Caguas Criollos: John Strohmayer to Mike Schmidt, Gary Carter and Jay Johnstone (Part VI)

John Strohmayer pitched for the 1970-72 Montreal Expos, managed by Gene Mauch. The Expos firmly believed in sending their top prospects to the Caribbean for winter ball. Thus, Montreal sent Strohmayer (1971-72) back to Caguas; fellow pitchers Steve Rogers and Steve Renko to Caguas in 1972-73; and Gary Carter to the Criollos, 1973-74 and 1974-75. Expos LHP Balor Moore got to pitch for the 1973-74 San Juan Senators, managed by Junior Gilliam. By 1976-77, the Baltimore Orioles began sending their top prospects to Caguas, including future Cooperstown Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, RHP Dennis Martínez and [1980-82] Cal Ripken Jr. The Philadelphia Phillies had links with Caguas, from 1972-74: catcher Bob Boone, 3B Mike Schmidt, OF Roger Freed and RHP Wayne Twitchell reinforced the Criollos.

Cal Ripken Jr.

José “Ronquito” García was Dr. Emigdio Buonomo’s GM with Caguas most of the 1970s and early 1980s. He served as a big-league scout for Montreal and Baltimore (and later, San Diego); managed and coached Puerto Rico’s amateur baseball team in various international competitions. These experiences helped García as a Caguas GM. “I would scout the young talent throughout Puerto Rico. Plus, I had the confidence of big-league organizations. Baltimore felt comfortable sending Dennis Martínez to Caguas when I was their GM. They sent Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. here because of my efforts. Ripken has always treated me the same way—with respect—and is thankful to our league for what it did for him. When I scouted for Montreal, the Expos sent Gary Carter, Steve Rogers and other prospects to Caguas,” affirmed García.

A Working Vacation

Strohmayer said it best when he told the author: “Where else can you ‘work’ in a vacation paradise, meet great people and play against great ballplayers? I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. They were just fantastic. Californian Strohmayer was pleasantly surprised with the unique flavor of Puerto Rico’s food. He thought it might be hot and spicy, like Mexican food, but it wasn’t. Strohmayer ordered Puerto Rican food at restaurants on the way to road games, unlike most of his imported teammates, on the prowl for stateside food. Asopao, a thick soup with a variety of flavors, containing chicken and seafood, was a favorite. Strohmayer was Caguas Player of the Week several times. Prizes included standard dinner for two at Caguas Highway Inn and a trip to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; a new radio; and a $100 gift certificate.  

When Bob Apodaca joined the 1973-74 Caguas Criollos, he was “on the bubble” in terms of the New York Mets pitching staff. Apodaca’s working vacation paid dividends, since he impressed [Mets manager] Yogi Berra with 18 scoreless innings the following spring training. Twenty years after pitching for Caguas, Apodaca noted it was the turning point in his career. “It was up  to the American [Stateside] players who went down there to make sure they took it serious and not just as a vacation,” claimed Apodaca. “You know, make some money, be in Puerto Rico where it was nice and warm. You had to go down there and reestablish yourself in Puerto Rico.”

Apodaca lived in the same building as Caguas teammates Mike Schmidt, Jay Johnstone, Craig Swan and John Montague. This was the Condado section of San Juan [actually, in Santurce] where many Imports lived since the 1960s. The Isla Verde section of San Juan [and Carolina] is another tourist area where Imports live. There, ballplayers found discos, casinos and beaches.

John Montague remembered 1973-74 as an exciting season. Caguas won the title, and everyone chipped in on and off the field. “It was a job, but a fun job,” he exclaimed. “Craig Swan, myself and [Mike] Schmidt played tennis for an hour earlier in the day. I really liked the rice and beans.” Montague pitched for Bayamón in 1974-75 on his second straight Caribbean Series winner. He enjoyed the party atmosphere during this series and the hospitality of [Bayamón] owner Jorge Bird.

