Carlos (Karl) “Chico” Heron discovered Mariano Rivera in Panama and was his Mentor

According to an April 2, 2012 New York Post article by Joel Sherman, the New York Yankees’ international scouting director in the late 1980s and early 1990s—Herb Raybourn—had dual citizenship in the U.S. and Panamá. https://nypost.com/2012/04/02/yankees-closer-rivera-took-unbelievable-journey/  More importantly, the Yankees’ scout in Panamá was Chico Heron, a sometime cab driver and coach of the country’s National Baseball Team. So, who was Carlos (Karl) San José “Chico” Heron? What made Heron so instrumental in signing Mariano Rivera for the Yankees, and becoming a combination mentor and father figure?

Chico Heron was born in Bocas del Toro, Panamá, a province of Panamá, comprising the mainland and nine main islands, on March 19, 1936. History states that Christopher Columbus and his crew first visited the area in 1502.

U.S. Minor Leagues

Heron began his (U.S.) minor-league career in 1954, at age 18, playing for three Class C teams: Oak Ridge, Mountain States League; Meridian (Mississippi) Millers, Cotton States League; and, Pampa Oilers, West Texas-New Mexico League. He was the first black Latino professional baseball player with a Mississippi-based team, when he joined Meridian. Heron’s .325 AVG for the Millers was his best minor-league AVG, 1954 through 1962, his last minor-league season.

Joe Gibbon, from Hickory, Mississippi, worked out with the Millers, and played semipro ball in Lauderdale County, where Meridian is the main city/county seat. Gibbon—a future teammate of Roberto Clemente with Pittsburgh; Willie Mays with San Francisco; and Johnny Bench with Cincinnati—vaguely remembered Chico Heron, as a talented, but not big [5’10, 165 lbs.] IF, who could play second, third, and shortstop. (Gibbon and I conversed in 2010; he had just completed his Freshman year at Ole Miss, when Heron joined Meridian.) Gibbon also had fond memories of Buckwalter Stadium, home of the Millers. Chuck Bearman, a co-coworker of the author, mentioned this documentary on Buckwalter Stadium:  https://www.wgbctv.com/single-post/2019/05/23/Historic-Buckwalter-Stadium-appears-in-documentary.

Heron had some solid minor-league seasons with the 1955 Class B Amarillo Gold Sox (West Texas-New Mexico League), .317 AVG, 40 doubles, 20 HR, and .104 RBIs in 137 games; and a .338/.444/.598 slash line and 1.042 OPS for 1959 Class B Lewiston Broncs (Northwest League). He accumulated 1,036 hits in 3,582 minor-league AB, a .289 AVG; and, a .447 career SLG PCT.

1959 Caribbean Series

From February 10-15, 1959, Heron represented Panamá in the Caribbean Series, hosted by Venezuela. His Coclé Azucareros (Sugarcane Growers) went 0-6 in the four-team round-robin between Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Panamá, but Heron’s .304 AVG (7-for-23) was quite good, considering quality of play. The 6-0 Almendares Scorpions (Cuba) had Camilo Pascual (2-0), Orlando Peña, Tom Lasorda, and Art Fowler. Oriente’s (4-2) host squad had Jim Owens, Ramón Monzant, Werner Birrer, while Puerto Rico’s Santurce Crabbers featured pitchers Rubén Gómez, Marion Fricano, Julio Navarro, and José “Pantalones” Santiago. The Marlboro Smokers were Panamá’s representative in the 1960 Caribbean Series, played at Estadio Nacional, Panamá City. Héctor López, a New York Yankee OF, played well, as did Stan Palys, Lee Tate, and Eddie Napoleon. (Panamá did not play in, nor host, another Caribbean Series until February 2019.)   

Start of Amateur Managing Career for Team Panamá

Heron became a successful amateur baseball manager, leading Panamá to a Bronze medal at the 1982 Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games, behind (host) second-place Cuba and first-place Dominican Republic. Panamá upset Cuba, 2-1, in this event. In 1983, he was listed as Karl Heron, manager, Team Panamá, Pan American Games, Caracas, Venezuela.

Success with Mariano Rivera and 2005 World Baseball Cup

Heron’s scouting efforts, in Panamá, for the New York Yankees resulted in Roberto Kelly, Mariano Rivera, and Ramiro Mendoza playing for the Bronx Bombers. Kelly was already with New York when Heron received feedback on Mariano Rivera, a shortstop who volunteered to pitch for Oeste versus San Carlos, in a local tournament. https://www.baseball-fever.com/forum/american-league/new-york-yankees/36329-carlos-chico-heron-and-mariano-rivera-beginning. Catcher Claudino Hernández and CF Emilio Gáez tipped off Heron, who—two weeks later—watched Mariano throw one time. “His [Mariano’s] arm was so loose and the ball jumped so much that I told him [Mariano] to stay,” said Heron.  Then Herb Raybourn, mentioned in the first paragraph, watched Rivera pitch on the final [tryout] day. After nine pitches, Raybourn told Rivera to stop.

