Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Card #63: Mario Soto

Who Can It Be Now?
Mario Melvin Soto was born on July 12, 1956, in Bani, Peravia, in the Dominican Republic.  A 1984 Sports Illustrated story about Soto (which covers some interesting times in his career) provides his backstory.  Soto's hometown of Bani is currently a city of about 60,000 people; it was about 40,000 in 1984.  Bani has produced other major leaguers, including Miguel Tejada, Willy Aybar, Erick Aybar, and Luis Vizcaino, among others.

SI quotes Felipe Alou as saying that the area around Bani is not a fertile area, so people work in the salt mines or in hard labor.  Soto's parents separated when he was 8 years old, and his mother made ends meet as best she could by taking in laundry from the Dominican air force.  
Soto dropped out of school at age 14 to become a mason.  During this time, he was playing baseball, but he did not want to miss work to try out for scouts.  Soto is quoted as saying, "Once a scout came to me at work and said he wanted to see me play, but I told him, 'Not unless you pay me what I'm making in construction.' I was making $7.50 a day for 12 hours work."  He was a catcher, but, again in his own words, he couldn't run and he couldn't hit.  As a result, he was converted to pitching and signed a contract with the Reds for $1,000 in 1973 as an undrafted international free agent.

He did not come to the United States to play, however, until after he turned 18.  He was assigned to the Reds Low-A affiliate in Eugene, Oregon and pitched just 5 times.  Soto was the only Latino on the team as far as I can tell from a roster listing, and his inability to speak English made him miserable.  He stuck with baseball, though, and learned English from watching television and movies.

In 1975, he was assigned to Tampa in the Florida State League.  His performance there was nothing short of excellent -- 13-7 record, 1.87 ERA over 197 innings with 124 strikeouts and 80 walks.  Yes, his walks were a bit high and the strikeouts a bit low, but he posted those stats while being 2 years younger than the average player in the league.  

As teams were prone to do in the 1970s, that 13-7 record convinced the Reds to push their 20-year-old phenom all the way to Triple-A Indianapolis in 1977.  He again put up impressive results -- 11-5 record, 3.07 ERA, 123 innings, 109 Ks against 61 BBs.  As a result, the Reds called him up in mid-July to give their playoff run a boost.  Soto was inconsistent in the major leagues -- as you might expect a now 21-year-old pitcher to be.  

He did not establish himself as a major leaguer until 1980, as he spent time in Triple-A in 1978 and 1979.  His 1980 season, though, was one that made him a minor star.  Though he started just 12 games, he appeared in 53 and pitched 190-1/3 innings at age 23.   In those 190+ innings, he struck out 182, walked 84, threw three complete games (including one shutout), saved four games and gave up only 126 hits.  Yes, he gave up just 6 hits ever nine innings and struck out 8.6 per nine.  It should be no surprise, then, that he received a vote in the Cy Young Award voting -- just one, mind you, but Steve Carlton ran away with the award.

After 1980, Soto became a fixture in the Reds rotation.  He led the league in starts in 1980 with 25, completing 10 and throwing 3 shutouts.  Even though the leagues shut down for two months, the 24-year-old Soto threw 175 innings that year.  He led the league in home runs allowed with 13, but that was the only negative stat for him.  He cut his walks by nearly 1 per nine innings -- down to 3.1.  

From there, his career reached its peak in 1982 through 1984.  He was an all-star each year and received Cy Young Award consideration in each year.  Indeed, his 1982 season was excellent (7.5 WAR, second behind Steve Rogers's 7.7 WAR and 2 wins better than Cy Young winner Steve Carlton), yet he finished 9th of 9 pitchers receiving votes because of the sportswriter fascination with win-loss record.  While award-winner Carlton finished 23-11, Soto went 14-13 for a Cincinnati Reds team that finished 61-101.  Soto finished second to deserved Cy Young Award Winner John Denny in 1983 and then came in sixth in 1984.

The year 1984 was a tumultuous one for Soto, however.  He was suspended twice for a total of ten games for two separate incidents.  The first was in Chicago.  In the second inning of the game, Soto had put two runners on base when the Penguin, Ron Cey, stepped up to the plate. Cey yanked a ball that was pretty clearly foul even on the grainy, non-HD replays of the day, yet third base umpire Steve Rippley -- a second-year umpire who became one of the better umpires in the league -- totally blew the call and called it a fair ball home run.  Soto flipped out, and it led to a nearly half-hour melee on the field.  I can't embed the video, but you can watch it here.  For his troubles, Soto was suspended 5 games.

