Gold Gloves—Part I: MLB Catchers in Puerto Rico Winter Ball (Natives and Imports)

Iván Rodríguez

Fifteen MLB catchers who played in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League have 65 Rawlings Gold Gloves (GG) between them: 30 American League (AL) and 35 National League (NL). This covers 1957-to-2018. In 1957, GG were awarded to nine total MLB players by position. From 1958-on, separate AL and NL recipients received this designation.

Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez has won the most GG of any MLB catcher, with 13 (all AL), followed by Johnny Bench’s 10 (all NL), Yadier Molina’s nine with St. Louis and Bob Boone’s seven. Boone is the only one of the 15 honorees with GG in the AL and NL (five AL, two NL). Bench, Boone and the other stateside catchers mentioned played in Puerto Rico as league imports.

Elston Howard won back-to-back GG, 1963 and 1964. The New York Yankees backstop/OF was that franchise’s first black player (1955) and the 1963 AL MVP. He played for the 1954-55 San Juan Senators. He is the only one of the 15 GG winners with Negro Leagues experience, having played for the Kansas City Monarchs, 1947-to-1950. His first Monarchs roommate was Earl “Mickey” Taborn, who spent three seasons with the Santurce Crabbers. Taborn helped Howard adjust to pro baseball, 1947-49. Howard’s last Monarchs roommate circa 1950 was Ernie Banks. By 1953 Howard was playing for class AA Kansas City Blues, a New York Yankees farm team in the American Association, managed by Harry Craft, a native of Ellisville, Mississippi.

The 25-year old Howard played LF for San Juan, since Joe Montalvo, Danny Kravitz and Luis “King Kong” Villodas were the catchers. Nino Escalera, the RF, made his MLB debut with the 1954 Cincinnati Reds, as that franchise’s first black/Afro-Caribbean player. Nino remembered Elston Howard as serious, hard-working and determined to make the 1955 New York Yankees opening day roster. Germán Rivera, San Juan’s 3B, recalled the Yankee-San Juan connection due to Harry Craft—the Senators manager—Howard and CF Bob Cerv, both Yankee prospects. Howard impressed the Yankees, hitting .369, seven homers and 24 RBIs, in 122 AB for San Juan. Cecilia Tan’s SABR bio of Elston Howard noted that he lived in the same building in Puerto Rico as Willie Mays and Sam Jones, stars with arch-rival Santurce. This was the Normandie Hotel, across from Sixto Escobar Stadium, home field for the Senators and Crabbers.

Johnny Bench, the next MLB catcher to win GG post-Puerto Rico, won 10 straight NL GG, 1968-to-1977, following his 1967-68 season with San Juan. Bench hit .323, five homers, 27 RBIs, fourth in the batting race behind teammate Tony Taylor, José Pagán of Caguas and Arecibo’s Sal Bando. Bench tied Santurce’s Tany Pérez for the league lead with 20 doubles. Bench is a two-time NL MVP (1970 and 1972) and two-time World Series champ (1975-76).

José “Palillo” Santiago, a San Juan starting pitcher, stated: “Bench had it all and could he throw!” Tom Timmerman, ace Caguas reliever, added: “Bench really matured in Puerto Rico and became a good, smart hitter after that.” Don Zimmer, one of Bench’s three managers with San Juan and a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, was proud of Bench for showing so much wisdom and maturity at age 19. Just three days after Bench’s 20th birthday, December 10, 1967—he caught Pat Dobson in a memorable 6-3 win over the Arecibo Wolves. Dobson struck out 21 Wolves to set an all-time single-game record, breaking Juan Pizarro’s 19 strikeouts. Bench benefited from catching hard throwers’ Dobson, Rick Wise and Palillo, plus crafty veteran Orlando Peña.

Palillo also pitched to Thurman Munson with the 1969-70 Senators. Munson picked up three straight AL GG, 1973-to-1975. He hit .333, three homers, 34 RBIs with San Juan, finishing second to Félix Millán’s .345 BA for Caguas. Munson impressed teammates, opponents and scouts with this performance. Ellis “Cot” Deal, San Juan’s 1969-70 manager, opined Munson would make it with the Yankees and earn 1970 AL Rookie of the Year honors [which he did]. Deal felt that Munson’s development was helped by a tough league, and playing with teammates such as Roberto Clemente, José Cardenal, Miguel Cuellar, Lee May and 3B José “Coco” Laboy. Cot Deal respected Munson for his 1976 AL MVP award and 1977-78 World Series titles.

