The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Azócar

Gary Sanchez has had an incredible start to his New York Yankees career—9 home runs in his first 21 games. A first month like that invokes great debuts of Bronx Past, and one of them, I found out, was the wondrous Oscar Azócar.

Oscar, who in 1990 played on one of the worst Yankee teams in recent memory, died in 2010, at age 45, of a heart attack while waiting in a Venezuelan emergency room. (Hey, let’s face it, it could happen anywhere.). He was born in Soro, in the state of Sucre, in 1965 and also played in Mexico, and for four Venezuelan pro teams: Leones de Caracas, Navegantes de Magellanes, Tigres de Aragua, and Tiburones de La Guaira. He was so good down home that he was named to the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame.

Bruce Markuson of the Baseball Hall of Fame wrote a lovely tribute to Oscar, upon which I cannot improve. Take it away, Bruce:

the brief life of oscar azocar


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August 13: Pitchers and Catchers

This week we saw a couple of catchers step to the fore while a surprise pitching duo made their mark. And yes, they’re all Venezuelans.

The Mets of Flushing continue to, well, flush their season down the local sewage pipes, and one catcher in Arizona by way of Simon Bolivar International Airport helped out this week with a game-winning home run against Los Mets . In fact, Oscar Hernandez’ 12th inning shot on Wednesday was the first MLB homer for the 23-year-old catcher, in his first game of 2016.

Oscar Goes Deep

Oscar is taking advantage of Wellington Castillo’s paternity leave–hey, you gotta take  your chances when they come. Oscar himself missed part of last season with a broken hamate (wrist) bone.

Up in Boston, the steady switch-hitting of Zulia-born catcher Sandy Leon  in a part-time role: .383 in 39 games–helps to keep the Sox in a three-way heat for first in the AL East. Imagine, fans, if there were no wild card–how much fun would it be then? Fans of the ’67 Sox might see my point.

Speaking of Boston Venezuelans, Eduardo Rodriguez had a great seven innings against New York on Thursday, only to get pulled after 93 pitches. Manager John Farrell said it was “hot, muggy night.” John–Eduardo’s 23 years old and he’s from VALENCIA.It’s hot there all the time and this guy was shutting down the Yankees. Farrell also said the guys who “had done damage to him” were coming up–he gave up 3 hits and 1 run! So the relief corps came in and blew Eduardo’s win. At least he’s dropped his ERA a whole three runs since that demotion to AAA Pawtucket at the end of June.

A lesser managerial surprise than pulling E-Rod was putting Eduardo Escobar in for an inning in Minnesota the same night. Well, the Twins were getting blown out by Houston, so he came in and induced three pop flies. Nice one, E-squared. Despite his manager’s warnings to take it easy, E.E. hit 90 on the radar gun a few times, and left the mound smiling. Hey, it’s baseball, let’s have some fun.

E.E. tosses a scoreless frame

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Around the Horn: Dog Days Approacheth

August 1 is Monday, and we’re in for some of the hottest baseball of the year. Here’s the time where we see what kind of stamina and depth teams have as they battle heat and fatigue for a shot at September glory.

Detroit’s ready to make a run. Frankie Rodriguez saved two games and Miguel Cabrera hit a laser-beam homer to cement a Fenway sweep of the BoSox. Lefty Eduardo Rodriguez had a decent start Wednesday for Boston, but gave up a homer for the eighth straight game.

Carlos Carrasco could also be penciled in under “decent start,” except his nemesis was the exceptional Stephen Strasburg, so “Cookie” took a tough loss (7-4, 2.45). How about it for Washington’s Wilson Ramos, having a breakout season at .336?

Jose Altuve only got two more hits against the Yankees tonight, keeping his average at a boring .357. Venezuelan-heavy Houston goes into Detroit for an interesting matchup of criollo-laden talent.

Righty Hector Rondon of Guatire has 18 saves for the front-running Cubbies with 48 Ks in 37 innings. You go, Hector. Miguel “Microwave” Montero hasn’t always been there to catch Hector, because the caraqueño is batting just .200–smack on the Mendoza line. On the South Side, another caraqueño, Dioner Navarro is having similar bat-related issues at .203 withthe White Sox

Ezequiel Carrera, a lefty-lefty outfielder like CarGo of Colorado, is getting decent playing time north of the border in the Rogers Centre, and making a go of it at .259. With his speed and fielding ability I think EZ-C will always find his way onto an MLB roster.

