Tom Walker Remembers Puerto Rico and the February 1975 Caribbean Series Title

Tom Walker with Bayamón

Tom Walker was born in Tampa, Florida, November 7, 1948, and also raised in Tampa. One of his best friends was Steve Garvey, who played 3B on their Chamberlain High School baseball team. Walker is best known for pitching a magnificent 15-inning no-hitter for the Dallas-Ft. Worth Spurs, on August 4, 1971, in a Class AA game at Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Things started happening [to me] after that game,” said Walker, in his phone conversation with the author, August 16, 2019. “Montreal picked me up via the Rule 5 Draft; I pitched in Puerto Rico; got married; and [eventually] had four kids and 10 grandkids.”

Walker’s SABR bio by Bob Hurte is at https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/31ea0c83. This blog mainly focuses on Walker’s five seasons in the Puerto Rico Winter League during the 1970s, which included a cherished Caribbean Series Title for the 1974-75 Vaqueros (Cowboys) de Bayamón.  How did Tom Walker become such a valuable team import (Stateside player) for managers’ Jim “Junior” Gilliam with the 1973=74 San Juan Senators and José Antonio Pagán with Bayamón in 1974-75 and 1976-77? Were his first two winter seasons (1971-72 and 1972-73) with Caguas and San Juan, respectively, instrumental in helping him become a more effective pitcher at the MLB level?

“In Puerto Rico, you either performed well, or you went home,” affirmed Walker. “When you left Puerto Rico, you [had] gained something; and came back to spring training a better player.” This summarizes the reality in the competitive Puerto Rico League during the 1970s—one produced, or they were sent home, to be replaced by someone else.

Walker was fortunate Montreal chose him on November 29, 1971, in the Rule 5 Draft. He had pitched well in four minor-league seasons with the Baltimore organization—1968 and 1969 Miami Marlins (7-4 and 9-5 with 2.62 ERA and 2.82 ERA); 1970 Stockton Ports (8-8, 2.81 ERA); and 1971 Dallas-Ft. worth Spurs (13-9, 2.25 ERA, 31 starts). Walker did benefit from the know-how of Cal Ripken Sr, his manager with the 1971 Spurs. His 15-inning no-hitter featured 11 strikeouts-to-four walks, and some 193 pitches. No one could question his toughness. But Baltimore had four 20-game winners in 1971 (Dave McNally, Miguel Cuéllar, Jim Palmer and Pat Dobson) and Walker was left off the Orioles 40-man roster.

Montreal sent Walker to Caguas, Puerto Rico, to help the 1971-72 Criollos qualify for the post-season. Walker was 2-0 in 15 IP, 1.80 ERA, 14 strikeouts, four walks, for a fourth-place (34-35) team, destined to play first-place San Juan (39-30) in one semi-final series. San Juan prevailed in six games behind the pitching of Jim Bibby, Jon Matlack, Bruce Kison, Bob Johnson and Julio Navarro. Five of San Juan’s eight position players were Pittsburgh Pirates prospects or veterans: Milt May, Carl Taylor, Rennie Stennett, José Pagán and Richard Zisk. Caguas countered with Expos pitching prospects such as John Strohmayer, Dan McGinn and Walker. Zisk led the league in runs (39) and RBIs (39). Santurce’s Don Baylor (.324) had the best BA; Caguas’ Willie Montañez led the loop with 15 HR, followed by Mayagüez’s Charlie Manuel, with 12.

“The Expos were big on winter ball,” said Walker. “They knew it was close to AAA or better. [Montreal] GM Jim Fanning and [Expos] manager Gene Mauch kept up with winter ball…how we were doing.” Walker said Mauch was the “toughest MLB manager he played for” with the

1972-74 Expos. “One had to go through a coach to talk to Mauch,” recalled Walker. “On a plane, Mauch would find [veterans] Ron Fairly and John Bocabella to play chess with…” Walker noted Mauch was a good man, and “someone I learned a lot of baseball from.” Mauch mostly used Walker out of the bullpen, including 1973, when he pitched in 54 games. (Mike Marshall was the Expos most frequent reliever that season, with Walker contributing as well.) Walker complimented Tim McCarver, who caught for Montreal in 1972—“McCarver had great knowledge and good catching skills,” claimed Walker. “He had been traded [to Montreal].”

When Walker joined the 1972-73 San Juan Senators, he lived in the Condado section of Santurce, as contrasted when he resided near the Criollos ballpark in 1971-72. San Juan (33-37) finished fifth, despite the fine starting pitching of Brent Strom (8-4, 1.65), the current Houston Astros pitching coach; and the relief work of Walker (2-2, 1.33 ERA, one save, 34 IP), and native Luis Peraza (2-0, 1.55 ERA, three saves). Walker particularly enjoyed pitching to Manny Sanguillén, who he called: “A good catcher, with great hands; a good hitter…and the fans loved him.” Zisk (.328 BA, 14 HR, 46 RBIs) was the team’s best hitter. Santurce (45-25) was the league’s regular/post-season champion with Baylor, Ron Cey, Willie Crawford and Tany (Tony) Pérez in their line-up. Doyle Alexander and Juan Pizarro were Santurce’s top two starters. Much has been written about Roberto Clemente’s tragic plane crash on December 31, 1972, including Clemente politely declining offers of several players—including Walker—to fly to Nicaragua.

