Henry Cotto: Caguas Criollos, Cubs, Yankees, Mariners, Marlins, and Yomiuri Giants (Part I)

Henry Cotto was born in the Bronx on January 5, 1961, but his family moved back to Puerto Rico (PR) when he was three months old. His schooling was in Caguas, PR, and he earned a high school diploma from Caguas’s Colegio Bautista (Baptist Academy). Pedrín Zorrilla, legendary PR Winter League (PRWL) owner of the Santurce Crabbers, 1939-1956, signed Cotto and Carmelo Martínez to contracts with the Chicago Cubs. Pedrín (1905-1981) scouted for the Cubs from about 1977-1980 due to his close friendship with Herman Franks, Cubs skipper, 1977-79. Franks managed the 1954-55 and 1955-56 Crabbers and led the former ballclub to the PRWL title and February 1955 Caribbean Series crown in Caracas, Venezuela, thanks to Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Sam Jones, Rubén Gómez, and others, including Don Zimmer, 1955 CS MVP for Santurce. A generation later, Cotto, at 19, signed with the Cubs on June 7, 1980. Zimmer was the 1984 Cubs third base coach in Cotto’s only season with that historic team. The slender 6’2´outfielder played at 178 pounds in his pro career. Part I will comprise his Cubs minor-league years, the 1984 rookie season with the parent club, and the first five PRWL seasons, 1980-85.

Franks remained friends with Zorrilla until his passing in 1981 and stayed in touch with Pedrín’s widow (Diana) for many years. “Pedrín and Diana were like family to me,” recalled Franks in one of his phone conversations with the author in the late 1990s. “I recommended Pedrín to be a Cubs scout in PR while managing that franchise, and several players he signed (Cotto and Carmelo Martínez) became solid big leaguers.”

Five Seasons with Cubs Minor-League Affiliates (1980-84)

Cotto played at every minor-league level under the Cubs, from the Gulf Coast Rookie League (1980) to the Iowa Cubs (1983 and a small portion of 1984). He was a 1981 Quad Cities (Class A) All-Star outfielder with a .292 BA, 371 OBP, and 52 stolen bases (SB). His league-leading assists, 333 total chances and 310 putouts were impressive. Ditto for a league-leading 52 SB for Midland, 1982 Texas League. He stole 157 bases in 432 contests with Cubs affiliates. Table I includes his minor-league hitting stats in the Cubs, Yankees (1985-87), and White Sox (1995) organizations.

Table I: Henry Cotto Minor League Hitting Stats, 1980-87 and 1995

1980 #Cubs4316624477503012.283.328.386.713

#Gulf Coast Rookie League. ^Quad Cities, Midwest League. >Midland, Texas League. &Iowa Cubs,

American Association. +Columbus Clippers, International League (IL). @Nashville Sounds, IL.

Source: Baseball-Reference.

The 1984 Chicago Cubs—A Special Ballclub

Madison McEntire, an engineer by trade and resident of Bryant, Arkansas, “fell in love” with the 1984 Cubs. (McEntire, a long-time SABR member, is a top official with the Brooks Robinson-George Kell Chapter in Arkansas.)

His 40-year Cubs love affair included a recent conversation with a friend concerning Cotto’s unique 17-game hitting streak between July 28 and September 3, 1984—when the Cubs played 33 games. “Those 17 games in which he [Cotto] had an official AB included four games in which he got a hit in his only plate appearance (PA),” stated McEntire. “There were a couple of games in which he tallied a run with no PA and others where he only played defense. Would this still constitute a 17-game hitting streak?” Yes, per Baseball Reference! McEntire added: “Pretty remarkable for a guy with only 40 hits on the [1984] season. I wonder if there is anything comparable in MLB history?”

