Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Card #69: Al Williams



Who Can It Be Now?
Albert Hamilton (DeSouza) Williams was born in Laguna de Perlas, Nicaragua (yes, it says Pearl Lagoon on the card and on Baseball Reference, but seriously -- it's in Nicaragua and the place name is not in English there) on May 6, 1954.  As a kid, Williams wanted to be a rodeo performer; between the ages of 8 and 13, he rode bulls and horses for fun.  After that and to help his family, he worked as a logger and a fisherman before he joined the Nicaraguan Army for his three years of compulsory service.  Shortly after his army time, Williams signed for the Pittsburgh Pirates as an amateur free agent at the age of 20 on February 20, 1975.

The Pirates assigned Williams to their Carolina League affiliate in Charleston in 1975 Williams was old for that league, and his win-loss record was pretty bad -- 4-12 -- despite a 3.83 ERA.  That's what 31 unearned runs (94 Runs allowed, 63 earned, 12 HR allowed) in 148 innings will do.  Williams pitched reasonably well, though, he did struggle with his control, walking 4+ batters per nine innings. 

That efforts was not what led the Pirates to release him, however.  The real issue was that Williams could not get an exit visa from Nicaragua in 1977.  At that point in time, Anastasio Somoza -- the last of a hereditary succession of dictators which began in 1936 -- was being challenged internally by rebels known then as the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional ("FSLN" but more frequently as simply "the Sandinistas").  

The United States at the time supported the Somoza regime until nearly the end of the Somoza regime -- and the Somozas supported the US strongly in return.  US Foreign Policy was still steeped in anti-Communist policies, which in the 1950s through the 1980s led to the US supporting a number of Latin American dictators in the interest of "stemming the Communist tide."  

Only when supporting Somoza became untenable -- after it was clear that Somoza had embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid intended to rebuild Managua after a devastating earthquake in 1972 (the one after which Roberto Clemente boarded a plane to help the people and died when the plane crashed) -- did the US start looking for other, non-Communist options in Nicaragua.  The problem by that time, however, was that the best option for the Nicaraguan people to oust Somoza came from the Cuban-backed (and, ultimately, Soviet-backed) Sandinistas.

Getting back to Williams, the Pirates cut him when he could not exit the country.  As a result, Williams called on his old army training -- picking up a gun and joining the Sandinistas.  As he said in a 1980 interview:
[Not getting the exit visa] made me mad, so I joined the Sandinistas.  I had to ear a mask so no one would know who I was.  It wasn't fun, the fighting. It was war -- attack and withdraw, attack and withdraw.  But it was all for the cause, for the revolution.  I had to do it for my country, my family, my brothers and my sisters.
Being a baseball player meant that he had some notoriety in Nicaragua, so apparently a bounty was placed on his head by the Army.  His best friend as a kid turned on him and turned him in to the Army, leading to several assassination attempts.  Indeed, Williams was shot in the right leg during one of those attempts. Again, as Williams described it in 1980:
The army wanted to kill me, several times. Andy they came close. One time they came right to my house, pulled up and opened fire.  But I just went out the back door -- flying. Another time we were circled by bombers so I just held up a white flag and walked away.  Then I put my mask on and went back to fighting.
To get back into baseball, Williams had to be smuggled out of the country and into Venezuela to pitch in the summer league there.  The Twins had scouts in Venezuela who saw Williams pitch and decided to sign him.  The Twins sent him to Triple-A Toledo to start the 1980 season before calling him up on May 7 to pitch against the Baltimore Orioles.

It would be a great story -- one Hollywood would certainly have picked up by now -- if Williams had gone on to major league stardom.  In fact, he was an innings eater whose ability to strike batters out had deserted him during his time fighting for the Sandinistas.  He was a nearly league average pitcher in terms of his ERA in his five years in Minnesota.  

The Twins released Williams after the 1984 season.  In 1985, the New York Yankees gave Williams a shot to make their major league roster in spring training.  Williams instead pitched the entire year in Triple-A Columbus, walking more hitters than he struck out and striking out just 38 men in 106-1/3 innings.  Williams played a year in Mexico after that, and then he disappears from baseball's statistical radar.

Mustache Check: No chance, and Mr. Williams looks upset that you have asked him such a frivolous question.

Trivial Pursuit
I believe that Al Williams is the only confirmed member of the Sandinista Army to have played major league baseball.  The only contemporaries who might have fought for the Sandinistas were David Green -- who was only 18 or 19 at the height of the fighting in 1978 -- and Dennis Martinez, who was already in the major leagues for the Orioles in 1976.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
My memories of Al Williams are few.  A look at his career stats against the Brewers shows me that I probably would have been quite happy to see him on the mound for the Twins against the Brewers -- a slash line of .310/.359/.531 (a SLG that is .002 less than Mel Ott's career levels) indicates that.  

Now, as to what Mr. Williams is doing today....it's not easy to track down information regarding a major league baseball player who had a fairly short, nondescript career and whose name is so commonplace as to provide 108 million hits on Google when you type in "Al Williams."  

The closest I have come to finding where Williams is today is through a blog written by a couple from Minnesota who are in Nicaragua on mission work. The couple are in Nicaragua as part of a Mennonite mission.  As a part of that mission, the woman -- Cassie Zonnefeld -- visited Laguna de Perlas, where Williams is from.  Williams's family is still in that southeastern part of Nicaragua, and Cassie met Wesley Williams -- Al's brother -- because she was wearing a Minnesota Twins t-shirt. 

I sent Cassie and Kevin an e-mail, and Cassie sent me a very fast response to my questions. As it turns out that Wesley Williams operates a guest lodge in Lagunas de Perlas and speaks good English.  Wesley's lodge is called the Green Lodge Guest House.  From all indications, it is a very inexpensive but well-run lodge.  

From what Cassie found out from Wesley, Al Williams lives now in Florida.  He married a Nicaragua woman and spends most of the year in the United States.  From time to time, Al returns to Nicaragua to visit family in Laguna de Perlas.

Thank you, Cassie, for the help.  If anyone reading is inclined to help out a young couple working as missionaries in Nicaragua, please go to the News from Nicaragua blog that Cassie and Kevin write.  It is a fascinating read for those of us who are not all that familiar with daily life in Nicaragua.

3 comments:

  1. What a crazy story. You are right. ...it screams Hollywood.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fantastic write up sir. Each of your entries have been well done, but this one was particularly well done in my humble opinion. Kudos

    ReplyDelete