Friday, September 12, 2014

Card #106: Enrique Romo

Who Can It Be Now?
Enrique Romo Navarro was born on July 15, 1947, in Santa Rosalina in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Santa Rosalina is a beach town on the Gulf of California in the northern part of the southern state in Baja. Romo started playing baseball as a 12-year-old outfielder, and became a pitcher only when signed to a professional contract.

Romo started pitching professionally as a teenager in 1966. He spent two years with Puerto Mexico Portenos -- a club in the Mexican Southeast League which Baseball Reference puts as a Single-A club.  From there, Romo moved to Charros de Jalisco in Guadalajara. He spent four years there -- probably as a starter from what his statistics show -- and was pretty much a .500 pitcher. That Jalisco team won the Mexican League Series in 1971, defeating Saraperos de Saltillo four games to three.  

He then spent the 1972 season with Algodoneros de Gomez Palacio (the Cotton Dealers of Gomez Palace, known also as Algodoneros de Torreon), putting up some crazy numbers -- 11-8 record, but 2.03 ERA, 186 innings, 133 hits allowed, 42 ER (though 23 unearned), with 52 walks and 104 strikeouts.  

After the 1972 season, Romo -- now 25 years old -- moved on again.  This time, Romo went to one of the most successful and well-known teams in Mexican baseball -- the Mexico City Red Devils (alternately called the Mexico City Reds, but their name is Diablos Rojos...). Romo flourished in the nation's capital, posting 61 wins against just 30 losses in his four seasons there.  His 1976 season, however, is what caught a lot of attention.  At the age of 28, Romo went 20-4 with a 1.89 ERA. In 233 innings, he allowed just 169 hits and 56 walks while striking out 239 batters. I don't care where you are, that is a great season. 

Lou Gorman thought so too. Gorman was the first general manager for the Seattle Mariners. In his book High and Inside: My Life in the Front Offices of Baseball, Gorman recalled his first days on the job in Seattle. He had established a friendship with Angel Vasquez, the owner of Los Diablos Rojos, through past business dealings (purchasing Aurelio Lopez's contract a few years earlier). Gorman saw Romo's performance and, despite questions as to whether Romo really was about to turn 30 years old or not, he decided to purchase Romo's contract.  The deal was worked out and Romo became one of the first original Seattle Mariners.

At first, the Mariners tried Romo as a starter.  He started his first three games as a major leaguer -- including the second game the Seattle Mariners ever played -- and pitched fairly well. He went 7 innings in each of his first two starts and gave up 10 hits, 5 walks, 1 homer, 3 earned runs, and struck out 11. His third start ended early, however, when Romo pulled his hamstring.  He was placed on the disabled list and, when he returned, he became a reliever. In fact, after starting his first three U.S. professional games, he never again made a start.

Instead, Romo became the Mariners' closer. He finished his first year in the majors with an 8-10 record and 16 saves.  He followed that season with a similarly successful 1978 season for the Mariners -- 11-7, 3.69 ERA and 10 saves.  His strikeouts were way down in 1978, though everything else looked pretty good.

Apparently, the Pittsburgh Pirates agreed with that assessment. During the Winter Meetings that December of 1978, the Pirates sent Odell Jones, Mario Mendoza, and Rafael Vasquez to the Mariners in exchange for Rick Jones and Tom McMillan. Romo was excited for the trade, as he told the Washington (PA) Observer-Reporter in April of 1979:
There's just no comparison between the Mariners and the Pirates. I was very fortunate to leave a team going no place to join one which has a good chance to win a division title. I notice a big difference in the entire caliber of play in the two leagues but the thing I especially notice is that the batters as a whole are much more difficult to get out in the National League.
Romo pitched well for the World Champion Pirates in 1979, finishing 10-5 with a 2.99 ERA and 5 aves in 129-1/3 innings. Along with Grant Jackson and Jim Bibby, Romo provided a solid middle-relief corps to assist the Pirates in getting games to their spectacled closer Kent Tekulve. All seemed well.