1971-72 Season Highlights

Caguas traded Julio Navarro and José A. Pagán to San Juan, prior to 1971-72, for 3B José “Cocó” Laboy and others. The trade helped San Juan more, since Laboy was injured early that season, and missed most of it. “It happened on a relay play,” recalled Laboy. “I planted my knee for a throw to the plate, and felt tremendous pain.” Navarro (5-4, 3.16 ERA) and Pagán, .287 AVG, 25 RBI, helped 39-30 San Juan win the regular season pennant, under skipper Bill Virdon. Five of eight San Juan regulars came from the Pittsburgh Pirates: catcher Milt May, 1B Carl Taylor, 2B Rennie Stennett, 3B Pagán and LF Richard Zisk. San Juan Starters Bruce Kison and Bob Johnson pitched for the 1971 World Champion Pirates.

Conversely, the 34-35 Criollos, fourth-place team, had RHP Strohmayer, with a league-leading 1.71 ERA and eight wins—tied for third with Ponce’s Rich Hinton and Bob Johnson, one behind Kison’s nine, but six wins fewer than Rogelio “Roger” Moret’s 14 wins for Santurce. LHP Dan McGinn pitched ably for Caguas with a 2.23 ERA. Youngster Manuel Muñiz pitched a seven-inning no-hitter for the Criollos, January 12, 1972, versus San Juan; and saved four games. Guillermo “Willie” Montañez hit a league-leading 15 HR for Caguas, three more than 12 slugged by Charlie Manuel of Mayagüez. Montañez’s 15th HR was hit during Muñiz’s no-hit gem versus San Juan. Strohmayer’s 1.71 ERA edged Moret’s 1.81 ERA. Ponce’s Chris Zachary had a 2.20 ERA, followed by McGinn (2.23) and Kison (2.33).

Caguas faced off against 39-30 San Juan, the first-place club, in one semi-final. San Juan bested Caguas, four games-to-two, as Jim Bibby, Bob Johnson, Jon Matlack and Julio Navarro won one game apiece. Kison and Matlack lost starts against Caguas. San Juan fell to Ponce, four games-to-two, in the finals. (Ponce had defeated Santurce, managed by Rubén Gómez, in the other semi-final.) The 1971-72 Ponce Lions then won the February 1972 Caribbean Series hosted by Santo Domingo. Ponce reinforced itself with Santurce’s Don Baylor, the Puerto Rico League 1971-72 batting champ [.324 AVG]; San Juan’s Rusty Torres, among others. The quality of play in the Caribbean was excellent back then. Venezuela’s Aragua Tigers were led by player-manager Rod Carew, who formed a top-notch double-play combination with SS David Concepción. César Cedeño, with the Aguilas Cibaeñas of the host country, was voted to the February 1-6, 1972 Caribbean Series All-Star Team, as the RF, along with 2B Carew of Aragua.

The Phillies Connect with Caguas, 1972-73 and Beyond

Fred “Habichuela” Beene found himself with the 1972-73 Criollos, pitching to Phillies prospect Bob Boone. Beene responded with an 8-2 W-L mark, his best during five Puerto Rico Winter League seasons. Boone was one of the top three catchers Beene had ever pitched to, moving behind the plate the way he liked, and helping a pitcher have better control. (Eliseo Rodríguez, who caught Beene with Bayamón, 1978-79, was Beene’s other, all-time favorite catcher; Beene felt Eliseo had mental telepathy and was very sharp in terms of working the hitters and reading the minds of Native players. Thurman Munson, who caught Beene with the 1973 New York Yankees, was also complimented by Beene.)

Billy DeMars, a coach with the Phillies, 1969-to-1981, managed Caguas, 1972-73. DeMars passed away at 95, December 10, 2020. He was highly regarded by Mike Schmidt, who played two seasons with Caguas, 1972-73 and 1973-74. DeMars felt that Schmidt and other Phillies players would benefit from playing in a tough Winter League. Schmidt, after DeMars’s passing, told The [Philadelphia] Inquirer: “He [DeMars] was a good, old guy who was around and worked hard and was ready to go to the batting cage. He taught more by feel, if you know what that means. If you can’t feel it, then you can’t correct it. He made you feel a certain sense of contact—how it feels when your shoulder stays in and you cover the ball and how it feels when your shoulder comes out and you roll over the ball or swing and miss or pull it foul. All of us on the team benefited from that.” DeMars, hitting coach for the 1980 World Champion Phillies, was “the best hitting coach Pete Rose ever had,” per Rose himself. (Rose brought DeMars with him to Cincinnati, in 1985, after [Rose] being named their 1985 player-manager.)

