Caguas Criollos: Tom Timmerman to Eliseo Rodríguez to John Strohmayer (Part V)

Héctor Rafael Vázquez with The Great One.

Caguas featured a colorful radio broadcaster—Héctor Rafael Vázquez. The deceased Edwin Fernández called Vázquez: “El mas grande narrador de béisbol de Puerto Rico.” (“Puerto Rico’s greatest baseball broadcaster/narrator”). Jorge Colón Delgado recalled these chilling words uttered by Vázquez during Caguas-Santurce games, late 1960s: “Calentando en el bullpen, Tom Timmermann.” (“Warming up in the pen, Tom Timmermann”). Oscar Suárez, the author’s college roommate in 1974-75, remembered Vázquez’s “signature statement” when the Criollos came up, trailing, home ninth: “En la parte baja de la novena, Los Criollos necesitan una para empatar y dos para ganar..y se les está siendo tarde.” (“The Criollos—home ninth—need one to tie and two to win, and it’s getting late.”)

Tom Timmermann

Timmermann, a native of Breese, Illinois, had just graduated with a business degree from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, in 1967, when a phone call from Caguas’s owner, Dr. Emigdio Buonomo, changed his mind about taking a job outside the game. (Timmermann spent the 1967 season with the Toledo Mud Hens, and parts of 1968-71 with them, too, but pitched in the majors for Detroit, 1969-73 and Cleveland, 1973-74.) Timmerman stated: “My friends told me, you can always get a job. So, I went to Puerto Rico, where it was nice and warm. I didn’t have to fight the winter, so if it wasn’t for Puerto Rico, I would have taken that job and quit baseball. I lived in a beautiful [Caguas] three-bedroom home. The neighbors were nice; we had a lot of barbecues. A doctor took me fishing with lobster traps to Fajardo.”

Timmerman’s 9-1 mark for the 1967-68 Criollos was punctuated by his league-leading 0.88 ERA, half an earned run below Ferguson Jenkins’s league-best 1.38 ERA, 1965-66; and lower than Earl Harrist’s 1.24 ERA for Caguas, 1951-52, when Luis R. Olmo managed the Criollos. Timmerman’s 0.88 ERA standard was broken by Mayagüez’s Fernando Figueroa, 25 years later, 1992-93, with a 0.63 ERA. However, Figueroa’s 42.2 innings were fewer than Mayaguez’s 46 regular season games. Conversely, Timmermann’s 81.2 innings surpassed Caguas’s 70 games.

Timmermann benefitted from pitching to future Cooperstown Hall of Famers Johnny Bench of San Juan, and Santurce’s Orlando Cepeda and Tony Pérez. Timmerman had pitched to Bench at the Triple A level in 1967, when Toledo played Buffalo, a Cincinnati Reds farm team. “The line on Bench was the only thing he could hit was fastballs, but when he got to Puerto Rico, he learned to hit to RF and right-center; hit most of them up the alley,” said Timmermann. “Bench really matured in Puerto Rico and became a good, smart hitter after that.” Bench’s 20 doubles for San Juan—the equivalent of 46 in a 162-game season—tied Tony Pérez for the league lead.

José A. Pagán

José A. Pagán became Caguas’s first player in a decade—since Terín Pizarro, 1957-58—to win the League MVP Award. He lost the batting crown to San Juan’s Tony Taylor by .00017, with a .34166 AVG, versus Taylor’s .34183 AVG. Pagán was third in RBI with 48, behind Lee May (59) of San Juan and Tony Pérez (53). Pagán’s 41 runs tied for fourth with Santurce’s Day May. The top three were  Ponce’s Sandy Alomar Sr. (54), Guillermo Montañez (44) and  Ted Savage (42). Montañez and Savage were Pagán’s teammates. Pagán’s 10 HR were tops on the Criollos.

Arecibo contracted Imports from soon-to-be 1968 Oakland A’s, ex-Kansas City A’s, 1955-1967. Sal Bando and LHP Paul Lindblad, lived in the Dorado resort, were two of them. Alex Bursian and his older brother Leslie—who went to the same Santurce school as the author— befriended Bando and Lindblad, and got free tickets to some games. “I remember Lindblad and Bando well as they lived next to my grandparents in Dorado during the Winter League season,” said Alex Bursian. Leslie and I conversed with them many times and they took us to two games! We were in heaven!!” Bando (.330 AVG) was third in hitting, behind Taylor and Pagán, but ahead of Bench (.323 AVG) and San Juan’s Tony González (.321 AVG).  Lindblad’s 89 strikeouts were fourth-best, following Terín Pizarro (108), Orlando Peña (97) and Pat Dobson (89).

