I know most of you would prefer to read about the latest gossip whirling around Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez or David “Big Papi” Ortiz. Or maybe you might be yearning for more, media-hyped trade talks regarding Felix Hernandez. Perhaps more news about Manny Ramirez and his girl friend may even be of interest. Well, I have nothing against the rich and famous and their adoring fans. But I’ve got something else stuck in my feeble mind lately that seems more important.
It might just be the lingering effects of the holiday season, but I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball’s less-renowned players these days. You know, the bean and tortilla guys. These are the professionals who provide the glue that mold successful teams, while their superstar teammates bask in the spotlight.
So, without a drum roll or further fanfare, here are my 10 Latino candidates for blue-collar recognition, listed in alphabetical order:
After making his major-league debut in late July of last season, Altuve proved why he is one of Houston’s most prized possessions. Baseball America’s minor league all-star second baseman in 2011, the youngster from Maracay, Venezuela runs like a deer, making his first big league home run an inside-the-park affair. Altuve is also a fielding whiz, making only two errors in 135 attempts since he was promoted. Altuve, only 21, will be part of an untested Houston infield that will be asked to sink or swim this spring. But my guess is that Jose will keep his head above water and become a fan favorite.
This grizzled veteran is like fine wine, getting better and better with age. Cairo has spent 16 years in the major leagues with 10 different teams, but his services are still high in demand. The 38-year-old Venezuelan carries a career fielding percentage of .982, and has played every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher. In addition, Cairo is a capable pinch-hitter, and all that clubhouse wisdom makes his $1 million salary with the Reds a real bargain.
Kansas City Royals
Alright, maybe he isn’t of Hispanic decent. But Chen, a 34-year-old native of Panama, is a product of the same environment. It’s never been easy for the southpaw pitcher, who has bounced around the big leagues for 13 years. In his last two seasons with the lowly Kansas City Royals, Chen racked up a respectable 24-15 record, and elected to test free agency. Then the Royals got bold with their pitching plans. They traded popular outfielder Melky Cabrera to the San Francisco Giants for moody but talented Jonathan Sanchez. And Chen got a new, two-year deal worth $6 million. It couldn’t have happened to a guy more deserving.
Toronto Blue Jays
Escobar is just one of those feel-good stories that need to be addressed. Escobar and childhood friend Brayan Pena are both natives of Cuba who were stars on Fidel Castro’s national team, but had a burning desire to play in America. Pena, now a major-league catcher, defected first, making it more difficult for Escobar to escape scrutiny. When Yunel finally hit the shores of Miami at age 22, his pal Brayan spread the word, and the pair were briefly teammates again with the Atlanta Braves. Now, Escobar is the starting shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays. But he’s vastly underrated and plays in the shadow of slugger Jose Bautista. Making $5 million a season and freedom from an oppressive regime is far more important.
San Diego Padres
Signed to a minor-league deal last winter, Guzman batted .312 to lead the Padres, one of baseball’s worst offensive teams in 2011. This season could be different. With the added lineup protection of Yonder Alonso and Carlos Quentin, the 26-year-old Venezuelan might possibly win the National League batting title! Just kidding. In order to even play every day, Guzman will need to concentrate on improving his defense. “We’ll stick him (Guzman) anywhere on the field to get that big bat in there,” says Padre manager Buddy Black. After nearly a decade of long bus rides, Jesus is just grateful for the opportunity. And San Diego fans are calling him a gift from heaven.
One of the smallest players in the major leagues at 5′-10″ and 150 pounds, Herrera has a big heart and is the Rockies “Mr. Everything.” The flashy, 27-year-old is a second baseman by trade, but can also backup at third base and the outfield. He also switch hits and is a threat on the base paths. Herrera had his 2011 season cut short last September when he broke his index and pinky fingers in a mishap at home, “just playing with my kids.” As a youth in Maracaibo, Venezuela, Herrera used to roam the sandlots with his best friend, Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. It’s ironic the pair now hang out in the Rocky Mountains. But CarGo has a much bigger bank account.
New York Yankees
The players who anchor the left side of the Yankees infield certainly fall into that rich and famous category. But as Alex Rodriguez continues to nurse his injuries and Derek Jeter needs frequent breaks, the 24-year-old Nunez is becoming a significant factor in the Bronx. Once running neck and neck with Ramiro Pena as a late-inning replacement for the aging stars, the slender Nunez has batted himself into the lineup, hitting .309 in 112 games last year. While his defense is still a work in progress, Nunez has shown a flair for the dramatic play and can steal a base when necessary. His contract is also a “steal,” but Eduardo’s big payday will come.
St. Louis Cardinals
Before the Cardinals finally discovered Jason Motte deep into the playoffs last season, retired skipper Tony La Russa employed a “closer by committee” policy in the bullpen. And the guy he relied on the most was Salas. That’s because Salas was, by far, the Cardinals most versatile performer. The 26-year-old Salas logged 75 innings and an equal amount of strikeouts for La Russa, with 24 saves and a 2.28 ERA. And the Mexican’s importance will increase this season, since veteran reliever Octavio Dotel left the nest as a free agent.
New York Mets
Technically entering his third major league season at 21 years of age, Tejada will be asked to fill the huge shoes of Jose Reyes as the Mets everyday shortstop. The likeable youngster from Panama subbed nicely for an injured Reyes last year, batting .284 with an on-base percentage of .360 in 96 games. Playing in New York is not intimidating for Tejada, who is used to performing on the big stage. He was a participant for Panama in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and led his country to a birth in the Little League World Series back in 2000.
You cant help but cheer for a globe-trotting, journeyman player like Valdez, 33, who signed his first pro contract back in 1997 with the Montreal Expos. Since then, he has been traded six times, released on four occasions and has seen tours of duty in South Korea and Japan. A middle infielder, he has played the last two seasons with the Phillies and appears to have finally found a home. In a game against the Cincinnati Reds last May 25, Valdez started at second base in what would become a marathon event. Going into the 19th inning with the score still tied and Philadelphia out of pitchers, the slender Dominican volunteered to toe the rubber for the home team and threw up goose eggs, allowing the Phillies to get a walk-off win in the bottom part of the frame. The victory put Valdez in the record books. He became the first player since Babe Ruth to win a game on the mound after starting the contest at another position.
These players are just a handful of several hundred Hispanic athletes in the major and minor leagues who chase an elusive dream. They battle language and cultural barriers while seeking acceptance in front of crowds, large and small. And they often worry about their families back home, wondering if they are safe from harm or being victimized by criminals holding them for ransom.
Don’t get me wrong. Playing professional baseball is a great way to make a living, and for many Latinos, an escape from poverty. I just wanted to shed some light from a different prospective.