The 1972-73 Criollos had a powerful line-up, with four players hitting 10+ HR: 1B Mike Jorgensen (13), LF Roger Freed (12) 1B Montañez (12) and  CF Jerry Morales (10). All trailed Zisk of San Juan, who hit 14. But 38-32 Caguas, the second-place team, fell to Ponce, four games-to-one, in one semi-finals. Ponce starter Rich “Goose” Gossage blanked Caguas, in one Ponce win. Dave Lemonds and Jim Magnuson combined for another Ponce victory. Chris Zachary and Tom Kelley earned the other Ponce wins, before the Lions fell to first-place Santurce (45-25), in the finals. Still, Caguas had a good season, with LHP Grant Jackson’s 91 strikeouts, second-best in the league to Arecibo’s Lynn McGlothen’s 130; Beene’s 2.09 ERA, third-best, behind San Juan’s Brent Strom (1.65) and Zachary’s 2.00 ERA for Ponce.

Ron Cey (.298 AVG, 7 HR, 43 RBI) was the league’s All-Star 3B, 1972-73, with Santurce, in the writer’s poll, season’s end. Frank Robinson, Santurce’s skipper, secured Cey and RF Willie Crawford to reinforce the Crabbers, due to his [Robinson] playing for the 1972 Los Angeles Dodgers. Mike Schmidt, however, earned MVP laurels in the January 6, 1973 League All-Star Game, played six days after Roberto Clemente’s tragic passing. Pre-game ceremonies at the January 6, 1973 contest were conducted in Clemente’s honor. A minute of silence was followed by placing a memorial wreath at the base of the RF fence at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Players for the “Native” and “Import” teams wore black arm bands. Schmidt’s three RBIs for the Imports were decisive in a 4-2 win. Both Cey and Schmidt alerted the author that the Puerto Rico Winter League was “helpful” to their respective careers. Jerry Morales once heard Schmidt comment that “winning the 1974 Caribbean Series was one of the highlights of his pro baseball career.”

Caguas Wins 1973-74 League Crown

Bobby Wine and Jerry Morales

Jerry Morales slugged 14 HR as Caguas’s 1973-74 leadoff hitter. He [CF] and 3B Schmidt were the Criollos two representatives on the league’s final 1973-74 All-Star Team, per the writers. But the 39-31 Criollos, managed by Bobby Wine, were one of Puerto Rico’s best professional baseball teams, ever. Otto Vélez opined this “was the best league team he ever played on,” noting: “There was no envy on that [1973-74] team, though there were many who could really play. Gary Carter wanted to be a better player; Schmidt had to overcome a [1973 NL] season with a lot of strikeouts.” Woody Huyke, Caguas’s coach, credited the team’s Native players, as “key to the Criollos success.”

Jay Johnstone

Jay Johnstone, Caguas’s LF, tied Arecibo’s Benny Ayala for the league RBI lead, with 46. Johnstone played on a league champion five years earlier, for Rocky Bridges’s 1968-69 Ponce Lions, as a California Angels prospect. Johnstone loved the Island’s culture. “It was a fun thing, because it [1968-69] was my first experience in Puerto Rico,” said Johnstone. “We lived in the beautiful downtown Darlington Hotel and I remember going around with Pat Corrales and his wife and mine. Then I had a good [1969] year with the Angels. We he had to go over those mountain roads. We used to have to get out of those buses and push.” Johnstone seemed to thrive in Puerto Rico. “Learning to live there and live with Christmas at 85 degrees, you know, and our wives bonding together and getting together with Native players and doing things. I think I had a better experience, culture-wise, off the field, than playing the game.”