Pizarro won 11 for Santurce, one less than Crabbers RHP Darrell Osteen. Rubén Gómez and Jim Hardin also started for Santurce. The 47-22 Santurce juggernaut was heavily favored to win their second straight final series under skipper Earl Weaver, but the 43-27 Criollos had other thoughts. Caguas bested San Juan, four games-to-one; Santurce did likewise to Ponce, in their semi-finals. Ted Savage, Caguas OF, remembered Roberto Clemente, San Juan’s RF, “as the kind of guy who would take you home and feed you—a baseball player’s baseball player.” Clemente showed class and hospitality with teammates such as Lee May as well as players on 1967-68 opposing teams, including Savage. Lee May emphasized that Clemente helped him in his baseball thinking. “I would try to apply some of Roberto’s ideas to my game,” said May. Clemente’s hospitality during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays made an impact on May as well. “They showed us a good time and I’ll always be thankful to Roberto and his wife [Doña Vera].”

Savage drove in three runs in Caguas’s 3-1 opening game win over Santurce. It was Savage who robbed Orlando Cepeda of a three-run HR in Game Six, played on a rainy night at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, a 17-2 rout by Caguas. “I remember the beer that was thrown in my face at Bithorn,” said Savage. “Those Santurce fans were not pleased.”

Johnny Briggs took another three-run HR away from Cepeda to frustrate the Crabber faithful.  The agony was compounded by a two-hour rain delay. Julio Navarro was the [Game Six] winning pitcher and relief ace Tom Timmermann pitched the final three frames for a “pre-1969” save. “It meant a lot,” said Julio Navarro. “They [Santurce] were the defending champions and a very strong team. We, too, had a fine team with the league’s best reliever, Tom Timmermann, Grant Jackson, Tom Burgmeier, Cleon Jones, Félix Millán, José Pagán, Guillermo Montañez…”

The 1967-68 Criollos hit the most HR (51) in the regular season, and scored a league-high 319 runs (in 72 games, with two games ending in ties). Caguas’s .266 team AVG was second to San Juan’s .267 AVG. The Criollos committed 100 errors, for a .964 fielding PCT, fourth behind San Juan (.970), Ponce (.969) and Santurce (.967). Caguas’s .379 team SLG trailed Santurce’s .385 and San Juan’s .381. This was a different era, oriented towards starting pitching and fewer HR.

Eliseo Rodríguez Emerges and Félix Millán Wins back-to-back Hitting Titles

Eliseo Rodríguez tags Crabber John ¨Buck¨ Martinez

Caguas had the league’s best Native players by the late 1960s. Eliseo “Ellie” Rodríguez was the team’s starting catcher, and had an 11-game hit streak, 1967-68. He was Puerto Rico’s first backstop to play in the AL, when he debuted for the 1968 New York Yankees, May 26, catching a CG thrown by Mel Stottlemyre. (Héctor Valle caught for the 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers, as the Island’s first catcher to play in the NL.) However, both were preceded by Luis “King Kong” Villodas, a catcher with the 1946 and 1947 Baltimore Elite Giants, who is now Puerto Rico’s first MLB catcher. Eliseo Rodríguez, Puerto Rico’s first catcher named to an MLB All-Star Team, as a member of the (expansion) 1969 Kansas City Royals, was an amateur boxer in the Bronx. This helped him develop quick footwork behind the plate. Eliseo’s favorite player, growing up, was Yogi Berra, New York Yankees. Rodríguez appeared on Baseball Entre Amigos program with Jorge Colón Delgado and Raul Ramos, sharing being a Yankees fan, growing up in the Bronx. He confirmed Yogi Berra was his favorite player. Rodríguez’s 1968 Yankees locker was next to one used by Mickey Mantle, #7.

Rodríguez was selected by the Kansas City Royals in the October 15, 1968 AL Expansion Draft. And prior to the 1969 season, Ralph Houk, New York Yankees manager, told Joe Gordon—manager of the Royals—that “Rodríguez would be his starting catcher,” per Steven Schmitt’s SABR Bio of Eliseo Rodriguez. Coincidentally, Joe Gordon played high school baseball against the author’s father when Gordon’s Lincoln High School played Sam Van Hyning’s Washington High School, in Portland, Oregon, early 1930s. The author attended Gordon’s 2009 Cooperstown Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, after Gordon was voted in by the Veterans Committee. Gordon played 2B for Lincoln; Sam Van Hyning caught for Washington.

