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03/05/2006 Archived Entry: "VIVA BEISBOL (Mexican Pro Baseball News)"

Ex-LMBer Willard Brown goes to Cooperstown, but Minnie Minoso snubbed

With a roster loaded with major league talent, Mexico will try turning its fortunes in international baseball around Tuesday when they take on the favored United States in the opening game for both teams in the World Baseball Classic at Phoenix’ Chase Park. On the heels of both an elimination from Olympic competition last November and an 0-6 performance in the Caribbean Series last month, Mexican manager Francisco “Paquin” Estrada will be taking a team into the first round of WBC play that has a better-than-fair chance of advancing to the second round in Anaheim next week. While the USA are prohibitive picks to sweep through their Pool B schedule and South Africa will be playing a sport as foreign to that country as cricket is to this one, Mexico and Canada could well be playing for the second and final berth to round two in California when they clash Thursday night in Phoenix.
The Mexicans will have a stronger pitching staff than the Mazatlan Venados took to the CS in February. Estrada will be able to choose starter from among big leaguers Esteban Loaiza, Oliver Perez, Rodrigo Lopez, Elmer Dessens and Dennys Reyes. The bullpen is not overpowering, but Ricardo Rincon, Antonio Osuna and Luis Ayala figure to get the most work at the end of games. Mexico will take three MLB catchers into the WBC: Geronimo Gil, Miguel Ojeda and Humberto Cota. The infield will feature big league vets all the way around, with Erubiel Durazo and Adrian Gonzalez at first base, Jorge Cantu at second, Alfredo Amezaga at shortstop and Vinny Castilla at third. While the outfield has no current major league players on the roster, Karim Garcia does have experience at that level and Mario Valenzuela has been perhaps the most productive batter in Mexican pro baseball over the past twelve months in two leagues.
All in all, Mexico is a decent team on paper that has a bit more experience than the Canadians at the top level of the game, although Canada’s lineup does include solid position players such as Jason Bay, Carey Koskie and Matt Stairs along with some fine young pitchers as Jeff Francis, Rheal Cormier and Chris Reitsma. The Canadians are a youthful team and not having closer Eric Gagne in the bullpen will hurt, but few would be surprised to see this club slip into the second round.
The USA is considered one of the favorites to win the WBC, and is not expected to be seriously challenged in Pool B action. With a lineup featuring Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Junior and Chipper Jones; starters Roger Clemens and Dontrelle Willis; and a 10-man bullpen considered the most talented in baseball history, it’s safe to say even George Steinbrenner would be happy with this group of Yankees. South Africa is considered by some observers as a mystery team, but it’s no mystery why nothing is expected from them. With only four minor leaguers on their roster, a South African win in the WBC would not be merely a Cinderella story…it would stand as empirical evidence to even the most skeptical atheist that God does indeed exist.

In other baseball news, no less than 17 people were selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York by a special committee reviewing Negro League and pre-Negro League figures. Among those selected in the biggest class in HOF history was former Mexican League outfielder Willard “Home Run” Brown. Brown hit .354 with 8 homers and 61 RBI’s in 70 games for Nuevo Laredo in 1940, then dipped to a .256 average with two homers for the Veracruz Aguilas in 1941. He was a productive run-producer that year, driving in 24 runs in 28 games.
While there is no need to argue anybody’s inclusion (although the selection of ex-Newark Eagles co-owner Effa Manley over Gus Greenlee, the builder of the Pittsburgh Crawfords dynasty, was curious), a notable non-pick was outfielder Orestes “Minnie” Minoso. Perhaps the only American League player who could generate as much excitement as Mickey Mantle in the 1950’s, Minoso was a star for three decades of pro baseball in the majors, the Negro leagues, the Mexican League and his native Cuba. After a major league career in which he batted .298 with 186 homers and 1,023 RBI’s, he spent nine seasons in Mexico (beginning in 1965 at the age of 42), batting .317 with 56 homers. For his last season in 1973 with Laguna, Minoso hit 12 homers and stole 10 bases…as a 50-year-old.
Perhaps the special committee bypassed him because he only played three full seasons in the Negro Leagues with the New York Cubans, batting leadoff for the 1947 World Series champs while starting in two East-West All-Star games prior to being signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1949. What was Minoso supposed to do? Continue to play on substandard diamonds in front of declining audiences while riding the buses in a dying venture that was Negro League baseball in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s just so some committee might honor him 50+ years later?
The special committee that apparently had the green light to elect as many people to the HOF as they wanted had the chance to right a wrong by including Minoso in that group. And they blew it.
Editorial comment by Bruce Baskin, VIVA BEISBOL editor

