida for spring
training to Fort Myers,
the Giants’ minor league complex. Yeah, very close. Still very close to the family,
his wife, Roberto Jr., who is here today.
must remember very well where you were when you heard that he had died.
Cepeda: Oh yeah,
I was at my brother’s house, when I heard the news.
player prominently featured in this exhibit is an underrated player, Hector
Espino, who was called the “Babe Ruth of Mexico.” Did you ever play against
Cepeda: Yeah, I
played against him in 1974. He came up, I believe it was in 1960, with St. Louis. He signed with St. Louis [but never
played in the major leagues]. I played against him in ’74, when he was in the
good was Espino?
Markusen: Do you
think he would have starred in the majors.
yeah. He was a great low ball hitter. If you’re a great low ball hitter, you
can play anywhere.
/* Style Definitions */
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
With Carlos Delgado out of commission for at least two
months and possibly longer, the Mets need to face facts and acquire a first
baseman who can hit with some power. Even with Delgado for most of this season,
the Mets have hit the third fewest home runs among the 30 major league teams;
only the Giants and A’s from the power-starved Bay Area have lower totals. Of
the available first basemen, Nick “The Stick” Johnson appears to be the best
player. According to the estimable Peter Gammons, the Nationals have asked for
right-hander Bobby Parnell in return. As much as Johnson could help, I don’t
see the Mets making that deal. Parnell, who was just clocked at 100 miles per
hour at a weekend game in Fenway
Park, has a full arsenal
of four pitches and could contribute long-term as a No. 3 starter. Given
Johnson’s injury history, the Mets would be wise to hold onto Parnell and
substitute another pitcher or two (Brian Stokes? Sean Green?) in his place…
The Mets have also expressed interest in Mark DeRosa, the super-utilityman
who could become the first victim of Cleveland’s
dreadful start. DeRosa’s versatility would be wasted as a first baseman, but he
could always move to left field or second base once Delgado returns in July.
The Mets have received virtually no home run production from their second
basemen or corner outfielders, which points out the lack of depth within their
Is it just me or is anyone else getting sick of Jake Peavy’s
pickiness when it comes to finding a new place to pitch? First, Peavy didn’t
want to go to Atlanta,
and now he’s given the heave-ho to the White Sox, who had agreed to send two
prospects to the Padres. Peavy wants a contract extension to accompany any
trade, and has also indicated that he prefers to play in the National League,
and not the American League. Does Peavy have such little confidence in his
ability that he feels he can’t be successful in the tougher league? If that’s
the case, I’d be awfully hesitant to trade a large package for Peavy,
ostensibly one of the top five or ten starting pitchers in the game. Peavy’s
reticence, along with his inability to get into the seventh or eighth innings,
should serve as red flags to opposing general managers…
While the Padres failed in their latest attempt to trade
Peavy, they did execute a minor deal on Friday, sending Jody Gerut to the
Brewers for Tony Gwynn, Jr. Let’s chalk this one up as strictly a public
relations move, as the Padres acquired the son of their first full-fledged Hall
of Famer. At best, the younger Gwynn looks like fourth outfielder material,
hardly a fair return for Gerut, who has some power and can handle all three
outfield positions. If Gerut can stay healthy, he’ll help the surprising
Brewers in the jumbled NL Central…
How much longer do the Orioles wait before summoning No. 1
prospect Matt Wieters from Triple-A? The O’s, who are going nowhere in a
stacked AL East, have been playing an aging Gregg Zaun as their first-string
catcher when he’s clearly a backup at this stage of his career. Orioles fan need
some reasons to hope; let that hope begin with the promotion of Wieters…
Is it any wonder that the A’s aren’t scoring runs? Not only
have they suffered a huge power outage at McAfee Coliseum, but now they’re
batting Orlando Cabera in the leadoff spot. I actually like Cabrera as a
player, but if he’s a leadoff man, then Perez Hilton is a great journalist…
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels might be an early
favorite for American League executive of the year honors. Daniels took a great
deal of heat for some of his offseason moves, like moving Michael Young to
third base, but most of Daniels’ plans seem to be working. The Rangers are much
better defensively with Young at third base and rookie Elvis Andrus at
shortstop, allowing Hank Blalock to concentrate on his hitting skills as a DH.