Félix Millán

Félix Millán, per Part IV, was signed by Fellé Delgado, the same scout who alerted the New York Yankees to sign Eliseo Rodríguez in 1964. Millán played winter ball in Nicaragua and Venezuela, prior to joining the 1964-65 Criollos. His .317 AVG in 1968-69 and .345 mark, 1969-70, duplicated what Perucho Cepeda—Guayama’s star SS—did three decades earlier, in his back-to-back league batting crowns. (Perucho was Orlando Cepeda’s father.) Santurce’s Willard Brown won back-to-back titles, 1946-47 (.390 AVG) and 1947-48 (.432 AVG), with a record 27 HR. So did Bayamón’s Dickie Thon, 1980-81 (.329 AVG) and 1981-82 (.333 AVG).

Millán was a valuable 2B for the Atlanta Braves, 1967-1971, when Hank Aaron—the former Caguas Criollos star from 1953-54—was hitting HR at Fulton County Stadium. Millán played in the first National League Championship Series (NLCS), 1969, versus the New York Mets, a team with ex-Criollos teammates including LF Cleon Jones and RF Ron Swoboda. The 1969 Atlanta club had Orlando Cepeda (1B) and Millán (2B) from Puerto Rico; SS Gil Garrido from Panamá; OF Felipe Alou and Rico Carty from the Dominican Republic; and OF Tony González from Cuba. Clete Boyer (3B), Sonny Jackson (SS) Aaron (RF) and catcher Bob Didier were the non-Caribbean regulars or semi-regular players in the line-up.

Luis “Tite ”Arroyo managed the 1968-69 Criollos to a 37-33 (third-place) record, before falling to Ponce, four games-to-two, in one semi-finals. Arroyo’s connection to the New York Yankees resulted in Bobby Murcer joining the Criollos, last few weeks of 1968-69. Eliseo Rodriguez was Murcer’s 1965 teammate with Class A Greensboro. They were born four days apart—Murcer, May 20, 1946, in Oklahoma City; and Rodríguez, May 24, 1946, in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, where Tom Timmermann would go lobster fishing, with a doctor, on off-days. Arroyo opined: “Murcer benefitted from playing time with Caguas after missing 1967 and 1968 due to Military Service.”

Ex-Caguas OF José Cardenal propelled San Juan to a seven-game semi-final series win over first-place Santurce (49-20), managed by Frank Robinson. Cardenal hit two HR off Jim Palmer, Game Seven, in San Juan’s 12-2 win. Wally Bunker relieved Palmer after Cardenal’s second HR. Miguel Cuéllar won both his starts for San Juan, managed by Sparky Anderson, who recalled: “Cuéllar was all business after a so-so regular season. Let’s not forget Vic Power, who managed his hometown 1968-69 Arecibo Wolves. Arecibo’s Paul Lindblad complimented Power for his baseball know-how and tact for dealing with the Natives and Imports.

José “Ronquito” Garcia took over 1969-70 managing duties for Harry Bright, and led Caguas to a fourth-place slot (34-35) slot, and match-up versus first-place Ponce (44-25), managed by 28-year old Jim Fregosi. The Lions won this semi-final over the Criollos, four games-to-one. Ponce featured the pitching of Wayne Simpson; hitting of Bernie Carbo; and all-around play of 2B Sandy Alomar Sr. Fregosi enjoyed managing in a competitive league, and realized that one day he would become a manager at the MLB level. “I wanted to find out if I could stay in the big leagues and manage,” said Fregosi. “And I enjoyed the challenge of managing.” Wayne Simpson won Game Five, 2-1, a CG, in Caguas. Timmermann pitched in long relief for the third time, in the five-game series. RHP Chris Zachary, who had two starts for the Criollos late in the regular season, pitched well in Game Four, a 3-0 Ponce win. Zachary’s seven innings with three runs allowed is now called a “quality start.” Zachary had pitched in Venezuela against Luis Tiant, and in 1970-71, would be a quality starter for the Licey Tigers, champions, 1971 Caribbean Series.

The league’s January 6, 1970 All-Star Game took place prior to the January 22-26, 1970 Caguas-Ponce semi-finals. Nate  Colbert was Caguas’s only player with the Imports. Colbert led the league with 16 HR, and his 47 RBI were second to Carbo’s 48. Caguas placed six Natives on the Native All-Stars: Millán, Jerry Morales, José Pagán, Juan “Chito” Ríos, Rosendo “Rusty” Torres and closer Luis Peraza, who tied Santurce’s William de Jesús for the league lead with seven saves. Santurce’s Rubén Gómez started for the Natives, in their 6-1 win. Arecibo’s Norbert Rodgers was the winning pitcher; Santurce’s Fred Beene took the loss. José Pagán and Rusty Torres homered for the Natives. Pagán was his Team’s MVP and Torres its Most Improved Player. Writers voted Pagán (3B) and Millán (2B) on the 1969-70 League All-Star Team, at the end of the regular season. Table I is this All-Star Team.