Look at the top of the Phillies’ lineup tonight: Cesar Hernandez at .288 and Odubel Herrera (All-Star Odubel to you) at .290. Well done, gentlemen. On the opposite side of the field, reinvigorated Martin Prado of Miami leads the surprising Marlins with a .324 average. On the Marlins’ tail (they do have tails, right?) are the Mighty Mets of Flushing, whose competitive infield mix includes revived Asdrubal Cabrera and Weepin’ Wilmer Flores, whose bat recently woke up to the sound of Jose Reyes’ flight from Denver touching down at JFK.

Lefty reliever Luis Avilan signed a $1.39 million contract with Los Angeles this season. He’s bounced back and forth between Oklahoma City and the City of Angels, not only making lots of cash but also building up his frequent-flier miles.

Lots going on with our Venezuelan major leaguers. Catch you again on Sunday.

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Will He Stay or Will CarGo?

Before Carlos González of Maracaibo, Andres Galarraga of Caracas captured the hearts of Colorado fans, winning the first-ever MLB batting title by a criollo and playing five standout seasons. With a chance at becoming one of the all-time franchise greats, surpassing El Gato and others,  will Cargo stay, or will Cargo go?

González is a silent superstar: if he continues to play complete seasons–last year’s 153 games was a high-water mark–he’ll average 30 home runs, 30 doubles and close to 100 RBI. Until he dinged his knee at age 27 he was stealing 20 bases a season, too. He’s paid well for this, making $17 million this year, and $20 million next.

But even after a 459-foot homer on Tuesday, Cargo stood in the shadows. Two innings later Mark Reynolds drilled one 484 feet. In the off-season, instead of receiving some props for his first 40-home run season, the train wreck of Jose Reyes arrest and suspension dominated Denver baseball headlines; this spring, Reyes’ substitute, Trevor Story, merely set the NL home run record for rookie shortstops.

The slender maracucho patrols the outfield expertly, reminding some of another #5 who wore pinstripes, Joe DiMaggio (OK, Joe D didn’t wear purple pinstripes, but…). Maybe he reminds you of a player of more recent vintage, the once-agile Carlos Beltran, an excellent fielder to a certain point in his career, and still a dangerous batsman.

Cargo has three Gold Gloves, a batting title, and has played in three All Star games. Yet, in nearly nine seasons he’s played in just four playoff games. Apparently this stings his competitive nature, so he may be open to a trade, out of the rarefied air of Denver and into the heat –and media cauldron–of an actual playoff contender.

In 19 seasons, The Big Cat never played in the World Series. After seeing countrymen Alcides Escobar and Salvador Pérez celebrate with Kansas City last season, Carlos might be thinking how nice it could be to bask in the glow of the ultimate baseball triumph.

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Cookie and the King, on the border

The outside world invades our sporting entertainment: on Colombian Independence Day, tens of thousands of Venezuelans are thankful to the neighbors for opening the border for a short period and allowing them to buy the household necessities which are nonexistent in Venezuela.  Why cross the border?

Over a 24-hour period Tuesday and Wednesday, a variety of story lines evolved with Venezuelan pitchers in the mix. Which one will be king of the hill at season’s close?

Carlos @Cookie_Carrasco, the big righty from Barquisimeto, has 20-game-winner potential. He showed that in the last two months of 2015 and in the past month, when he’s struck out a batter per inning with a Gibson-like ERA: 7 starts, 5-1, 1.37 ERA. Shame he missed more than a month with a hamstring injury, but he’s off the post-ASG blocks at 2-0 and overall, 7-3. He pitched six shutout frames to get another win Wednesday. I think the Cookie can still win 15 and the Tribe is hard to beat, man.

@AnibalSanchez19 had a nightmare first half but Tuesday night’s start against Minnesota holds great promise. Anibal pitched 6 great innings of 10-strikeout, one-run ball, but his bullpen let in the inherited runners in the 7th and he still took a loss. The Twins are no great shakes, but hey, a step in the right direction for the Tiger from Maracay.

The next day the Minnesota jinx hit @El_kid_rod57 Frankie Rodriguez, who went into the game with 26 saves but gave up two home runs in the ninth to emerge as the loser for the first time this year.

@RealKingFelix Hernandez came back after his longest career stint on the DL and was rustier than the Tin Man on his first meeting with Judy Garland. 6 and 2/3 innings, 5 earned runs, and 10 hits: El Rey was lucky to escape with a no-decision as the M’s rallied to beat the ChiSox in 11.

@MartinPerez33D the lefty from Guanare, had a left-coast start against Artie’s Angels of Anaheim. At 7-6, it was a chance to reverse his second-half momentum after a couple of poor starts. A first-inning Jefry Marte home run gave the Angels a 4-0 cushion as we retired to bed-lam on the East Coast Wednesday. He ended up surrendering 7 earned runs in six innings to finish the evening at an unlucky 7-7.