The signing and revival of Andruw Jones has also paid dividends, giving the
Rangers depth in the outfield and a potential trade chip should they fall out
The Hall of Fame staged a nice event on Saturday, when it
debuted its new exhibit, “Viva Baseball,” which chronicles the history of Latin
American participation in the sport. Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda and Juan
Marichal attended the opening, with both speaking eloquently about their pride
in the achievements of such fellow Latino standouts as Felipe Alou, Roberto
Clemente, and Minnie Minoso. A full house of media, including a number of
prominent Latino broadcasters and writers, made for standing room only in the
VIP seating area bordering the exhibit. With its array of vivid colors, selection
of multi-media interviews with Latino Hall of Famers, the impressive
large-screen video board, and the bilingual approach to storytelling, the
exhibit is brilliantly presented…
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, two new names have been added
to the roster for the first ever Hall of Fame Classic, scheduled for June 21 in
Cooperstown. Jeff Kent and Mike Timlin, both
retired after finishing their careers in 2008, have committed to play in the
old-timers game scheduled for Doubleday Field. (I could see Kent hitting three or four home
runs while taking shots at the short left-field porch at Doubleday.) Aside from
Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Ferguson Jenkins, Paul Molitor, Phil Niekro, and
Brooks Robinson, the Hall can now boast the following headliners for the game: Kent,
Bobby Grich, George Foster, Jim Kaat and Lee Smith. Of those latter five, I’d
vote Kent and Grich for Hall of Fame induction, with tough “no” votes for Kaat
and Smith. And here’s perhaps the best news about the Hall of Fame Classic.
Tickets are only $12.50, a far cry from the small fortune being asked by the
Yankees to attend games at their new stadium.
/* Style Definitions */
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
Every once in awhile I enjoy tweaking my father-in-law by
making a reference to Juan Marichal. The mere mention of the “Dominican Dandy”
brings out a few exclamation marks from my wife’s dad. You see, he’s a Dodger
fan, going all the way back to the Brooklyn days, and he remembers all too well
the time that Marichal decided to take a bat to the head of Dodgers catcher
John Roseboro. I try to explain to my father-in-law that Marichal is really a
pretty good guy, that he actually reconciled with Roseboro, but he won’t buy
that line–not at all.
This 1974 card of Mr. Marichal is one of the last two
regular cards that Topps issued for the Hall of Fame right-hander; the other
one is part of the Topps Traded series for 1974, featuring Marichal in the
colors of the Red Sox. Yes, it is strange to think of him in Beantown after all
those years by the Bay, sort of like watching Elston Howard finish up his
career in Boston
after all those seasons in pinstripes.
Although it has no remarkable monetary value, the regular
issue ’74 Marichal encapsulates the lasting image of the great right-hander’s
most memorable attribute–not his onetime bat-wielding incident, but an
extraordinarily high leg kick that counterbalanced a no-windup delivery. The
photographer skillfully manages to catch Marichal’s left leg near its highest
point, with the toes of his left foot practically even in height with the tip
of his cap. (Don’t try this at home; it’s sure to cause a muscle pull or some
other significant injury.) The photo on the card is particularly striking
because few pitchers in today’s game use this kind of a motion, in part because
of the modern-day emphasis on the slide step and in part because pitching
coaches like to teach more compact motions, thereby lessening the possibility of
bad mechanics. As distinctive as Marichal’s motion seems in contrast to today’s
big league pitcher, it’s hardly the only one of its kind in baseball history. A
number of great pitchers have used high leg kicks and–in contrast to
Marichal–large, convoluted windups, including Hall of Famers Bob Feller and
Warren Spahn. For years, the high leg kick was considered important for a
variety of reasons; it added to a pitcher’s velocity, proved distracting to a
hitter, and helped a pitcher hide the ball–and his pitching arm– behind his
While one’s eyes naturally tend to gravitate toward
Marichal’s front leg, his back leg is also worth a look. In the photo, he’s
bending his right knee severely, almost unnaturally, as a way of absorbing all
of the weight that the leg kick causes to shift to the back side. The more I
look at that back knee, the more my own joints start to suffer.
Other attributes of this card bear exploring. The photograph
for the ’74 Marichal was taken during a day game at Candlestick Park, at a time
when the old stadium still featured artificial turf–and lots of empty seats
beyond the left-field fence. Yeah, those were the really fun days in Frisco, when players not only had to deal with
the howling wind and glaring sun at The Stick, but also the rock-hard turf that
supplied a pounding to the legs of infielders and outfielders. Of course, the
fans didn’t have much fun either while dealing with the Candlestick elements,
which kept down the size of the crowds in 1973, the year that this Marichal
photo was taken. (The Giants finished a more-than-respectable 88-74 that
season, but drew fewer than 900,000 fans, the third-worst figure in the
National League.) So even on a day when the popular Marichal pitched, fans
showed their apathy in the form of their absence.