Table I. Puerto Rico Winter League 1969-70 All-Star Team

Player-Team-PositionSeason Highlights
Héctor Valle-Mayagüez-C.302 AVG, 68 G; Selected over San Juan’s Thurman Munson
Santiago Rosario-Ponce-1BReliable native veteran; .293 AVG for Jim Fregosi’s Lions
Félix Millán-Caguas-2B.345 AVG surpassed Munson’s .333 AVG for San Juan
Jose A. Pagan-Caguas-3B.321 AVG third behind Pagán’s .345, Munson’s .333; 45 RBI
Jackie Hernández-Ponce-SSTurned 92 double players with 2B Sandy Alomar Sr.
Jim Hicks-Ponce-LF.289 AVG, 13 HR and 45 RBI for Jim Fregosi’s Lions
Ron Woods-Mayagüez-CF.274 AVG, 10 HR and 31 RBI for Cal Ermer’s Indians
Bernie Carbo-Ponce-RF.278 AVG, 10 HR and 48 RBI, pre-1970 NL season for Reds
John Hiller-Mayagüez-LHP10-3 W-L, 2.03 ERA, 14 starts, 119.2 innings for Cal Ermer
Wayne Simpson-Ponce-RHPPitching Triple Crown: 11-5 W-L, 114 strikeouts, 1.55 ERA
Cal Ermer-Mayagüez-MGR42-28 W-L, .600 PCT, after team’s 23-45, .338 PCT, 1968-69

Next, is Caguas’s mythical 1960s All-Star Team, included to recap the 1960s.

Table II: Caguas Criollos All-Star Team, 1959-60 to 1968-69, per Héctor Barea & Van Hyning

Player-PositionSeasonCaguas Season Highlights
Eliseo Rodríguez-C1967-68.227AVG; key player in league championship season
Héctor Valle-C1964-65.206 AVG; caught Ferguson Jenkins with Caguas
Frank Howard-1B1961-62.318 AVG, 14 HR, 49 RBI; hit .300 for Caguas in two seasons with 28 HR and 84 RBI; hit a 536-foot HR
Vic Power-1B1959-60.347 AVG for 2nd batting crown; player-manager
Félix Millán-2B1968-69.317 AVG to win first of his two batting titles
Nate Oliver-2B1962-63.332 AVG; another Dodgers prospect with Caguas
José A. Pagán-3B1967-68League MVP; second: .34166 AVG; third-best 48 RBIs
Félix Torres-3B1960-6113 HR and 43 RBI for Criollos; reliable 3B and SS
Tony Martínez-SS1962-63.282 AVG; fine double-play combination with N. Oliver
José Cardenal-OF1963-64League-leading 16 HR; 42 RBI (third-best)
Tommy Davis-OF1959-60MVP 1960 Caribbean Series with .409 AVG, .818 SLG
Alex Johnson-OF1964-65League-leading 47 RBI; fifth-best AVG at .301
Cleon Jones-OF1965-66.306 AVG, fifth-best; 16 doubles—fourth-best
Jim Rivera-OF1961-6211 SB, fourth-best; replaced manager Preston Gómez
Ted Savage-OF1963-64Second-best 14 HR; helped Caguas win 1967-68 title
Grant Jackson-P1966-679-6 W-L; 2.19 ERA;1965-66 LHP, league All-Star Team
Ferguson Jenkins-P1965-6610-6 W-L; league-leading 1.38 ERA; 84 K’s to 14 BB
Julio Navarro-P1967-6810-1 W-L; 2.72 ERA in 109.1 IP
Fred Talbot-P1963-6410-3 W-L; 2.82 ERA in 140.2 IP; 78 strikeouts (fifth)
Tom Timmermann-P1967-689-1 W-L; league-leading 0.88 ERA as a reliever (81.2 IP)
Earl Wilson-P1959-6015-3 W-L, 2.06 ERA (2nd in league); 109 K’s (2nd)
Nino Escalera-MGR1967-6843-27 W-L, second-place; defeated Santurce in finals