There you have it: three rights and a left and you end up in Anaheim at 1-3 with one no-decision.

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Battery-Powered Bosox

You have to take your breaks where you find them.

On Saturday, young Eduardo Perez of Valencia, and lately, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, home of the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate, made his first start since returning to the Fens of Boston.

Eduardo threw seven commendable innings, giving up just one run in the House That George Built. Apparently, he had been “tipping” his pitches by his arm angle, something that was dealt with the past few weeks on the back lots of the minor leagues. It looked like the issue was fixed, for the moment, in the Bronx.

Eduardo’s catcher, Sandy Leon, has had a bit of a journeyman receiver’s career in stints in Boston and D.C. He even once played in A-ball for the Vermont Lake Monsters (seriously).

Yes, they exist (just like Nessie)

Lately, given the chance to play a bit, he’s done remarkably well (.441 in last ten games), and drove in 4 of Boston’s 5 runs on Saturday, including 3 with a  (Vermont) monster 412-foot home run off Carsten Charles Sabathia.

One might say that the Yankees are a rather mediocre team this season, very inconsistent in the hitting phase of the game. Cynics might also say that former Cy Young Award recipient Sabathia is on the downward arc of a pretty good career.

I say you gotta take your breaks when and where you can. Bravo to the Bosox Venezuelan battery for rising to the occasion on a sweltering Saturday in New York. For the moment, their countryman Pablo Sandoval is forgotten.

And bravo to Leon, a Maracaibo native who’s spent the last few MLB off-seasons playing in the Venezuelan winter league for his hometown Aguilas de Zulia as well as Tigres de Aragua, tearing the cover off the ball. A guy named Altuve has been doing that for Magallanes and it’s worked out pretty well for him.

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Who’s Hot, Who’s Not

As the July 12 All-Star Break approaches, we take a look at Venezuelans who’ve been noteworthy, for better or worse, this season:

Good: Jose  Altuve, Houston. After a slightly slow start the mighty mite of Maracay is posting MVP-like numbers, starting with a .355 average. He keeps getting better, and is only 26.

Bad: Anibal Sanchez, Detroit Tigers. Three seasons ago he won 14 and led the American League with a 2.57 ERA. Now his ERA’s over six and he’s been demoted to the bullpen. What happened?

Good: Victor Martinez, Detroit: He only plays DH anymore, really, but who cares? V-Mart is an amazing hitter, with 16 home runs and a .323 average, nearly 80 points above last year’s disappointing and atypical .245.

Bad: Pablo Sandoval, Boston: The Panda’s big contract with Boston has been a  bust. He showed up in poor condition to spring training this season and injured his shoulder; now he’s out for the season  and most folks in BeanTown could care less. Here’s hoping he can turn it around; he’ll turn 30 on August 11.

Good: Carlos “Cookie” Carrasco, Cleveland: The big righty from Barquisimeto finished on an unhittable run last season, and although he’s been blasted in the face with a line drive and missed a month with a hammy injury, he still might be the best pitcher on the first-place Indians (whose pitching is remarkable). CC returned from his injury with a complete-game shutout of the Tigers, followed by a 14-strikeout win over Toronto.

Bad: Omar Infante, (ex) Kansas City: O has hit only .239 over three seasons for the Royals, so even though the champs still owe him about $15 milion, they cut him loose last week.

Good: Asdrubal Cabrera, New York Mets,  hit two home runs on Friday night at a game I was lucky enough to attend, in the New Shea @ Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Asdrubal’s experienced a bit of a career renaissance with the Mets and provided a steady hand at shortstop, batting .262 with 10 home runs. Could be a key player if the Mets make a second-half pennant run.

Disappointing: Felix Hernandez, Seattle: Only because he’s injured, King Felix of Valencia hobbles into the break at 4-4. The big workhorse broke down at the end of last season and all those innings may be taking a toll, at last.

Surprising: Francisco Rodriguez, Detroit. K-Rod is back among the best closers in the American League with 22 saves thus far. He nailed down a 10-pitch save against Tampa on Saturday and in his last six appearances lowered his ERA from 3.83 to 3.03. And for those who remember Frankie’s family blow-out with the Mets, here’s the other side of his personality, giving his 400th-save shoes to the loving grandmother who raised him.

Surprisingly Good: The Venezuelan Phillies. The energetic Phils lineup has featured up to five criollos in the lineup this year, including Freddy Galvis, Odubel Herrera, Andres Blanco, and Cesar Hernandez. Reliever Jeanmar Gomez, the big righty from Caracas (like K-Rod) has 22 saves in 24 opportunities and a 2.82 ERA. Herrera or Gomez will likely represent in the ASG.


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