Bob Boone garnered 1978-79 GG and a 1980 World Series ring with the Philadelphia Phillies, followed by five AL GG with 1982/1986-89 California Angels. Boone, Mike Schmidt, Jay Johnstone, Roger Freed and Wayne Twitchell were Phillies prospects with the 1972-73 Caguas Criollos. Steve Rogers from the Montreal Expos pitched to Boone, who hit .271 with four homers and 25 RBIs for Caguas. Fred Beene credited Boone for his 8-2 season with 1972-73 Caguas: “Bob Boone was one of the best catchers I ever pitched to, moving behind the plate the way he liked, helping pitchers have better control…only other ones probably close to Boone [from those I pitched to]: Eliseo Rodríguez, 1978-79 Bayamón Cowboys and Thurman Munson.”

Gary Carter won three straight GG as a member of the 1980-to-1982 Montreal Expos. He joined the 1973-74 Caguas Criollos late in the season. José “Ronquito” García, a Montreal Expos scout, made the arrangements. “When I scouted for Montreal, the Expos sent Steve Rogers, Gary Carter and other prospects to Caguas,” said García. Caguas OF Otto Vélez said “there was no envy on that [1973-74] Caguas team. Gary Carter wanted to become a better player. Schmidt had to overcome a [NL] season with a lot of strikeouts.” Carter helped Caguas win the February 1974 Caribbean Series in Hermosillo, Mexico, and was selected as catcher on the series All-Star team. Carter returned to Caguas, 1974-75, ending his Puerto Rico career .256, six homers and 35 RBIs. He was a catalyst in the 1986 New York Mets championship season.

Lance Parrish earned three consecutive GG for the 1983-to-1985 Detroit Tigers, winners of the 1984 World Series. Parrish joined pitcher Jack Morris in reinforcing the 1978-79 Mayagüez Indios. Parrish provided some pop at the plate, .245, 10 homers, 35 RBIs, in the 60-game season, for the Indios, which lost to Caguas in the league finals. Parrish remembered: “For myself, to be able to play with Jack down there, it just kind of furthered our growth as pitcher and catcher in the Detroit organization. I caught him a couple of seasons in the minors, then had the opportunity to catch Jack in the Puerto Rico League, and then worked with him in the majors. It was just another step in our progression as major leaguers.”

Benito Santiago accomplished the GG trifecta with the 1988-to-1990 San Diego Padres. He was the first MLB catcher from Puerto Rico to win a GG. Luis Rosa—who worked with Arecibo manager Jack McKeon in 1977-78—was scouting for the Padres by 1979. Rosa helped sign Santiago, an amateur free agent, for the Padres on September 1, 1982. My memory of Benito Santiago in winter ball was his walk-off homer for the San Juan Metros versus Santurce in game six of the 1984-85 finals. San Juan went on to win the series in game seven.

Santos (Sandy) Alomar Jr. won his GG with the 1990 Cleveland Indians, plus AL Rookie of the Year honors. Alomar Jr. got his chance to start for the 1984-85 Santurce Crabbers, at age 18. Frank Verdi, then-Santurce manager, stated: “Alomar had a good arm, catching ability, and was a big, hungry kid.” Alomar Jr. was behind the plate when Benito Santiago hit his walk-off homer in game six of the 1984-85 finals. Luis Rosa also facilitated Alomar Jr.’s signing with the San Diego Padres, and it is interesting that Santiago (1987) and Alomar Jr. (1990) won their league’s respective Rookie of the Year honors. Perhaps the biggest highlight of Sandy Alomar Jr.’s MLB career was hitting a walk-off homer off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in the 1997 post-season.

