If National Hispanic Heritage Month is recognized in Kauffman Stadium, it is a holiday without a lot of history.
In mid-July, the Royals hosted an event called “Viva Los Royals,” which as far as I can tell was not connected to any relevant date on the calendar.
But if the month (Sept 15 to Oct. 15) officially designated to recognize Americans of Hispanic heritage goes unrecognized by the Royals, that would only seem fitting considering their first 40 years or so.
The lack of Mexican- and Latin-born players in the history of the team is surprising. Given that history, the team’s recent emphasis on signing players from Latin America has added significance.
Throughout the team’s history, the number of Hispanic players at positions other than middle infield is amazingly small. But the lack of Hispanic pitchers to play a significant role on the team is downright shocking.
Nonetheless, in light of National Hispanic Heritage Month, and especially considering that Hispanics are starting to play greater roles for the Royals, the contributions of Mexican- and Latin-born players deserve to be heralded.
In the Beginning:
Interestingly, considering how few Hispanics have been stars in KC, the team’s first “star,” was Puerto Rican catcher Ellie Rodriguez. Rodriguez holds the honor of being the first Royal to play in an All Star Game, in 1969.
Rodriguez aside, the Royals first true star of Hispanic heritage was Cookie Rojas. Second only to Frank White in the history of Royals’ second basemen, the Cuban Rojas played eight years (1970-1977) in KC and earned four appearances in the All Star Game.
Rojas was so popular in KC, you would think there would have been other Hispanic stars to follow. But the Royals produced only one significant home-grown Hispanic player – Onix Concepcion – during the next decade and a half.
Concepcion, from Puerto Rico, was signed by KC in 1976 and developed in the farm system. He began sharing the shortstop role with UL Washington in 1980 and is one of a collection of players to play in both World Series for the Royals.
In the meantime, the Royals did play host to one of the greatest Latin-born players in history. In 1974, future Hall-of-Famer Orlando Cepeda tried to milk one more season out of his aging Puerto Rican body. But the experiment produced just a .215 average and one homer in 33 games from one of the best sluggers of his era.
A Hispanic player did contribute perhaps the most significant play in team history. Mexican Jorge Orta benefited from a dubious call of “safe” at first in the ninth inning of the sixth game of the 1985 World Series, a game KC eventually won en route to the championship. Orta played admirably, primarily as a DH, for the Royals from 1984-1987.
Hispanics man the middle:
Not surprisingly, the Royals have fielded a number of Hispanic second basemen and shortstops since Concepcion in 1985. Many of the names may induce nightmares for Royals fans:
Angel Salazar (Venezuela), Jose Lind (Puerto Rico), Felix Jose (Dominican Republic), Jose Offerman (Domincan Republic), Carlos Febles (Dominican Republic), Rey Sanchez (Puerto Rico), Neifi Perez (Dominican Republic), Angel Berroa (Dominican Republic), Tony Pena, Jr. (Dominican Republic) and Yuniesky Betancourt (Cuba).
Many were fine fielders, but none solidified the middle infield during the dark days in KC. Current Venezuelan shortstop Alcides Escobar looks to stop the madness.
Other than Concepcion, the Royals produced almost no Hispanic talent from their own system until Puerto Rican Carlos Beltran emerged from the minor leagues in 1998. He would become the greatest Hispanic player in team history, not to mention possibly the second greatest Royal of all time.
One of the most significant moments in Royals history was when they hired Tony Pena, Sr. to manage the team in 2002. The rallying cry “Nosotros Creemos” (“We Believe”) unified the upstart Royals for a time, but ultimately the believers’ faith was misplaced. The Dominican Pena departed in 2005 without having attracted elite Latin talent to KC, and without having produced a consistent winner.
Where are the pitchers?:
Unbelievably, the team went 20 years before a Hispanic pitcher played a significant role. Finally from 1988 to 1992, Puerto Rican Luis Aquino cracked the staff, earning 55 starts and pitching in a total of 114 games. Aquino posted a 22-19 record as a Royal.
Next came Hipolito Pichardo, from the Domincan Republic, who pitched in 281 games from 1992 to 1998. He started 49 games in his first two seasons, then converted to the bullpen. He notched a 44-39 record, and also 19 saves.
Perhaps the greatest starting pitcher in team history of Hispanic descent was not actually born in Latin America. Jose Rosado was born in New Jersey, but joined the Royals by way of Puerto Rico. He went just 37-45 in 112 starts for KC from 1996 to 2000, but his solid role on the Royals’ staff earned him two invitations to the All Star Game. Sadly, injuries ended his career at age 25.
The first Hispanic closer in team history was Roberto Hernandez. The Puerto Rican came to KC in the much-maligned Johnny Damon trade. Hernandez did notch 54 saves, but was never able to earn much fan support.
Finally, in 2007, the greatest Hispanic pitcher to wear a Royals uniform arrived. Mexican Joakim Soria ranks as one of the greatest closers in the history of a team relatively rich in closers. Soria recorded 160 saves in just five seasons and hopes to add more if he can recover from arm surgery.
I-70 Celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month:
Considered the history of Hispanic heritage in Kansas City, it would be difficult to name an All-Time Team of Hispanic players. But it’s worth a try. That team will be forthcoming on I70baseball.com.
And as the Royals finish out the season with Salvador Perez and Alcides Escobar providing some hope for the future, appreciate that the Royals are now a leader in Latin America when it comes to recruiting and developing young talent. Coming soon is a story celebrating Kansas City’s investment in Hispanic prospects.