In a sad note, Preston Gomez passed away a few days ago. The former major league pitcher, coach and consultant had been a member of the professional baseball community since 1944, most recently with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
In 1969, baseball pioneer Gomez became just the second Latin American manager in the history of MLB when he was hired to lead the expansion San Diego Padres. After his 1972 firing, he also managed the Houston Astros (1974-75) and Chicago Cubs (1980).
Prior to Gomez, the only other manager born in Latin America was a fellow Cuban, Miguel Angel “Mike” Gonzalez, who led the St. Louis Cardinals on an interim basis in 1938 and 1940, reported the LA Times.
Gomez first joined the then-California Angels organization in 1981 as their major league third-base coach. After four seasons in the role, he became a special assistant to the general manager in 1985.
Gomez was also very active in baseball in Latin America, first leading the La Guaira Sharks of the Venezuelan League back in the winter of 1972-73 and serving several stints in the role.
Fast forward to 1997 when UCLA shortstop Troy Glaus became the Angels’ first-round pick in the June draft, taken third overall. After long negotiations, he finally signed in September, receiving a substantial signing bonus of $2.25 million.
As a result of the late signing, Glaus first headed to Arizona for the Halos’ fall instructional league camp. There, in a most unusual move, Gomez convinced Glaus to travel to Venezuela to make his professional debut for La Guaira that winter.
It was feasible for Glaus to take such a step because of his advanced development as a player. He had been the San Diego Padres’ second-round pick coming out of high school in 1994, but did not sign. With the Bruins, he led his club to the College World Series, batted .344 over three seasons, was the Pac-10 Player of the Year and shattered Mark McGwire’s single-season conference home run record.
In the 1996 Olympics, Glaus was the starting third baseman for Team USA and among his accomplishments was hitting four home runs at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, then the Atlanta Braves’ home park. His minor league career would only last four months before his first call up to Anaheim in July, 1998.
Though the media guides of the various clubs for which Glaus later played do not acknowledge this, he became the first and only future major league player to make his professional debut when he suited up for La Guaira in the 1997-1998 Venezuelan Winter League, according to the Sharks.
As it turned out, Glaus’ memories of the event were not fond ones. According to reports at the time, Glaus battled stomach ailments during his stint in Venezuela and lost 25 pounds. Accordingly, his on-field results were less than stellar, as he hit only .233 with two home runs in 50 games.
“The food and water were bad,” Glaus told the LA Times at the time, “but it made you learn how to try to be successful even when you don’t feel very well.”
Fast forward to today. Ironically, one of the top candidates to replace Glaus as the Cardinals third baseman in 2010, David Freese, was among organizational farmhands sent to Venezuela this winter.
Like Glaus, Freese’s Latin American stint was generally unfulfilling. The 25-year-old hit .235 with three home runs and eight RBIs in 14 games playing for the Caribes de Anzoategui of the Venezuelan League.
One report out of Venezuela was that Freese’s services were terminated due to results on the field. Another article hinted of a financial dispute. Freese himself attributed his early return home to a left wrist injury that required examination in St. Louis.
Whatever the reason, the Cardinals as an organization remain committed to Venezuela all year round.
Under the watchful eyes of former Cardinals Gulf Coast League manager Enrique Brito and Minor League Hitting Coordinator Dan Radison, a number of farmhands played there this winter, including Springfield’s Luke Gregerson and Jose Martinez. The Cards also had scores of younger players competing in a pair of winter minor leagues in the country.
The Cardinals have 38 players under contract on their Venezuelan Summer League roster, most of whom are natives. Up the line in the Cardinals system, there are another two dozen Venezuelans, including second baseman Martinez as well as a pair of exciting teenagers, pitcher Richard Castillo and outfielder Frederick Parejo. Former Cards shortstop Cesar Iztruis also calls the country home.
Director of International Operations Moises Rodriguez told me this recently: “Our plan is to build an academy in Venezuela, operate in the same manner as we do in the Dominican Republic and our goal is to produce players. We feel there is talent to be had there,” Rodriguez said.
Note: For more details on Cardinals players competing in winter ball, make sure you check out the “Cardinals Winter League Notebook” at Cardinals Best News Links.