A couple of weeks later, he squared off against Claudell Washington in Atlanta.  Washington homered in the first inning off Soto, so of course, the next time Washington came up, he got buzzed inside by Soto.  That led to Soto being warned.  In the fifth inning, Washington gave Manny Machado inspiration and flung his bat toward the mound on a swinging strike.  The benches cleared.  During the melee, Soto chucked the baseball at Washington and hit a Braves coach in the process.  Once again, another 5 game suspension.

Soto's career started going downhill after 1985.  One blogger on Bleacher Report....yeah, it's Bleacher Report, but it such a great conspiracy theory that it's worth repeating...the Bleacher Report guy basically blamed Pete Rose for destroying Mario Soto's career.  Rose became the Reds manager on August 15, 1984.  The evidence for this position is that Rose: (1) had Soto face 39 batters in the last game of the season against Houston, which the Reds won 7-6 (estimated pitch count from Boyd Nation's pitch calculator: 146), on three-days rest and (2) in 1985, Soto started 19 of his 36 starts on three-days rest.  

My response to that is, perhaps.  It's true that Soto rarely pitched on three days rest before 1985.  But, you cannot ignore the workload that Soto racked up in both the minors and the majors from the age of 19 through the age of 27 before Rose became manager.  Soto threw nearly 900 innings from 1980 to 1983 between the ages of 23 and 27. That is a lot of mileage on Soto's shoulder before Pete Rose started betting on games and pitching Soto in those games because Soto gave the Reds the best chance of winning.  While Rose definitely put a lot of strain on Soto, it is at least a bit unfair to blame Rose entirely for Soto's shoulder problems.

Another contributing factor was Soto himself.  In a 1983 story from the Christian Science Monitor, Soto was quoted as saying (with emphasis that I have added):
I challenge hitters because that is the strength of a strikeout pitcher.  You have to make sure that you are in charge, not the batter, even if it means throwing 140 pitches a game.  If you think you are going to be tired, then you probably are going to be tired.  But if you are a strikeout pitcher, you cannot afford to think that way and expect to win.
Soto's career certainly ended prematurely.  By 1988, he had signed a minor league deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the offseason, but two days after signing, he backed out of the deal.  This was after the Reds released him in June of that year.  That was the end of a brightly shining career that was snuffed out quickly.

Mustache?  Nope.  Five O'clock shadow perhaps, but definitely not a mustachioed man on this card.

Trivial Pursuit
Soto holds the Cincinnati Reds record for winning four Opening Day games as a starter in a row from 1983 through 1986.  No other Red has won more than two in a row.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Mario Soto was a guy I recognized in 1982 as being one of the best pitchers in the National League.  I remember him for being a guy who would bust hitters in on their fists without a second thought.  While Steve Carlton was winning Cy Young Awards, Soto definitely seemed more untouchable as a pitcher.

Soto today is in the Reds front office, officially listed as a Special Assistant to the General Manager along with Miguel Cairo, Eric Davis, and Chris Speier under the Major League Operations Staff.  In that role, he has served as a mentor to Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto in particular and has helped them with learning a change up.

In researching this, I found one story from Soto's playing career that made me like him a bit more.  This is borrowed from Deadspin in 2011 (caution: cursing involved), which brought to light an excerpt from Gene Wojciechowski's 1990 book called Pond Scum and Vultures: America's Sportswriters Talk about Their Glamorous Profession.  Back in 1985, ESPN blathering mouth Jay Mariotti was just a baby beat writer for the Cincinnati Post.  Soto was upset after a poor outing in 1985, and apparently threw a temper tantrum.  Mariotti wrote the next day that Soto was hurting the team with his tantrums.

That didn't impress Soto too much.  

Normally, Soto would have confronted Mariotti the next day and they would have gotten to hash it out.  But Mariotti was assigned to cover a golf tournament and didn't return until the next week.  Soto seethed. 

When Mariotti finally showed back up in the clubhouse the next week, everyone told Mariotti he was in trouble.  Soto cussed Mariotti out -- if you want the exact expletives, follow the link -- and started poking Mariotti with a bat.  Johnny Bench intervened (I guess he was on the coaching staff, Reds fans?) and dragged Soto away.

A month later, Mariotti was in the clubhouse and stupidly got talked into "leg wrestling." He was then covered with mayonnaise, Ben-Gay, spit, food, and other items.  Then Soto doused him -- probably with urine.

It's a bit gross, but Jay Mariotti and his ego, well, as we say in the South, "He might could use that today."

No comments:

Post a Comment