Still, for those who had a chance to watch Marichal, he
usually entertained us with a speckled assortment of breaking pitches and that
gymnastic leg kick. And perhaps the joy that he brought us helped him atone for
that one incident–one that he probably regretted for years–at least until he finally
made amends with Mr. Roseboro.
On Monday, the San Francisco Giants announced the formation of a “Wall of Fame” that would be displayed at AT&T Field beginning with the 2009 season. The inaugural class of Wall of Famers would include over 40 members. The criteria for making the Wall are simple: a retired player becomes automatically inducted if he has played at least nine seasons with San Francisco, or has been an All-Star who has played at least five seasons with the Giants.
This “Wall of Fame” sounds like a good idea, a noble concept, but it’s one that has gone awry. Now there’s no problem with the top end of the wall. The Giants, who have been celebrating their 50th year in San Francisco (yes, it’s been that long since the move west from the Polo Grounds), easily have an elite group of core players to form the upper tier of the wall: Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. Then you have a second tier of really good players who have been All-Star caliber performers, including the underrated Felipe Alou, the late Rod Beck, the late Bobby Bonds, Vida Blue, Will Clark, Chili Davis, Darrell Evans, the late Tom Haller, Jim Ray Hart, Gary Lavelle, Jeff Leonard, Greg “Moon Man” Minton, Kevin Mitchell, Robb Nen, and Matt Williams. And if you want to include a group of “common card” Giants, players who have been contributing foot soldiers over the years, you have a solid group formed by the likes of John Burkett, Dick Dietz, Scotty Garrelts, Atlee Hammaker, Mike Krukow, Mike McCormick, Stu Miller, John “The Count” Montefusco, Rick Reuschel, Chris Speier, and Robby Thompson. They were all decent players, or better in some cases. Some of them, like Montefusco, were also very popular with the fans. By all means, give them their places on the Wall.
But here’s where the Giants have gone wrong. When you start including players like Johnnie LeMaster, Tito Fuentes, and Kirt Manwaring, especially in the inaugural class of the Wall of Fame, I think you’ve lost all credibility. LeMaster, in particular, makes the Giants look like they’ve miscalculated their standards. He is one of the worst players to step onto a field in the last 40 years; he couldn’t hit, couldn’t field, couldn’t steal bases. He was a bad player who was best known for putting “Boo” on his uniform in response to angry fans at Candlestick Park.
As for Fuentes, he was a colorful performer who was a member of the 1971 team that claimed the National League West, but at his peak was never much more than an average player. And for much of his career, he was well below average, an iffy fielder who struggled to reach base. Finally, Manwaring was a little bit better, a good defensive catcher who couldn’t hit for either average or power. On the list of standout Giants catchers of the past 40 years, Manwaring would rate well below Haller, Dietz, Bob Brenly (also scheduled for Wall induction in 2009), and current Giants receiver Bengi Molina. I just don’t see where a one-dimensional catcher like Manwaring merits inclusion on this list.
The problem with the Giants Wall of Fame is quite simple: the standards for induction are way too low. Nine years of play with the Giants, or five years and one All-Star appearance with San Francisco, will open the floodgates too wide for mediocre or worse players to join the Wall of Fame. Do you really want light-hitting utility infielders, middle-of-the road platoon players, and interchangeable long relievers making your team’s Wall of Fame? The Giants would be far better off tightening the standards, perhaps by calling for a minimum of 12 years with the franchise, or perhaps by making the criteria more subjective, based on a player’s performance and popularity in San Francisco.
By all means, let’s honor the Jim Ray Harts, Count Montefuscos, and Rick Reuschels of the Giants’ baseball world. I love it when players who were good, but something less than immortal, receive their due. But when you’ve lowered the bar so far that you have to include the Johnnie LeMasters of years gone by, it’s time to shake up the formula, give it a good stir, and start over again.