But, as Romo revealed in an interview with the Beaver County Times in August of 1979, he was chomping at the bit to get out of the United States. Romo had to employ Rennie Stennett as his translator frequently for interviews -- both this one and the Observer-Reporter article mention that fact. Romo hated the fact that no one seemed to speak Spanish in Pittsburgh when he was there.  As the story put it:
"I'm not at home here in Pittsburgh," the Pirates' Mexican-born righthander said last night through translator Rennie Stennett. "It's a different kind of life. If they'd pay me the same money, I'd stay in Mexico and pitch there."
What we have here is an unhappy person. Romo is tired of Pittsburgh. He's tired of the United States.
He's tired of going to stores and pointing at items he wants because that's the only way he can communicate. He's tired of clipping movie advertisements to give to cab drivers everytime he wants to see a show because he can't speak English well enough to give an address.
Romo made it clear in that interview that he would stay in the U.S. to make enough money to return home and have a good life -- 5 years total was his plan.

Even more interestingly -- and something I've noticed before in these news stories about guys like John Urrea -- the U.S. in the 1970s stereotyped the living hell out of Mexicans. Let me let Romo say it, again quoting from that Beaver County Times story:
"I've always wanted to be a major league player here," the 32-year-old Romo said. "I wanted to prove people wrong. They think all Mexicans are bad, that they cause discipline problems or something like that. They always think of Mexicans as gangsters, as bandits."
Even Stennett had to laugh as he repeated those words. Maybe he did because Romo looks like a Mexican bandit. He looks like someone right out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
"Everybody's bad, but they always use Mexicans," Stennett said. "Whenever people think of Mexicans, they think of violence and fighting. It isn't so."
I added the italics myself here to highlight what the reporter wrote. 

Adding insult to injury, The Pittsburgh Press mentions in a profile of Romo that Romo "looks like a Pancho Villa who would slit your throat [but despite that] Romo is really an intelligent, happy-go-lucky man who enjoys baseball." Really? Slit your throat?  Geez, no wonder Romo wanted to get back to Mexico.

It wasn't just the stereotypes, though -- the cold Pittsburgh weather got to Romo too, as he said to The Pittsburgh Press in April of 1980.  In that same article, Romo mentioned his desire to retire to Mexico and become a shopkeeper -- to own a 7-11 store in Coahuila.  

Romo's plan to stay in the United States for five years and then leave did not come to fruition. Instead, he stayed six years. Perhaps that was because he needed to make up for the lost wages from the 1981 season. At any rate, when the 1983 season came around, he never reported to Bradenton for spring training. He sent a "wire" to the front office telling them that he was going to retire, and the Pirates sat on it in hopes of trading Romo to someone else. That's real up-front work there.  At any rate, that made 1982 Romo's last season as a U.S. major leaguer.

Mustache check: Romo's here in full beard.  

Family Ties
Romo idolized his older brother Vicente Romo, who pitched for the Padres, Red Sox, White Sox, and Indians between 1968 and 1974 and for the Dodgers in 1982. Indeed, Vicente being a pitcher was crucial in Enrique choosing to be a pitcher.  

And, in keeping with the nicknaming traditions in Mexico, Vicente was known as "Huevo" while younger brother Enrique was "Huevito." That's "Egg" and "Little Egg" -- I'm guessing because both kept putting goose eggs on the scoreboard for the opposing team.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I remember Enrique Romo from my childhood, but I believe that it was only due to his being on baseball cards. And, I think I thought that the name "Enrique Romo" rolled off the tongue well and sounded really cool. 

Both Enrique and Vicente Romo have been honored for their abilities by being inducted into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame -- the Salon de Fama. Vicente was inducted in 1992, while Enrique was added in 2003. Indeed, both Vicente and Enrique have had their numbers retired by the Yaquis de Obregon in their hometown of Santa Rosalia, where both played in the Mexican Winter League. 

Romo is a bit difficult to track these days. An interview he did when he was inducted into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame mentioned that he returned to Mexico for reasons that he kept to himself even then. Despite the money he made in baseball, the story notes that he moved to Torreon when he left baseball and, in 2003, was working in a lathe workshop as a mechanic to make money to live.

I hope he is doing well.

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