Coincidentally, catcher Pat Corrales was player-manager, 1973-74 Ponce Lions, who finished first at 42-28, before losing to the Criollos in the finals, four games-to-two. (Caguas played their Final Series home games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, due to some on-going renovations at their home stadium.) Ponce had reliever Steve Blateric, the league’s best closer, with 12 saves; top-notch Native OF José “Cheo” Cruz and Luis “Torito” Meléndez; a solid IF with 3B Phil Garner, 2B Larry Lintz and SS David Rosselló; and starters Mike Caldwell, Alan Dopfel—drafted by the California Angels out of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)—Ernie McAnally, John Strohmayer and Chris Zachary. Catcher-DH José Manuel Morales was a valuable contributor to Ponce, too. The pitching of Eduardo Figueroa—who won two games against Ponce—was instrumental in Caguas’s series win. “The [Puerto Rico] league helped me become a major-league pitcher,” said Figueroa. “It gave me seasoning and confidence.” Caguas acquired Figueroa in a trade with Arecibo, before the 1973-74 season, for SS Iván de Jesús and a pitcher.

Gary Carter

Caguas reinforced itself for the 1974 Caribbean Series with Blateric and Ramón “Mon” Hernández (six saves) of Santurce. They complemented Don DeMola, who had nine regular season saves for Caguas. The Criollos solid rotation was led by Eduardo Figueroa (10-3), Craig Swan, Jesús Hernaiz (6-2), John Montague and Eduardo “Volanta” Rodríguez. Gary Carter joined Caguas towards the end of the season; he replaced Jim Essian at catcher. Guillermo Montañez (.319 AVG in 116 AB), Félix Millán (13-for-54), Pedro “Chicken” García, Schmidt (.253 AVG, 21 HR and 52 RBI for his two Caguas seasons, 1972-74) and left-handed hitting SS Rudy Meoli comprised Caguas’s IF. Johnstone, Jerry Morales and Otto Vélez were a strong OF. Guillermo “Willie” Hernández, future [1984] AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, was a spot starter-long reliever for the Criollos. Sixto Lezcano and Jesús “Bombo” Rivera provided OF depth. Héctor Barea opined this was Caguas’s all-time best team.

1974 Caribbean Series Champions

Mike Schmidt

Schmidt and Johnstone played chess on the flight from San Juan to Mexico City. The team caught a connecting flight from Mexico City to Hermosillo, host of the Caribbean Series. Hotel Valle Grande was their hotel during the February 1-6, 1974 series. Four teams included Caguas, defending champion Licey Tigers from the Dominican Republic, managed by Tom Lasorda; and two teams from Mexico—Ciudad Obregón Yaquis and Mazatlán Venados (Deer). A players’ strike in Venezuela precluded a team from that nation to participate. So, Mexico had two representatives at Hermosillo’s Héctor Espino Stadium. (Héctor Espino is the “Babe Ruth of Mexico” per https://www.1800beisbol.com/baseball/deportes/beisbol_mexico/hector_espino_the_babe_ruth_of_mexico/.)

Ed Bauta, originally from the town of Florida, Cuba, Camagüey Province, reinforced Obregón. https://beisbol101.com/tag/ed-bauta/ Bauta pitched 7.2 scoreless innings in relief versus Caguas, on February 1, in the Criollos 2-1 win. Craig Swan won it; Mon Hernández saved it; Héctor Espino homered. Two nights later, Bauta pitched a 5-1 win, a four-hitter, over Licey. Bauta gave up a first inning run and three hits, but only a Bill Buckner single the rest of the way. This CG win helped Caguas, 4-2 W-L, win the 1974 Caribbean Series over 3-3 Licey. Obregón (3-3) tied Licey; Mazatán was 2-4. Bauta pitched two scoreless relief innings on February 6, allowing an unearned run after a Steve Garvey IF hit and two errors. Caguas lost to Mazatlán, 1-0, that evening, despite Guillermo Hernández’s fine start. Bauta enjoyed drinking with Héctor Espino. “Héctor was my Hermosillo roommate,” said Bauta. “He drank a lot, but was a tremendous hitter. I was drunk before and after each [1974] Caribbean Series game. Bauta was chosen as the All-Star RHP, 1-0, 0.48 ERA, 11 strikeouts, one walk, 18.2 innings. Espino was the All-Star 1B and series MVP in the last Caribbean Series without a DH.