Tom Pagnozzi won three GG with St. Louis in 1991, 1992 and 1994. San Francisco’s Kirt Manwaring earned his 1993 GG with San Francisco. Both played for the Mayagüez Indios, mid-to-late 1980s, with Pagnozzi returning to the Island several times, and Manwaring playing for the 1988-89 “Tribe.” Pitcher Jeff Brantley was with Mayagüez in 1987-88 and 1988-89. He recalled “Kirt Manwaring did a lot of the catching in the [1988-89] regular season, and Pagnozzi played some first base. Chris Hoiles was the DH for a time.” Pagnozzi was also Brantley’s neighbor at a beach house/apartment in Cabo Rojo. Brantley remembered: “Every Thursday they had the ceremony at the bowling alley. We were there with our wives and had a great time…could surf in Rincón and golf at Dorado…liked the food at the Metropol in San Juan.”

When I conversed with ex-Mayagüez LHP Juan Agosto in spring training 1993, he joked that “Tom Pagnozzi got the key to the city [of Mayagüez] for returning year-after-year between 1984-85 and 1988-89.” Agosto felt that Pagnozzi benefited by catching talented native pitchers such as himself, Luis de León, José “Chevel” Guzmán, Luis Aquino, Jesús Hernaíz, as well as imports Tim Belcher, Brad Havens and Pat Zachry. In my conversation with Pagnozzi the same afternoon, he expressed his appreciation for Mayagüez town owner Luis Gómez, and various Indios managers he played under—Nick Leyva, Jim Riggleman and Tom Gamboa.

Mike Matheny’s catching helped the 1995-96 Arecibo Wolves defeat Mayagüez in their eight-game final series. Some highlights/post-game interviews are available via You Tube at: Mike Matheny is behind the plate in this other You Tube video, with Mayagüez’s Doug Glanville leading off versus Arecibo’s Robert Toth in game eight at:  Pat Kelly, Arecibo’s manager, noted Matheny was replaced by Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez on Arecibo’s roster for the February 3-8, 1996 Caribbean Series in Santo Domingo, when Matheny opted to return to the states. Matheny went on to win four GG, three with St. Louis in 2001, 2003 and 2004; one with 2005 San Francisco.

Pudge Rodríguez had won four straight GG with the Texas Rangers, 1992-to-1995, when he helped Arecibo post a 4-2 W-L record in Santo Domingo, February 1996. Rodríguez was named 1996 Caribbean Series All-Star team catcher, to join 3B Leo Gómez, CF Bernie Williams and DH Tony Barron from Puerto Rico on this list. Some may wonder why Rodríguez continued playing winter ball in his native Puerto Rico at different times.  From what Iván told me in a January 1993 conversation, he had pride for Puerto Rico; enjoyed playing for the fans; and liked to stay in shape for the upcoming MLB season. He played the entire 1994-95 winter season following the August 1994 MLB players’ strike. Pudge played 12 winter seasons between 1989 and 2009; eight with Caguas; two with Mayagüez, one with Bayamón and one with Ponce.  

Tom Gamboa managed Mayagüez to the 1998-99 league title and Caribbean Series hosted by Puerto Rico. Pudge Rodríguez and Benjamín “Bengie” Molina were his catchers. Gamboa assumed Pudge wanted to come out after nine innings in game one versus the Dominican Republic. “Pudge looked at me like I was crazy,” said Gamboa. “We’re winning this game and I’m winning it for my country. I’m not coming out of it.” Gamboa called Pudge a gamer and a “manager’s player.” When Pudge Rodríguez’s #7 was retired by the Caguas Criollos, January 25, 2017, prior to a final series game with Santurce, he was elected to Cooperstown (2017 Inductee); won a 2003 World Series ring with the Florida Marlins; had 13 GG—10 with Texas, 1992-to-2001, plus three more with Detroit in 2004, 2006 and 2007. Pudge was the 1999 AL MVP. His 35 homers for Texas in 1999 remain the all-time, AL single-season mark for HR by a catcher.

Bengie Molina was named All-Star catcher for his February 1999 Caribbean Series efforts. Boi Rodríguez, his teammate, was the All-Star 1B. David Ortiz’s nine RBIs and clutch hitting helped the Licey Tigers from the Dominican Republic win this series. Bengie later helped the 2002 Anaheim Angels win the 2002 World Series over San Francisco. He received 2002 and 2003 GG with the Angels. Brother José, a year younger than Bengie, was Bengie’s back-up, 2002 Angels.