As with any all-time all-star team, nominations and final selections will stir the pots of argument and debate. That’s a good thing, because it forces us to learn more about the players involved, while bringing to better light the accomplishments of those who have been overlooked for too long. And the passion in our voices reminds us of how important it is to pay homage to those who performed so well in past generations. In the case of Major League Baseball’s Latino Legends ballot, there is an added element that raises another question: how exactly do we define Latino? There is no definitive answer to this complex question–almost every scholar will propose a different formula–but for the purposes of this promotion, the following seems simple and reasonable. Let’s define Latino players as those who were either born in Latin American countries, or those who have Latino heritage on both their mothers’ and fathers’ sides of the family. By using that definition–and this is what Major League Baseball seems to have done with its ballot–we exclude Reggie Jackson (who was Latino only on his father’s side) and Ted Williams (whose mother was half-Mexican). Besides, Jackson and Williams have never really been referred to as “Latino” in previous baseball discussions, so it might make sense to maintain the status quo on that one.
Even without Jackson and Williams, there is no shortage of talent on an all-Latino team. Here is one writer’s opinion on who deserves to make the final cut–and who just missed:
Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez: Rodriguez is showing signs of decline in Detroit this season, but that’s understandable for a player who’s been catching the bulk of his teams’ games since the middle of the 1991 season. After making his major league debut at the age of 19, the native of Puerto Rico quickly established himself as the best throwing catcher in either league, drawing comparisons to the defensive standards established by Johnny Bench. Quick and agile behind the plate, Rodriguez also became a force with the bat, setting an American League record for catchers by hitting 35 home runs in 1999. He also batted .332, giving him the best single-season average for an AL catcher since Bill Dickey in 1936. Such numbers earned Rodriguez a controversial selection as league MVP, as he surprisingly beat out Pedro Martinez. I-Rod didn’t deserve the MVP that year, but he certainly deserves the ranking as the greatest Latino catcher of all-time… There’s really no one who comes close to Rodriguez among Latino receivers; he’s a future Hall of Famer who ranks several notches ahead of 1970s standout Manny Sanguillen. The former Pirates’ catcher was overrated offensively–he never saw a pitch he didn’t like–but was an underrated defender, baserunner, and team leader… Jorge Posada could move past Sanguillen on the list, but he’ll have to reverse a downward trend that might put him in a part-time role by 2006.
Orlando Cepeda: An underrated defensive first baseman, Cepeda built most of his reputation as one of the game’s most feared sluggers of the 1960s. The Puerto Rican-born Cepeda nearly won a Triple Crown with the Giants in 1961–a year that saw him overshadowed by Roger Maris–but it was as a member of the Cardinals that Cepeda achieved the most glory. Filling the team’s need for a cleanup hitter, “Cha Cha” won the National League’s MVP Award in unanimous fashion in 1967, leading St. Louis to the World Championship. Cepeda later had success with Atlanta and Boston, helping the Braves to their first playoff berth and serving as the first DH in Red Sox franchise history… Based on pure hitting ability and defensive play, Cepeda rates one notch above Tony Perez, who fell short of the “Baby Bull” on both sides of the ball. One could also make an argument for Perez as a third baseman; he played five seasons there, though not particularly well, making him too much of a liability on an all-time team. And then there’s Rafael Palmeiro, who remains a kind of candidate-in-waiting until more is learned about the extent of his steroid use.
Roberto Alomar: The spitting incident and his listless tenure with the Mets will always taint Alomar’s record and will likely cost him some Hall of Fame votes, but they shouldn’t prevent acknowledgment of his five-tool greatness. A native of Puerto Rico, Alomar piled up ten Gold Gloves, the most by any second baseman, surpassing Hall of Famers Bill Mazeroski and Ryne Sandberg. Alomar’s combination of soft hands, acrobatic range, and quick trigger on the double play, coupled with his ability to steal bases and hit for average and power, made the switch-hitter the preeminent second baseman of the 1990s and early 2000s… Among Latino second basemen, only Rod Carew was a better hitter than Alomar, but Carew’s lack of power and his defensive limitations in the middle infield–which forced a mid-career switch to first base–make Alomar the deserving choice.