Table I: 1974 Caribbean Series All-Stars

Pos.All-StarTeam
CGary CarterCaguas
1BHéctor EspinoObregón
2BJorge OrtaObregón
3BCelerino SánchezObregón
SSRudy MeoliCaguas
LFJesus AlouLicey
CFCésar GerónimoLicey
RFTom PaciorekLicey
RHPEd BautaObregón
LHPMon HernándezCaguas
MGRBobby WineCaguas

Another John Strohmayer Anecdote

Strohmayer became good friends with José A. Pagán as 1970-71 Caguas teammates. In a 1971 Montreal-Pittsburgh NL game, Strohmayer threw Pagán a 1-2 fastball inside. The pitch came in and “broke his wrist,” per Strohmayer. “In fact, when I hit José, and heard that sickening thud and crack, I said, ‘Oh, no, geez, here’s a guy who’s my friend.’ I found out he had a broken wrist from a clubhouse report. A couple of innings later, Roberto Clemente, a good friend of José, hit a comebacker to me—wanted to hit the ball out of the park and show me I couldn’t hit his friend and get away with it…[After the putout he] made a big loop and said a few things in Spanish which weren’t so pleasant.” Strohmayer, in 1971-72, played against Pagán’s San Juan team. Pagán told Strohmayer his wrist was completely healed, but the first time up against Caguas, he was hit in the wrist, in the same exact spot, a re-break of the one a few months earlier.

Caguas Criollos All-Star Team, 1970s

Caguas’s mythical 1970s All-Star Team includes players on three league champions (1973-74, 1976-77 and 1978-79) and nine Criollos with the February 1974 Caribbean Series winner.

Sixto Lezcano y José Cruz

Caguas Criollos All-Star Team, 1969-70 to 1978-79, per Héctor Barea & Van Hyning

Player-PositionSeasonCaguas Season Highlights and Some Other Honors
Bob Boone-C1972-73.272 AVG; 4 HR, 25 RBI; 6x Gold Glove (GG) Winner
Cary Carter-C1973-74.261 AVG; Caribbean Series title; 3x NL GG
John Wockenfuss-C1976-77.278 AVG; caught all 60 Caguas regular season games
Nate Colbert-1B1969-70League-leading 16 HR
Guillermo Montañez-1B1971-72League-leading 15 HR; 1974 Caribbean Series title
Félix Millán-2B1969-70.345 AVG led league; 2x NL GG, Caribbean Series title
Mike Schmidt-3B1973-7412 HR, tied-for third; Caribbean Series title; 10x NL GG
Julio César González-SS1976-77.337 AVG; third-best behind S. Lezcano and Cheo Cruz
José “Cheo” Cruz-OF1978-79.370 AVG led league; had 7 HR, 33 RBI and 43 BB
Jay Johnstone-OF1974-75MVP; .345 AVG (second); 9 HR (second), 46 RBI (first)
Sixto Lezcano-OF1976-77.366 AVG led league; 44 RBI second to Roger Freed-48
Jerry Morales-OF1973-7414 HR tied Benny Ayala for first; Caribbean Series title
Bob Oliver-OF1970-7115 HR, second to 20-Reggie Jackson; 52 RBI led league
Tony Scott-OF1976-7725 SB led league; .3224 AVG, league’s fifth-best
José M. Morales-DH1975-76.324 AVG (third-best); league-leading 18 doubles
Fred Beene-P1972-738-2 W-L; 2.09 ERA, third-best
Eduardo Figueroa-P1973-7410-3 W-L, 3.47 ERA; also 10-3, 1974-75, with 2.35 ERA
Grant Jackson-P1972-7391 K’s, league’s second-best (seventh Caguas season)
Scott McGregor-P1977-788-2 W-L, league-leading 2.18 ERA
Dennis Martínez-P1976-77Eight wins tied Santurce’s Paul Hartzell for second-most
Eduardo Rodríguez-P1976-779-3 W-L, 2.71 ERA (second-best); 67 K’s, third-best
John Strohmayer-P1971-72League-leading 1.71 ERA; eight wins: tied, third-most
Bobby Wine-MGR1973-7439-31 W-L; won 1974 Caribbean Series with 4-2 W-L

With deep appreciation to Bob Apodaca, Héctor Barea, Ed Bauta, Fred Beene, Ron Cey, Eduardo Figueroa, Roger Freed, José “Ronquito” García, Woody Hukye, Jay Johnstone, José “Cocó” Laboy,  Félix Millán, John Montague, Jerry Morales, Mike Schmidt, John Strohmayer, Otto Vélez and Chris Zachary. Thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

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