At the time, Mariano Rivera weighed only 155 pounds! What Raybourn appreciated most was Rivera’s imagination…and “a lot could happen with better nutrition and proper training.” Raybourn visited Rivera’s home in Puerto Caimito, located off Panamá’s southeast coast. Rivera’s dad was a shrimp boat captain, not a high-paying occupation. Raybourn offered his 20-year old son $2,000, in the family’s Puerto Caimito living room, February 17, 1990, per the blog mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Raybourn was aware that IF other MLB teams knew what he [Raybourn] knew, THEN the offer might be in the $25,000-to-$50,000 range.

Just over a decade later, the Yankees had won four World Series: 1996-98 and 2000; Mariano Rivera had 165 regular season and 19 post-season saves, through the 2000 season. Circling back to Heron, Panamá captured Gold at the 2001 Bolivarian Games, held in Ecuador, with Venezuela and Colombia placing second and third, respectively. In 2002, Heron’s national team won Sliver at the 2002 CAC Games, in San Salvador, El Salvador, losing to Puerto Rico’s Gold Medal squad. The Dominican Republic finished third. Cuba did not participate.

Perhaps one of Heron’s finest managing efforts was Panamá’s Bronze medal in the 2005 World Baseball Cup, hosted by the Netherlands. Panamá defeated the Dutch in the third-place game, 7-6, before Cuba won Gold by besting South Korea, 3-0. The All-Tournament Team included OF Freddy Herrera from Panamá, with a .389/.476/.639 slash line, and DH Joey Votto from Canada.

Mariano Rivera Honors Chico Heron

Mariano Rivera

An interesting article by Tyler Kepner in the March 9, 2008 The New  York Times, located at https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/09/sports/baseball/09rivera.html, noted that Mariano Rivera—who had done two November 2007 baseball clinics in the Dominican Republic—was in Panamá on his 38th

birthday, November 29, 2007, to “bury Chico Heron, who brought him into professional baseball.” Kepner stated Rivera’s signing bonus was $3,000 [not $2,000 noted earlier, or $2,500 mentioned by another source], and that Rivera only threw 85 MPH as a gangly 20-year-old. Here is what Mariano Rivera had to say about Chico Heron: “He was twice older than me, but I loved that man. He used to tell me to work hard, be committed, be respectful, trust what you have and trust the Lord, be able to do it in tough situations. And he was always, constantly encouraging me to just do it, don’t give up – even before he passed away.”

Rivera, a year-round resident of Westchester (New York) County, visited Heron in Panamá before he passed away, to say good-bye. “He [Heron] was one of those men that if I call him any time, anytime that I need something from him, he would have done it on the spot,” said Rivera. “That’s how close he was to me. I respect that man till the day he died. I buried him with honor.”

When Rivera gave the final speech of the 2019 Cooperstown Hall of Fame Inductees, July 21, he thanked Chico Heron. Ex-boxing champion Roberto “Mano de Piedra” Durán was in Cooperstown to show his respect to Rivera. “I wasn’t going to miss this (ceremony),” Durán told USA TODAY Sports. “He meant so much to me. I saw him as a young boy growing up in Panamá, and look at him now, a Hall of Famer.”

Jon Last spent some time in Panamá over the 2019-20 holidays, and did some hiking with Miguel Ibarra, ex-AAA player and long-time Panamanian scout. This inspired Last—who the author sometimes calls Juan Ultimo—to take a look at lists of MLB players from Panamá, including “Mariano Rivera (a national cult hero, who now lives near me—I’ve met him and our songs played against each other in youth travel ball back in the day) …” Last’s January 15, 2020 e-mail listed Rod Carew, Omar Moreno, Rennie Stennett, Carlos Lee, Manny Sanguillén, Ben Oglivie, and Roberto Kelly, among the “most accomplished,” with Bruce Chen also on this list.

Perhaps Jon and other readers of this blog on Chico Heron will certainly appreciate Mr. Heron’s diligence, sincerity, and scouting proficiency, as well as his managing abilities and even his role as a pioneer for the 1954 Meridian Millers.

With thanks to former players’ Joe Gibbon and Eddie Napoleon (both deceased); Chuck Bearman, Director, Disaster Recovery, Mississippi Development Authority; and, Jon Last, a long-time friend, and President of Sports & Leisure Research Group, White Plains, New York.

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