Alex Rodriguez: This ranks as the weakest position historically for Latino players, motivating me to cheat (but just a little bit) and give the nod to Rodriguez based on a sampling of less than two seasons at the position. Assuming that he can stay healthy and put in at least three more productive seasons at the corner, I’ll go with A-Rod over the underrated but unspectacular Mike Lowell (born in Puerto Rico) and career journeymen like Edgardo Alfonso, Vinny Castilla, and the original A-Rod (Aurelio Rodriguez). In making a nearly seamless transition on the left side of the infield, Rodriguez has displayed the necessary quickness, smooth hands, and strong arm that the hot corner requires. And now that’s he more comfortable in his second season in the Bronx, he’s regained the ferocious hitting stroke that once appeared to be in decline, but now has him ranked among the top three players in the game… Castilla’s numbers will always be treated with some contempt because of Coors Field, but he does have longevity on his side, enough to place him at No. 2 on the third base depth chart. In his earlier years, Castilla was a fine third baseman, having made a successful conversion from shortstop. If not for mid-career back problems, Alfonso might have achieved a higher ranking than Castilla, but it doesn’t appear that Alfonso’s physical condition will allow him to hit .320 or reach 25 home runs ever again. As for Lowell, he could certainly move up on this list, but he’s only been a fulltime player since 2000 and will have to prove that his 2005 performance was just a momentary blip and not the start of a downward trend.
Luis Aparicio: With A-Rod tucked away at third base, Aparicio becomes the logical choice at shortstop. In the current-day era of massive shortstops who have builds like outfielders from the 1950s, the merits of Aparicio might not be fully appreciated. That’s unfortunate, given the Venezuelan’s prowess in the field–some historians believe only Ozzie Smith was better–his ability to spray singles to all fields, and his proficiency in stealing bases. Aparicio’s .313 on-base percentage won’t impress many, but his “small ball” approach at the plate and artful work at shortstop fit in well with pennant winners in Chicago and Baltimore… Like several current-day players on the ballot, Miguel Tejada will move up the charts as he builds up years on his major league resume. For now, the multi-tasking Tejada will have to settle for the honor of being the game’s best active shortstop–and one of the top five players in the game.
Manny Ramirez: His lapses in concentration in the outfield and on the basepaths can be maddening, but when it comes to action with a bat in his hand, no Latino has ever been better than Ramirez. Defying the stereotype that Latino players lack patience at the plate, Ramirez understands the parameters of the strike zone better than most, which explains his .411 career on-base percentage coming into the current season. With 423 home runs as of this writing, he could very well surpass both Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa as the Latin American home run king. Ramirez rarely swings at pitches that stray from the plate, uses both sides of the playing field, and absolutely murders two-strike breaking balls… Minnie Minoso’s career took a hit because of racism that delayed the start of his major league career–he didn’t debut as a rookie until the age of 28–but he was the kind of dynamic, enthusiastic player who used his blazing speed and daring baserunning style to pile up loads of triples and stolen bases. Minoso was also a patient hitter who compiled a lifetime .391 on-base percentage, and a rangy left fielder with enough athletic ability to play third base. In the minds of some, he’s a Hall of Fame talent.
Bernie Williams: If I had simply picked the three best outfielders regardless of position, the third choice would have been Vladimir Guerrero, but an all-time team should distinguish corner outfielders from center fielders. Though probably a hair short of the Hall of Fame, Williams accomplished what few athletes in New York City have been able to do: he remained an underrated star, despite playing for both a baseball dynasty and the most successful franchise in the sport’s history, all the while performing in the country’s largest media market. While watching Williams stumble and stagger in 2005, it’s easy to forget how great a player he was from the mid-1990s through the start of the new millennium. After emerging as the MVP of the American League Championship Series in 1996, he batted .328 with 21 home runs in 1997, and finally achieved some recognition for his standout defensive play, overcoming his below-average throwing arm and lack of natural instincts to garner his first Gold Glove Award. The following three seasons, Williams’ performance reached its peak. In 1998, he won the American League’s batting title with a .339 mark and captured his second straight Gold Glove. The following season, Williams put up some of the best offensive numbers of his career– including 202 hits and a personal best 116 runs. In 2000, Williams drove in a career-high 121 runs as the Yankees claimed their third consecutive set of World Series rings. Other than Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, no player meant more to that Yankee dynasty than Williams did… There haven’t been many great Latino center fielders in major league history, but a solid backup to Williams would be former National League standout Cesar Cedeno. As a young player with the Astros, he once stirred comparisons to Willie Mays, but a voluntary manslaughter conviction haunted Cedeno for years. The effects of the Astrodome didn’t help Cedeno either, compressing his 40-home run potential to the 25-and-under range. Still, Cedeno enjoyed a solid career, which he capped off with a spree of clutch hitting for the Cardinals during their pennant-winning season of 1985. Cedeno hit .434 in 28 late-season games, as the Cardinals sealed another National League East title… Carlos Beltran could easily surpass Cedeno in due time, but keep in mind he’s only 28 and struggling in his first season with the Mets. If the Beltran of the 2004 playoffs ever shows up, he could become the No. 1 Latino center fielder by the end of his career.
