It was once said of Tito Fuentes that there “wasn’t enough mustard to cover that hot dog.” And indeed, long before Manny Ramirez or Pedro Martinez, the infielder was one of baseball’s all-time flakes. After a fine career spent largely with the Giants, Fuentes remains one of the most popular players in the San Francisco area. But his one season with the Detroit Tigers is often overlooked and forgotten.
When Rigoberto Fuentes was first scouted by the Giants in Cuba in the early 1960s, he was just a skinny teenager. With an incredibly powerful arm that belied his scrawny upper body, and quick feet that allowed him to range far to his left or right in pursuit of groundballs, Fuentes was an eye-popping prospect. In 1962 he inked a deal with the Giants, one of the last players to sign a major league contract before relations between the U.S. and Cuba were severed.
Fuentes was in the big leagues by 1965 at the age of 21 (though like many Latin players it’s likely that he had lied about his age and had seen a few more calendars). He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting in 1966, but inconsistent stick work sent him back to the minors for the entire 1968 season. After seeing time at shortstop and third base, Fuentes was firmly ensconced at second in 1970. His flashy defensive play and flamboyant antics soon drew the attention of Bay Area fans. Fuentes was an acrobatic infielder, hopping over base runners as he pivoted on the double play, and flipping the ball side armed from below his waist to avoid enemy spikes, as well.
But Tito was also flashy for other reasons. He prided himself as the best dresser in the National League, ordering expensive suits at nearly every stop in the big cities. He was especially fond of red suits and the wide lapels that were prominent at the time. On the field, Tito wore wrist bands and even a head band over his cap, a habit that led to the league ordering him to conceal the gear under his hat when in the field.
Fuentes also formed elaborate rituals at the plate that drew attention. He would stutter step on his way to the batters’ box from the on-deck circle, tap the top of his batting helmet with exaggerated motions, and tap his bat on the plate and twirl it before catching it on the handle. The antics brought eye rolls from opponents but drove Giants fans wild with fascinated delight.
In the 1971 NL Playoffs, Fuentes hit a home run to win Game One, the only win for San Francisco in their series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1973, he set a National League record for by recording a .993 fielding percentage, the highest for any regular second baseman in league history. Ironically, Fuentes had led all National League second basemen in errors during the previous two seasons before setting the new record for excellence. His record stood for 13 seasons before Ryne Sandberg recorded a .994 percentage at second in 1986.
After spending two years farther south in California with the San Diego Padres, Fuentes was signed as a free agent by the Tigers for the 1977 season. On a team in transition, Fuentes enjoyed his best offensive season, hitting .309 with 10 triples and a career-best .397 slugging percentage in 151 games. A switch-hitter, Fuentes was a solid performer in the #2 slot in Ralph Houk’s lineup.
After the season, Fuentes was not tendered a contract. The Tigers had young Lou Whitaker in the wings and didn’t need the veteran at second base anymore. The Cuban went back to the Bay Area, playing 13 games for the Oakland A’s before being released. His career was over. He later spent a stretch as a broadcaster on Spanish broadcasts for the Giants and returned in 2004 in that same role, a job he still holds today.