Jim Frey managed the 1984 Cubs to a 96-65 mark and a match-up with San Diego, managed by Dick Williams, in the NLCS. The Cubs had a blend of veterans in their line-up and a deep bench. Thirty-six-year-old Ron Cey at third, and 38-year-old Larry Bowa at short anchored the left side. Future Cooperstown Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg manned second, and Leon Durham held the first base job. Cey starred for the 1972-73 Santurce Crabbers, while Durham got extra AB with the 1979-80 Licey Tigers, winners of the February 1980 CS. The bench included Cotto (.274 BA in 146 AB), outfielder Mel Hall (.278 BA, 150 AB), Richie Hebner (.333 BA, 81 AB), Jay Johnstone (.288 BA, 73 AB), Bill Bucker, Davey Lopes, among others. Hall also posted a .278 BA for the 1982-83 Ponce Lions in the PRWL; Johnstone starred for the 1968-69 Lions and 1973-75 Caguas Criollos and earned back-to-back CS rings with Caguas (1974) and Bayamón (1975). Rick Sutcliffe (16-1 with the Cubs) had pitched in the Dominican Winter League (LIDOM). Cubs closer Lee Smith (33 saves) pitched for the 1980-81 Crabbers, managed by Cookie Rojas, the Cubs third base coach when Zorrilla signed Cotto in June 1980. Tim Stoddard (1978-1980 Crabbers) and Rich Bordi (1982-83 Arecibo Wolves) also gained valuable experience in the PRWL. The 6’7” Stoddard, 50 years ago, was the starting power forward on North Carolina State’s 1973-74 NCAA basketball champions.

                        Jim Frey, 1984 Chicago Cubs manager. Photo credit: www.pinterest.com.

Cotto enjoyed his lone season in Chicago at age 23. He opined that this team and the 1985 New York Yankees (97-64) were the two best big league teams he played on. “All our home games at Wrigley were in the daytime,” recalled Cotto. “Frey and our coaches did a nice job. Our players were focused. Unfortunately, we lost to the Padres in the NLCS, dropping three games after winning the first two.” In his only NLCS AB, Cotto singled in Game One as a replacement for Gary “Sarge” Matthews. Sutcliffe blanked San Diego in his seven innings and homered in the Cubs’ 13-0 win. Cey, Bobby Dernier, and Matthews also homered on October 2. The next day, Chicago prevailed, 4-2, with Lee Smith recording a save. In Jack Murphy Stadium, Ed Whitson won Game Three, 7-1. Goose Gossage mopped up. Whitson (1976-77 Bayamón) and Gossage (1972-73, 1974-75 Ponce) pitched in PR. Tony Gwynn, Kevin McReynolds, and Carmelo Martínez were a trio of Padres who played for the 1983-84 PRWL San Juan Senators franchise. Jack McKeon, San Diego’s GM, firmly believed in winter ball, having managed Arecibo and Santurce during the 1970s. San Diego’s Craig Lefferts won Games Four (7-5) and Five (6-3) in relief to send San Diego to the 1984 Fall Classic. Lefferts pitched for Ponce [1982-83] and later for Águilas Cibaeñas, LIDOM. Cotto, who faced Lefferts in the PRWL, scored a run as a Game Four pinch-runner and was ready for his fifth PRWL season with the Caguas Criollos after fine OF play for the 1984 Cubs (.984 FLD PCT) in 88 OF games; nine SB in 12 attempts; and, 17-game hitting streak from July 28-September 3, 1984.

Caguas Criollos, 1980-85

Ray Miller was Cotto’s first PRWL skipper with 1980-81 Caguas, a fourth-place (29-31) team that won their semi-finals and finals over favored opponents Bayamón and Mayagüez. Cotto had 13 regular season AB and mostly watched Jerry Morales—who once played for Herman Franks with the 1977-79 Cubs—patrol CF. Other Caguas stars included third baseman Cal Ripken Jr., second baseman Félix Millán, first baseman Willie Montañez, brothers José “Cheo” Cruz and Héctor “Heity” Cruz. Dennis Martínez, Roy Lee Jackson, and Mike Boddicker were solid starters. Boddicker joined the team for the stretch run and rented an old VW to get around. He pitched a three-hit SHO in Game Four of the finals versus Mayagüez. “The writers were saying we [Caguas] only had Dennis Martínez as a quality pitcher,” noted Boddicker. “So that motivated me.” Caguas clinched the finals when Dennis Martínez outpitched Eric Show—who went on to win Game Five for San Diego in the 1984 NLCS. Cotto benefitted watching Ponce left-fielder Rickey Henderson set an all-time PRWL single-season mark with 44 SB (in just 48 games). “I could tell that Rickey was special,” stated Cotto. “We were Yankees teammates for parts of three seasons (1985-87).” Caguas did not participate in the 1981 CS since it was canceled due to a Venezuelan Winter League players’ strike.