Caguas Falls to Santurce, 1970-71 Finals

Julio Navarro

Mike Wegener, Bob Reynolds, Jim Rooker , Julio Navarro and John Strohmayer were a strong starting rotation for Napoleón Reyes’s 1970-71 Criollos. Reyes had won back-to-back Caribbean Series titles managing the 1956-57 and 1957-58 Marianao Tigers, in Cuba. In February 1958, his  Marianao team won a hard-fought Caribbean Series versus Caguas, whose two best hitters were Vic Power and Roberto Clemente. Frank Otto—a Santurce Crabbers fan—attended the final game of the 1958 Caribbean Series, at Sixto Escobar Stadium. He recalled that Terín Pizarro was called upon [by Ted Norbert] to pinch-hit, and flied out to end Marianao’s 2-0 win. Reyes managed the 1961-62 San Juan Senators, too, so he was well versed in winter ball.

Wegener pitched a nine-inning no-hitter for Caguas versus Mayagüez, November 1970. Reynolds gave up Reggie Jackson’s 20th HR of the [70-game]1970-71 season, in a Caguas-Santurce game. Jackson’s 20 HR are a league record for left-handed hitters, but short of Willard Brown’s 27 for Santurce, 1947-48, in a 60-game season, the record. The Native player with the most single-season HR is José “Pito” Hernández, 1997-98 Mayagüez Indians: 20 HR, 62-game season. Hernández, per Jorge Colón Delgado, hit his first HR off San Juan’s Jason Isringhausen, November 1, 1997, at Bithorn Stadium; and, his 20th off San Juan’s Pat Flury, January 8, 1998, at Bithorn, where Reggie Jackson played 1970-71 home games.

Caguas (41-29) defeated fourth-place Ponce, in one semi-finals, as Jim Rooker won three games. Santurce (37-32) upended San Juan (37-30) in the other semi-final, featuring the managing of Frank Robinson for Santurce, and Roberto Clemente, San Juan’s player-manager. Caguas then won three of the first four games (January 28-31, 1971) of the finals, against Santurce, but the Crabbers took Games Five-Six-Seven. Mike Kekich won Game Five for Santurce, 4-1; Reggie Jackson hit a two-run HR off Julio Navarro, in the first. Arsenio “Pinolo” Rodríguez drove in two with a HR and a double. He robbed José Pagán of a HR. Joe Decker won Game Six, 3-2, on an RBI double by Buck Martínez scoring Milton Ramírez. Reliever Bob Chlupsa, with a save from William de Jesús, won Game Seven, 5-4. Napoleón Reyes credited Chlupsa and Pinolo for being two of Santurce’s key heroes. Milton Ramírez remembered celebrating that win at a pub owned by ex-Caguas pitcher Roberto Vargas. Ramírez noted: “I lived at Borinquen Towers where the pub was located. During the season, some of the Puerto Rican players would meet at a Stop 22 restaurant and bar in Santurce; and later share moments with Frank [Robinson] and imported players at Rudy’s 10th Inning Lounge near Loíza Street.

John Strohmayer Enjoys his Caguas Experience

Strohmayer had a fascinating story for the author about the [Puerto Rico] league. The RHP started a 1970-71 game at Caguas’s Yldefonso Solá Morales Stadium. Strohmayer pitched into the fourth inning when the sky opened. It rained all week, so the Caguas fans were in no mood for another postponement. “Within 20 minutes the entire infield was covered with two inches of water,” recalled Strohmayer. “So, everyone went into the clubhouse and started getting undressed. I put my arm in a bucket of ice. Somebody came into the clubhouse 10 minutes later saying it had stopped raining, and maybe the game could be continued. No way, anytime it rained like that in the States, the game was finished.”’

What happened next is beyond comprehension. Fans who lived in neighboring houses went home and got their wheelbarrows. A big pile of loam was under the stands, and was use. The work was completed 40 minutes later, and play resumed. Strohmayer: “That epitomized the word ‘fan’; root coming from the word ‘fanático.’ They really loved their baseball and  I felt a lot of satisfaction when I was able to perform well—so much appreciation on the part of the fans, more so than any other place I played.”

With deep appreciation to George “Sparky” Anderson, Luis “Tite” Arroyo, Héctor Barea, Alex Bursian, Miguel Cuéllar, Fellé Delgado, Nino Escalera, Edwin Fernández, Jim Fregosi, Paul Lindblad, Félix Millán, Jerry Morales, Julio Navarro, Frank “Paco” Otto, Milton Ramírez, Eliseo Rodríguez, Oscar Suárez, John Strohmayer, Tom Timmermann and Chris Zachary. Thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado, Official Historian, Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League.

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