Roberto Clemente: Clemente will never gain total favor with the Sabermetric crowd because of his lack of patience at the plate, but he did most everything else at a superior level. Though not a pure power hitter by any means, the native of Puerto Rico hit 240 home runs (impressive given that he played all but two and a half seasons at cavernous Forbes Field), while compiling a .317 lifetime batting average, collecting four batting titles, and featuring unmatched baserunning skills. On the defensive side, “The Great One” remains the standard-bearer among right fielders, combining the best throwing arm of my lifetime with the quickness and agility usually seen in a shortstop (his original position as an amateur). And let’s not forget his postseason contributions, which were crucial to the Pirates’ ability to win two World Championships. In 14 World Series games, Clemente batted safely in each, delivered critical hits in two Game Seven situations, fielded his position flawlessly at all times, and made two of the most outlandish throws a major leaguer has ever made… In time, Vlad Guerrero may surpass Clemente as the greatest Latino right fielder in major league history. In addition to having far more power, the free-swinging Guerrero covers both sides of the plate better than his Latino predecessor. Whether Guerrero ultimately surpasses Clemente will depend on Vlad’s back and knees. If he can stay healthy and retain his peak for four or five more seasons, we might have to start calling Guerrero “The Greatest One.”
Edgar Martinez: Like right field, this selection requires little angst. The choice must be Martinez, a borderline Hall of Famer who won two batting titles and was probably the most disciplined Latino hitter of all-time. Born in New York but a descendent of Puerto Rican heritage, Martinez led the American League in on-base percentage three times, all the while spraying hits to every corner and gap in the outfield… If I’m going to pick players who actually DH’ed for much of their career, then my second choice will have to be a personal favorite, Rico Carty. From 1975 to 1979, Carty prospered as a DH with the Indians, Blue Jays, and A’s, despite having to endure some of the worst knees this side of Orlando Cepeda. A phenomenal two-strike hitter, Carty regularly walked more than he struck out, an unusual feat for a man with 200-home run power.
Juan Marichal: This is one all-time position that could change in the near future, especially if fellow Dominican Pedro Martinez continues to pitch at his 2005 level. But for now, we’ll go with the historical choice of Marichal, a mound magician who used an assortment of pitches to confound National League hitters throughout the 1960s. Though not overpowering in the classic sense, Marichal did accumulate six seasons of 200-plus strikeouts, all the while showing amazing durability (he led the NL in complete games and innings pitched two times apiece). With Gibson, Koufax, and Seaver as contemporaries, it doesn’t surprise me that Marichal never won a Cy Young Award; but it is amazing that Marichal earned only one Cy Young vote along the way… Martinez is the runner-up for now, but closing fast against Marichal, who had the benefit of pitching many of his prime seasons in a pitcher’s era. If Martinez can come close to matching Marichal’s 16-season longevity (which included a prime run of 11 years), then Pedro will take over the top spot.
Mariano Rivera: This might have been the easiest position to make a pick; no argument can be made for anyone but Mariano Rivera, who might be the game’s greatest reliever regardless of heritage. And yet it almost didn’t happen. If the Yankees had re-signed John Wetteland after the 1996 season, Rivera might have remained in a set-up role for two or three more seasons, thereby wasting some of the Panamanian’s prime years. Thankfully, the Yankees made the right decision, let Wetteland go to Texas, and watched Rivera become the class of closers from 1997 to the current day. Eric Gagne and Trevor Hoffman have been more dominant at various times, but neither has sustained Rivera’s year-to-year excellence nor come close to matching Mo’s sparkling October resume–now at 10 postseasons and counting… If I’m forced to pick a second reliever (and I guess I must), then I’ll take onetime MVP and Cy Young Award winner Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez. Though Hernandez didn’t enjoy long-term prosperity as a closer, he did have several successful years in a set-up role for the Cubs and Phillies before reaching his peak with the 1984 Tigers. Hernandez also pitched well in two World Series, holding opponents scoreless for the Phillies in the ’83 Classic and notching two saves for the Tigers in the ’84 Series.