Baseball’s All-Time Mexican-Born Team

Left to right top row: Aurelio Rodriguez, Mexican national flag, Fernando Valenzuela. Middle row: Jorge Orta, Aurelio Lopez, Bobby Avila. Bottom row: Karim Garcia, Joakim Soria, and Roberto Osuna.

Do you know why the country of Mexico celebrates Cinco de Mayo? It’s to commemorate their unexpected victory over the French Army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The French were occupying Mexico at the time and their army was considered one of the best in the world (yes, really). But the Mexicans, even though they were outnumbered 2-to-1, won an important victory.

Want to know something else? It was only a bump in the road. A few months later, the French, clearly irked, sent a large mass of 30,000 troops across the ocean and thumped the Mexican Army, taking control of the country. Sigh. Seems strange, doesn’t it? That Cinco de Mayo celebrates a short-lived victory? Ah, but the tides shifted, and eventually, thanks to some help from their neighbor to the north (that’s the U.S.), Mexico expelled the French and gained full independence.

That’s all history, of course. Now, Americans like to enjoy Cinco de Mayo as a way to celebrate Mexican-American culture, tip their hats to their close neighbor to the south, and pound a lot of Tequila.

But that’s not why I’m writing this article. I’m here to pick an all-time team of baseball players who were born in Mexico.

The Detroit Tigers, despite being late to integrate, have a nice history of employing Mexican-born players. Five of the 18 players I select below played for the Detroit Tigers, two of them in important roles for many years.

Alex Trevino, Catcher

He probably should have won a Gold Glove for his work behind the plate, but Trevino spent most of his career in the same league as Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and Tony Pena. He is one of the few catchers to play in three different decades (1970s, 1980s, and 1990s), which is about the most exciting thing you can say about his career as a backup (or platoon) catcher.

Erubiel Durazo, First Base

Though he never played regularly in his brief seven seasons, Durazo made a name for himself in the 2001 postseason for the Diamondbacks with his power stroke. In the NLCS against the Braves, the left-handed hitter belted a series-winning homer off Tom Glavine. He batted .364 in the World Series victory over the Yankees. His 94 career homers rank fourth by Mexican-born players behind Vinny Castilla, Jorge Orta, and Aurelio Rodriguez.

Bobby Avila, Second Base

Born in Veracruz, Avila is one of the best players to ever come out of Mexico. He debuted in the majors in 1949 for Cleveland, following other black and Latin stars signed by that team. A shortstop in Mexico, Avila moved to second for Cleveland and was named an All-Star three times at that position. In 1954 when the Indians won a then-record 111 games, Avila won the batting title with a .341 average. He finished third that year in MVP voting behind Hall of Famers Yogi Berra and Larry Doby. Had it not been for the color barrier, Avila would have surely made his big league debut sooner. After his stint in the majors, Avila returned to Mexico where he played briefly again in the Mexican League (he batted .333 at the age of 36) and went on to become a team owner and eventually the president of the circuit.

Juan Castro, Shortstop

In 17 years in the majors, Castro was a fine defensive shortstop who never hit well enough to earn a starting job. His best seasons came with the Reds, and he also played for the Dodgers, Twins, Orioles, and Phillies. Castro was a notorious free-swinger, rarely walking and striking out a lot. Castro’s childhood hero was Fernando Valenzuela, which made it sweet that he was signed to his first pro contract by the Dodgers.

Aurelio Rodriguez, Third Base

The original “ARod” holds the all-time record for games played by a Mexican-born player. Rodriguez is also the only native Mexican to win a Gold Glove, capturing the honor in 1976 for his stellar play  at the hot corner. Rodriguez didn’t hit much, but lasted 17 seasons in the big leagues because of his defensive skills. Manager Sparky Anderson said of him, “He has the strongest arm I’ve ever seen in the infield and he can get to every ball.”

Jorge Orta, Left Field

Orta was a very useful player, spending 16 seasons in the big leagues from 1972 to 1987. His father was Pedro Orta, a famous Cuban player, but Jorge was born in Mazatlan, Mexico. His best season came with the White Sox, where he was an All-Star in 1975 when he had his average well above .330 at midseason. While the left-handed batter could stroke line drives, he was not known for his ability to play defense, and his managers usually tried to use him as a DH or pinch-hitter as much as possible. He was an All-Star with Cleveland in 1980 when the Tribe used him in right field as well as at designated hitter. In all, Orta spent some time at all three outfield positions and also played second, third, and short, though mostly early in his career.

In Game Six of the 1985 World Series, Orta was in the middle of one of the most controversial plays in postseason history. First base umpire Don Denkinger called him safe on a slow roller and as a result, the Royals were able to rally for a victory. The next night they won the Series.

Mel Almada, Center Field

As a 20-year old, Almada debuted with the Red Sox in 1933. He was prized as a speedy outfielder who could hit, having caught the attention of scouts as a high school player in Los Angeles. Almada hit over .300 at every stop as a young player prior to getting in to a handful of games with Boston. Thankfully he was a light-skinned Mexican, otherwise he never would have saw action in the big leagues. At that time, years before MLB was integrated, a few light-skinned Latin players were able to secure contracts and play in the league. But Mel was the first Mexican “national” to appear in a major league game. Earlier, his older brother Lou had been signed by John McGraw of the Giants, but he suffered an injury before he could appear in a game. The younger Almada had one season as the Sox regular center fielder before Dominic DiMaggio came along and took his job. The Mexican native went to the Senators, Browns, and Dodgers but was out of the majors by the age of 26.