MAESTROS of MEXICO: Fernando Valenzuela, pitcher (1979-present)
Mexico has not been noted for producing star major league pitchers over the years, but Fernando Valenzuela was so phenomenal an entire movement was named after him. “Fernandomania” swept Southern California in the early 1980’s when the young Valenzuela came practically from nowhere to stand baseball on its head as a starting pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and huge crowds would fill Dodger Stadium whenever he pitched. His fame followed him on the road as well.
Of course, Fernando Valenzuela Anguamea did not come from nowhere. He was born in the small town of Etchohuaquila, Sonora on June 9, 1950. He made his Mexican League debut as an 18-year-old in 1979 with the Yucatan Leones, winning just 10 of 22 decisions but with a 2.49 ERA and 141 strikeouts in 181 innings. He was named Rookie of the Year in the LMB and was sold to the Dodgers in 1980.
Little was expected of Valenzuela, and he spent most of the 1980 season in the Dodgers minor league system before ten scoreless relief appearances for Los Angeles in September. Valenzuela unleashed a wicked screwball taught to him by former Dodger Bobby Castillo and became a sensation in the process. His success would have made him fans in any situation, but Valenzuela became a magnet for Mexican fans in Southern California, and the nights he started for the Dodgers created an atmosphere at the ballpark that rarely happens north of the border. Latin baseball fans are generally more passionate and boisterous than their counterparts in the USA, and Dodger Stadium was like a siesta whenever Fernando pitched.
His 1981 season was out of a storybook. An emergency Opening Night starter replacing Jerry Reuss, Valenzuela tossed a 2-0 five-hitter over Houston and proceeded to reel off eight straight wins with a microscopic 0.50 ERA. Although he cooled down a little during that strike-shortened season, he ended up with a 13-7 record, started in the All-Star Game, led the National League in four categories, won a game in the World Series over the Yankees, and was named both Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award winner.
Valenzuela then put out five more standout seasons with the Dodgers, including a 1986 campaign in which he went 21-11 (his only 20-win season) and tied the All-Star Game record set by another screwballer, Carl Hubbell, in 1933 by striking out five American League batters in a row. He was the first player to be awarded a million-dollar contract in arbitration, and seemed headed to Cooperstown.
However, the hard-working Valenzuela (who made 288 starts between April 1981 and July 1988) began wearing down and experiencing shoulder problems, and he won only five games in an injury-plagued 1988 campaign. The 5’11” 180-pound lefty came back in 1989 and won ten games (including a no-hitter) that year and 13 more in 1990. The magic was gone, however, and Fernando was released in Spring Training of 1991. The California Angels picked him up and gave him some starts in the minors and pair of starts with the big club before letting Valenzuela go, too. His career seemed over.
He returned to Mexico in 1992 and had a 10-12 record for Jalisco with a 3.86 ERA. That was enough to earn an invite to the Baltimore Orioles in 1993, who made him their fifth starter. Valenzuela was 8-10 that year, although he was the AL Pitcher of the Month after going 3-0 with a 1.56 ERA in July. He returned to Jalisco in 1994, going 10-3 with a 2.67 ERA in 17 starts, and spent some time with the Phillies that year as well. The San Diego Padres gave him a shot in 1995, and he responded with 21 wins over two seasons. His proudest moment may have been when he started (and won) a game for San Diego on August 16, 1996 against the Mets in Monterrey for the first-ever major league contest in Mexico. Fernando got off to a rough start for the Padres in 1997 and ended up in St. Louis and finishing the year at 2-12 before getting his final release.
Since then, Valenzuela has made a few comeback attempts in the winter Mexican Pacific League. They have generally not been successful, although he did pitch fairly well for the Mexicali Aguilas this winter at age 45 with a 4-2 mark and 4.31 ERA in 10 starts. The winner of 173 big league games with over 2,000 career strikeouts, Fernando Valenzuela is a certain future selection to the Salon de la Fama as the most successful Mexican major leaguer ever.
NEXT MAESTRO: Jorge Orta, infielder-outfielder (1972-87)

This week’s Quiz: Who was the first Mexican father-son combination in the major leagues? (Question courtesy of Dana Eisenga from El Paso)

Last week’s Quiz answer: Of the original 16 major league franchises through the 1960 season, the last teams to have a Mexican player were the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers in 1971. Vicente Romo was a pitcher for the White Sox that season, while third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez joined the Tigers from the Washington Senators that season.

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