The 1973-74 San Juan Senators improved to 36-34 (third-place) behind Jim “Junior” Gilliam as manager. “I loved the guy (Gilliam),” said Walker. “He was a good motivator; left you alone; let you go through our routine…a lot of us went to Puerto Rico to make money and have some kind of a job…otherwise, get an off-season job in the States.” Most of Walker’s pitching in Puerto Rico preceded MLB free agency, when winter ball meant more to Stateside players in terms of proving themselves and earning more cash. Walker (10-4, 3.06 ERA); Tom Hilgendorf (9-5, 2.57 ERA); Orlando Peña 6-2, 2.77 ERA) and Balor “Mr. Juego Perfecto” Moore (3-9, 3.10 ERA) were San Juan’s four starters. Chris Chambliss (.362 BA, four HR, and 30 RBIs), Lee Lacy (.278, 3/31) and Charlie Spikes (.280, 7/18) were the team’s best imported hitters.  Moore’s perfect nine-inning game took place at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, November 25, 1973, versus Ponce. San Juan was eliminated by Caguas (39-31) in the semi-finals, a team featuring talented native players, plus imports such as Jay Johnstone, Mike Schmidt and Gary Carter.

“Gary Carter was a great athlete, who came to Puerto Rico [1973-74, 1974-75] to learn his craft,” said Walker. “I pitched to him (1974) in Montreal when he was very young. John Bocabella tutored Gary…did a fine job.” Walker also spoke highly of Eliseo “Ellie” Rodríguez, the talented native catcher, who caught him with San Juan (1973-74) and Bayamón (1974-75). “I never had to shake Ellie off; came up with the [1968] New York Yankees; AL All-Star [with Kansas City and Milwaukee]; and later [1974 and 1975] caught Nolan Ryan with the Angels.”

The ex-San Juan Senators became the Bayamón Cowboys, in 1974-75, playing in Juan Ramón Loubriel, a brand-new stadium. Walker enjoyed playing for José Pagán—bilingual and communicated well with imports and natives. Fellow pitchers Tom Hilgendorf and John Montague were fun to be around with Bayamón, a team which featured a tough line-up with Ellie Rodríguez catching; IF of Dan Driessen (1B), Mako Oliveras (2B), Art Howe (3B), Tim Foli (SS); OF with Ken Griffey Jr., (RF), Raúl “Boogie” Colón (CF) and Orlando Alvarez (LF).

Bayamón (37-33) peaked at the right time, topping Ponce, four games-to-two, in the semis; then, besting Caguas—winners of the February 1974 Caribbean Series—in a seven-game finals. Walker was 1-1 in the semis and 0-1 in the finals, after his 4-3 W-L regular season and 3.75 ERA. Regular season standings were: Caguas (43-27), Ponce (40-30), Bayamón (37-33), Arecibo (33-37), Santurce (30-40) and Mayagüez (27-43). The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Walker, preferred to travel to some away games with John Montague in a rental car, if he was pitching. If Walker was not pitching in Arecibo, Ponce or Mayagüez, he could remain in the Condado, and work out on his own. The Cowboys had excellent team chemistry as evidenced by music played by native players on the team bus and by this comment, made to the author in 1992, by Ellie Rodríguez: “We laughed together and cried together…those [1974-75 and 1975-76] Bayamón teams were special.”

Walker, 6’1” and approximately 190 pounds, was traded by Montreal to the Detroit Tigers, with catcher Terry Humphrey, for LHP Woodie Fryman, during the 1974-75 “off-season.” Walker, who had married Carolyn Lang in 1974, remained in Puerto Rico, and sported a 4-3 regular season record and 3.75 ERA in 48 innings for Bayamón. Chip Lang—Walker’s brother-in-law—pitched for the 1974-75 Mayagüez Indios. When Mayagüez came to the metro area, Chip Lang would overnight at times with Tom and Carolyn Walker.

The February 1-6, 1975 Caribbean Series was hosted by Puerto Rico. Some of Caguas’ top position players plus starter Eduardo (Ed) Figueroa reinforced Bayamón, a common practice by all participating teams. Bayamón opened the series with a 12-2 rout over Venezuela, behind Figueroa’s pitching and a line-up of Griffey Sr. (RF), Félix Millán (2B), Willie Montañez (1B), Jay Johnstone (LF), Jerry Morales (CF), Howe (3B), Ellie Rodríguez (C), DH Orlando Alvarez and Sergio “Cuchito” Ferrer (SS)—who replaced the departed Tim Foli.