Cotto came into his own in 1983-84, when Vic Power managed last-place Caguas (24-36). His 24 SB led the loop, surpassing Santurce’s John Shelby (21), Ponce’s Gilberto Flores (20) and Tom Lawless (17), and San Juan’s Tony Gwynn (16). Cotto’s 76 hits trailed Santurce’s Steve Lubratich, but was one hit ahead of teammate Don Mattingly (75), the PRWL batting champ, with a .384 BA. “The PRWL has helped a lot of Puerto Ricans and Stateside players fine-tune their skills,” insisted Cotto. “Many Puerto Ricans in the majors would not be there without this league. My former Caguas teammates Ron Gant and Don Mattingly went on to become stars after playing in the PRWL.”

In 1984-85, Cotto claimed PRWL MVP laurels with a .308 BA (fifth-best), league-leading 36 runs, fourth-best SB (22)—tied with San Juan’s Gary Redus—behind Mayagüez’s Vince Coleman (30) and John Cangelosi (24), and Santurce’s Otis Nixon (24). Cotto’s 36 runs outpaced Nixon’s 24, and his 68 hits tied Ponce’s Milt Thompson for the top slot. Thus, Cotto became the second player in PRWL history to win the MVP trophy and lead the loop in runs and hits. Luis “Canena” Márquez did so for Mayagüez (1953-54), as did the “Tribe’s” Doug Glanville, 1995-96, under top-notch manager Tom Gamboa. Santurce (32-28) bested Caguas (33-27) in a six-game semi-finals. Dennis Martínez and Zane Smith came through for the Crabbers. Earlier that winter season, Cotto found out the Cubs traded him to the Yankees in a six-player trade. The December 4, 1984 trade sent him, hurlers Rich Bordi and Porfirio Altamirano, plus catcher Ron Hassey to the Bronx Bombers for OF/PH Brian Dayett and lefty hurler Ray Fontenot. Table II summarizes Cotto’s hitting stats with Caguas.

Table II: Henry Cotto PRWL Hitting Stats, 1980-1995 Caguas Criollos


!League leader. 1984-85 League MVP. Cotto also played in round-robin, semi-finals, and finals.

Source: https://www.beisbol101.com/henry-cotto/


Don Zimmer had a soft spot in his heart for the PRWL. He enjoyed the camaraderie with the 1954-55 Santurce Crabbers after the Mayagüez Indios released him around Christmas 1954. Pedrín claimed him to reinforce the Crabbers. With San Juan, Zimmer managed Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente, and others in the first part of the 1967-68 PRWL season. He witnessed San Juan’s Pat Dobson’s league record of 21 strikeouts versus Arecibo, pitching to bench, on December 10, 1967, a few days before being fired. When Héctor Villanueva was promoted to the 1990 Cubs, then-manager Zimmer gave “Porky” a $5,000 “welcome check” to the majors. “I loved the people of PR, the food, my accommodations at the Gallardo Apartments as Pete Burnside’s [January-February 1955] roommate,” said Zimmer. “The La Rada Hotel in the Condado was great (October-December 1967).”

Special thanks to Henry Cotto. Mike Boddicker shared insights on his 1980-81 season with Caguas. Herman Franks, a baseball lifer and Willie Mays’s financial adviser for many years, furnished thoughts on his friendship with Pedrín and Diana Zorrilla and having Pedrín scout for the Chicago Cubs. Madison McEntire has a unique perspective on Cotto as a four-decade, die-hard Cubs fan. Don Zimmer was sentimental about playing/managing in the PRWL and the 1984 Cubs season. Jorge Colón Delgado did the editing and photo layout.

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