Tim Lincecum, Bengie’s San Francisco teammate, 2007-to-2010, said: “Bengie helped me mature and succeed. I’ve said time and time again that he deserves half of those awards that I’ve gotten.” After being traded from San Francisco to Texas in 2010, Bengie put his name into record books on July 16, 2010, hitting for the cycle against Boston. His HR was a grand slam! Bengie’s second World Series ring was for playing with San Francisco the first half of 2010. He helped Texas win the AL pennant; played against his ex-Giants team, in the 2010 World Series.

Yadier Molina, the youngest of three Molina brothers with MLB and Puerto Rico League catching experience, caught for the Carolina Giants in the latter league. These Giants play home games at Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium in Carolina. Yadier is best known for eight straight NL GG with the 2008-to-2015 St. Louis Cardinals; his 2018 GG with St. Louis; but also, four Rawlings Platinum Gloves in 2011-12 and 2014-15. The Platinum Gloves were first awarded in 2011 via a fan-centric platform to determine the best defensive player among ALL Rawlings Gold Glove Award winners from both the AL and NL. A new sabermetric component joined the international fan vote in 2013 as part of a new SABR Defensive Index (SDI). The fact Yadier Molina won back-to-back Platinum Gloves twice speaks volumes. So does Yadier’s 40.7 percent rate throwing out MLB base stealers, 2004-through-2018, highest among active MLB catchers.

What also speaks volumes was Yadier receiving the prestigious 2018 Roberto Clemente Award, for leading relief efforts in Puerto Rico, post-Hurricane María. Yadier learned of this honor in October 2018, when he was managing Puerto Rico’s under-23 team in Barranquilla, Colombia. Yadier Molina is the fourth player from Puerto Rico to win this award, following Carlos Beltrán (2013), Carlos Delgado (2006) and Edgar Martínez (2004). Yadier also won World Series rings in 2004 and 2011. Six years ago (March 2013), Tony LaRussa—Yadier’s manager when St. Louis won the 2004 and 2011 World Series—told the New York Times how special Yadier is behind the plate: “It’s not just instinct. It is sense, based on how a hitter’s standing, how he responds to the pitch or two before, and he’s very creative in how he makes adjustments based on what he sees with the hitter and knowing what his pitcher can do.”

Martín “Machete” Maldonado, currently with the 2019 Kansas City Royals, won the 2017 AL GG for his efforts with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  Maldonado caught for Mayagüez, 2004-05 and 2008-09 to 2016-17, except for 2015-16, accumulating 600 plate appearances, 508 AB, 58 runs, 125 hits, 25 doubles, 11 HR, 65 RBIs and .246 BA. He played in the February 2014 Caribbean Series, in Margarita Island, Venezuela. Maldonado had a ninth inning RBI single off LHP Oliver Pérez, of Hermosillo (Mexico), in a 6-3 loss, February 2, 2014. Two nights later he showed his defensive skills in a 2-1 setback versus Villa Clara, Cuba. Maldonado picked off a runner to end a Cuban threat in the sixth inning. The next night (February 5), Maldonado again picked off a base runner—2B Alberto Callaspo of the host Magallanes Navigators—and had an RBI single in a 5-4 win. Mayagüez was series runner-up after losing to Hermosillo in the finals.

These six catchers from Puerto Rico and nine stateside catchers who performed in Puerto Rico with 65 GG—52.8 percent of 123 GG awarded to catchers so far—include three Cooperstown Hall of Famers (Bench, Carter and Pudge Rodríguez); and 17 combined World Series titles: four-Howard, two each-Bench, Munson, Bengie and Yadier Molina, and one apiece for Boone, Carter, Matheny, Parrish and Pudge Rodríguez. Between 1968-and-2018, at least one catcher in MLB who played pro ball in Puerto Rico won a GG each year, except for 2016, when Buster Posey (NL) and Salvador Pérez (AL) won this prize. Puerto Rico baseball fans, including myself, honor and cherish the memories of watching many of these 15 catchers play winter ball.

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