Walker (1-0) bested Mexico, 6-4, on February 2, with relief help from LHP John Candelaria, Fernando Vega and Jim Mitchell (save). Hilgendorf defeated the Dominican Republic (6-4); Montague shut out Mexico, 6-0; Bayamón won game five, 5-4, over Mexico; before losing to the Dominican team by the same score in game six. Walker etched his name in the record book by giving up the first HR in Caribbean Series history to a DH, when Joe Pactwa, an import for Mexico, homered off him. During the celebration after Bayamón clinched the Caribbean Series title, Hilgendorf received the key to the city [of Bayamón] and Roberto Inclán, team GM—who was well-liked by Walker and the team’s other imports—congratulated his players for 5-1 Bayamón, who topped the 3-3 Aguilas Cibaeñas from the Dominican Republic; 3-3 Hermosillo Orange Growers (Mexico) and 1-5 Aragua Tigers from Venezuela, in the round-robin. 

Walker pitched his finest MLB game for Ralph Houk’s 1975 Detroit Tigers, on July 7, when he defeated the Chicago White Sox, 2-1, in a game lasting only one hour and 38 minutes! Jim Kaat, the losing pitcher, later mentioned this game on the MLB Network in 2010. It might be the quickest MLB game in the Division era, 1969-to the present? On September 28, 1919, the New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies played a rapid 51-minute contest, in game one of a twin-bill. That game was “accelerated” since players were told to “hurry up in order to play two.” Houk had managed the 1956-57 San Juan Senators in Puerto Rico, prior to his MLB managing.

In 1976, Walker pitched for the Tulsa Oilers, a St. Louis farm team, managed by Ken Boyer—

“Someone I had the utmost respect for and someone who liked me,” stated Walker, who also pitched for the 1976 St. Louis Cardinals.

Walker’s final [1976-77] winter in Puerto Rico, was as a closer. He performed admirably with a 5-2 record, 1.78 ERA in 30.1 IP. He saved four games, third-best in the league behind Mike Barlow’s nine for Ponce, and Roric Harrison’s six with Caguas. Bayamón (34-26) placed third, behind 40-20 Caguas and 38-22 Ponce. Santurce (32-27) was fourth. Walker, John Montague, Vic Albury and Ed Whitson earned wins versus Ponce in the semis; Rich Krueger had their only loss. But Caguas prevailed over Bayamón, five games-to-one, in the best-of-nine finals.

On July 23, 1977, Walker threw his final MLB pitch for the California Angels, at Minnesota. Lyman Bostock lined one in the sixth to SS Rance Mulliniks, who threw the ball to 2B Jerry Remy, who then tossed it to 1B Tony Solaita, who had played for the 1976-77 Santurce Crabbers in Puerto Rico. Paul Hartzell, Santurce’s best pitcher in 1976-77, was [briefly] a teammate of Walker with the Angels, and knew him as Tom “T-Bone” Walker. Earlier in 1977, Walker pitched for Montreal and manager Dick Williams. Walker noted he “had to talk to a coach [not the manager], when I came back with Montreal in 1977.”

Walker’s MLB stats were 18-23 W-L, 3.87 ERA; 191 games, 17 starts, 11 saves, 414 IP, 418 hits, 262 strikeouts, 142 walks, 1.353 WHIP. His minor league stats were 59-33 W-L, 2.84 ERA; 150 games, 88 starts, 37 CG eight SHO, 13 saves, 726 IP, 642 hits, 500 strikeouts, 193 walks, 1.150 WHIP. Puerto Rico Winter League stats (five seasons): 23-11 W-L, 2.72 ERA, 245 IP, 124 strikeouts, 64 walks and six saves.  

All four of Walker’s children are athletically inclined, with daughter Carrie—married to current Houston Astros first-base coach Donnie Kelly, a former MLB player—to be inducted in the Wagner College (New York) Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Carrie averaged 17.5 points and 10.7 rebounds for Wagner, 2003-04, and played professionally overseas. Neil, who plays for the 2019 Miami Marlins, will be inducted in his high school Hall of Fame, and honored as the 2019 American Legion Alumnus of the Year. Tom and Neil Walker represent a handful of father-son duos who were drafted in the first round of an MLB player draft, in 1968 and 2004, respectively.  Sean Walker pitched for George Mason University, and Matthew Walker was a George Washington University OF who also played five seasons of minor-league baseball.

With deep appreciation to Tom Walker for his e-mails the week of August 12-16, 2019, and for contacting the author by phone, Friday, August 16, 2019. Jorge Colón Delgado furnished Tom’s 1971-72 pitching stats. Roberto Inclán took the initiative in October 1983 to publish San Juan – Bayamón team stats, 1938-39 through 1982-83 winter seasons. Danny Torres contacted Neil Walker on Tom Van Hyning’s behalf, to put Tom (the blog author) in touch with Tom (his dad).

Photo courtesy of Tomás Bosques

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