Almada was the last man to get a hit off Babe Ruth. On October 2, 1933, in the final game of the season, the Yankees started Ruth against Boston in a meaningless game. Almada had three hits and two walks against The Bambino, but New York still won the game. Ruth never pitched in the majors again.

Karim Garcia, Right Field

The native of Ciudad Obregon, Mexico played parts of two seasons for the Detroit Tigers, and went on to wear the uniform of seven teams in ten-year career spent as a spare outfielder. His biggest moment came as a Yankee in the 2003 AL Championship Series when in Game Three at Fenway Park he was buzzed by a Pedro Martinez fastball that sailed behind his head. The ensuing brouhaha led to the benches emptying a few times in one of the most entertaining baseball fights in history. After his MLB career, Garcia played in the Mexican League.

Vinny Castilla, Designated Hitter

When you got this guy in Denver he was a monster at the plate in the thin air. He clubbed 40 homers in three straight seasons for the Rockies in the 1990s, and topped 30 homers six times for the team. Castilla was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and came up as a shortstop, but his range was not that great so he was switched to third base. Among players from Mexico, he’s tops in hits, runs, home runs, RBIs, extra-base hits, and strikeouts. His 320 dingers are more than twice the total of any of his countrymen.

Fernando Valenzuela, Starting Pitcher

The best Mexican to ever play in the major leagues, Valenzuela captured the spotlight as a 20-year old rookie for the Dodgers in 1981. His starts created a frenzy of publicity known as “Fernandomania” in the season where he won both the Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year Award while also finishing fifth in MVP voting. It was a truly magical year: Fernando led the Dodgers to a World Series title, winning three games in the postseason. Fernando was no flash-in-the-pan: the southpaw won 19 games in his second season, tossed a no-hitter, and won 173 games in a 17-year career. He was a national hero in Mexico and immensely popular with the Hispanic population of LA. He holds the all-time major league records for wins, games started, complete games, shutouts, innings, and strikeouts by a Mexican-born player.

Teddy Higuera, Starting Pitcher

Higuera was actually three years older than Fernando, but didn’t pitch his first major league game until 1985 when he was already 27 years old. The lefthander quickly became an ace for the Brewers, winning 69 games for the club in his first four seasons. In ’86 he became the first Mexican native to win 20 games in a season, doing it three days before Fernando accomplished the same thing for the Dodgers. An arm injury ended his career in 1994.

Yovani Gallardo, Starting Pitcher

The Brewers dipped back into the Mexican pool when they drafted Gallardo in the 2004 draft. Three years later the tall righthander was in their rotation and he eventually made more than 200 starts for Milwaukee, including four in the postseason. He was an All-Star once for Milwaukee but now finds himself in the rotation for the Mariners. He’s one of only five Mexican pitchers with more than 100 wins in the major leagues.

Ismael Valdez, Starting Pitcher

As a young boy in Mexico, Valdez tried to pitch left handed to emulate his hero Fernando Valenzuela, but ultimately it was his natural right arm that brought him to the big leagues. Like Fernando, Valdez found himself on the Dodgers pitching staff at age 20, in 1994. He won as many as 15 games for LA and captured 104 victories in a 12-year career spent with seven teams.

Esteban Loaiza, Starting Pitcher

A native of Tijuana, Loaiza was a rotation-filler for eight teams in a 14-year career that spanned from 1995 to 2008. His best season came for the White Sox in 2003 when he won 21 games and led the league in strikeouts. As a result, he finished second in Cy Young voting to Roy Halladay. His 126 wins rank second to Valenzuela.

Aurelio Lopez, Relief Pitcher

Dubbed “Señor Smoke,” Lopez featured a knee-high fastball that could reach 96 miles per hour. The portly righthander pitched for four teams in his big league career, but his best seasons came for the Detroit Tigers. He also played seven seasons in the Mexican League, mostly for Mexico City, where he was immensely popular. In 1984 he was the righthanded ace out of Sparky Anderson’s bullpen, appearing in 71 games while logging more than 135 innings for the World Champions. He was an All-Star in 1983 when he saved 18 games for Detroit and received Cy Young votes in 1979 when he saved 21 and pitched brilliantly for the Tigers.

A good-natured character, Lopez enjoyed eating and drinking, and one more than one occasion he ran afoul of Sparky because of his weight. After he retired as a player, Lopez returned to Mexico and became mayor of his hometown. In 1992, just days before his 44th birthday he was killed in an automobile accident.

Joakim Soria, Relief Pitcher

Another former Tiger reliever, Soria holds the record for most saves in the majors by a Mexican-born picher, with more than 200 (as of early in the 2017 season).  He pitched the third perfect game in the history of the Mexican Pacific League in 2006, following Vicente Romo in 1971 and Jesus Moreno in 1989. He twice finished second in the American League in saves.

Sid Monge, Relief Pitcher

A tall, thick lefthanded hurler, Monge had a couple of solid seasons for the Indians (once earning an All-Star nod) but otherwise bounced around both leagues in a ten-year career that started in 1975. His fortunes changed dramatically at the trade deadline in 1984 when he was acquired by the Tigers off of waivers for bullpen depth. He pitched pretty well for Sparky Anderson in the second half of the season but did not get into a postseason game. Still, he won a World Series ring in his final big league campaign. Like many of the men on this list, Monge was elected to the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame.

Roberto Osuna, Relief Pitcher

This hard-thrower hails from Juan Jose Rios, and he has a chance to be the most successful Mexican reliever at the big league level. In his first two seasons with the Blue Jays in 2015-16, Osuna saved 56 games while striking out nearly 10 batters per nine innings. He turned 22 during spring training in 2017 and has a great future.

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