Daily Archives: Sept. 24, 2013

Two big leaguers and one who kept trying (stories from the minors)

In 1950, a young Filipino named Bobby Balcena played in the outfield for the Wichita Indians, a Class-A affiliate of the St. Louis Browns.

Minor league baseball was just returning to Wichita after a 17-year absence and Balcena held the interest

Bobby Balcena

of the fans, batting .290 with 32 doubles, 12 triples and 11 homers for a 77-77 team that included a pair of young right-handed pitchers who would go on to make their marks in the big leagues – Don Larsen and Bob Turley.

Balcena was 24 and caught the eyes of the Browns organization with a couple of spectacular seasons with Mexicali in the Sunset League, where he batted .369 and .367 in back-to-back seasons. It looked like he was on a fast track to the major leagues, but that fast track derailed.

Balcena did get a sip of coffee, not nearly a cup, with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956. Called up from the Seattle Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League, where batted .295 in 160 games, Balcena batted twice in September for the Reds. He failed to get a hit, but did score two runs. And he caught one fly ball in the outfield.

Two at-bats.

In the minor leagues, though, Balcena played in 1,948 games. He had more than 7,000 at-bats and 1,995 hits. He played 15 seasons in the bushes, six of those after his call-up by the Reds.

Balcena did get to play in some future major league cities, such as Toronto, Kansas City, Seattle and Dallas. He also played in San Antonio, Buffalo, Vancouver and Hawaii.

But he kept waiting for a call that came only once. The major leagues taunted and tease Balcena for many years. He was a .284 career hitter in the minors with enough extra-base pop to make him dangerous.

Balcena grew up in San Pedro, Calif., where he was a legendary high school athlete at Rolling Hills Prep. I’ve included a nice story on him here.

It makes you wonder what made Balcena so persistent in his quest to get to the major leagues. And it’s fascinating that 12 years after playing in Wichita, he was still bouncing around the minors in Vancouver, where he played parts of three seasons from 1960-62.

Balcena played more than 500 minor-league games in Seattle and, according to reports, is still fondly remembered there. He played in nine organizations: St. Louis Browns, New York Yankees, Cincinnati, Kansas City A’s, Baltimore, Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee, Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota.

Larsen and Turley, meanwhile, also spent more time than you might imagine in the minors, especially considering their success as big league pitchers.

Larsen, who pitched parts of nine seasons in the minors, hurled the only perfect game in World Series history, in 1956 for the New York Yankees. It came in Game 5 against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He will forever be an icon for that game, but otherwise his major league career was mundane, thanks to an 81-91 record and one of the worst/toughest luck seasons in big league history.

In 1954, the year the Browns moved from St. Louis to Baltimore and became the Orioles, Larsen was 3-21. But he didn’t pitch that badly and it was the only season of his 14-year major league career that he topped 200 innings pitched.

Larsen was just 20 when he pitched for the Wichita Indians and finished the 1950 seasons with a record of 6-4 and an ERA of 3.14 in 21 games.

Turley, meanwhile, was 11-14 as a 19-year-old in Wichita. He and Larsen were part of a trade from the Orioles to the Yankees in 1954 in what turned out to be a 17-player deal.

And also like Larsen, Turley had his best years in New York, winning the Cy Young Award in 1958 with a 21-7 record and an American League-leading 19 complete games. Turley also won two World Series games that season, including Game 7 against the Milwaukee Braves, 6-2. Ironically, Turley relieved Larsen in that game as the two former Wichita Indians teammates teamed up on a five-hitter.





Juan Pizarro’s Wichita re-appearance (stories from the minors)

When I was just a little boy, my father used to tell me stories about a hard-throwing left-hander who pitched for the Wichita Braves in 1957. His name was Juan Pizarro and to hear my dad tell it, Pizarro could throw a ball through three walls in a house and still have enough zip to leave a dent in the fourth.

Juan Pizarro’s 1960 Topps card.

Pizarro was only 20 years old when he pitched for the Braves, the Triple-A American Association club for Milwaukee’s major league club. Milwaukee had signed Pizarro as a 19-year-old out of Santurce, Puerto Rico, and in his first professional season in 1956, Pizarro was 23-6 for Jacksonville in the Class-A South Atlantic League.

He was regarded as one of the top prospects in baseball when he arrived in Wichita in 1957. He made five starts for the Braves before being called up to Milwaukee, where he was 5-6 with a 4.62 ERA. Pizarro was back with Wichita 1958, when he was 9-10 with a 2.84 ERA before earning another promotion to the big leagues. This time he stuck.

Pizarro pitched for seven teams: Milwaukee, the Chicago White Sox, Pittsburgh, Boston, Cleveland, the Chicago Cubs, Houston and Pittsburgh again. He had a 131-105 record, including a 19-9 season for the White Sox in 1964.

Here’s what one website had to say about Pizarro:

As a major league pitcher, lefty Juan Pizarro had two careers. For the first nine years of his career, he was a starter (and occasional long reliever, as even ace starting pitchers saw occasional double duty in the 1960s). During the second half of his 18-year career, Pizarro was primarily a relief specialist, whose blazing fastball would no longer hold up for nine innings but remained effective in spot relief situations, especially against left-handed batters.

Pizarro was signed by the Milwaukee Braves and was immediately a stand-out prospect in their minor league system, winning 23 games at Jacksonville in his first professional season. He spent the next 3 seasons pitching effectively in AAA but with limited success as a starter-reliever for the Braves. From 1957 through 1960, Pizarro had a combined record of 23-19 with a 3.93 ERA for Milwaukee.

In December of 1960, the Braves traded Pizarro and Joey Jay to the Cincinnati Reds for shortstop Roy McMillan. On the same day, the Reds sent Pizarro and Cal McLish to the Chicago White Sox for infielder Gene Freese. The trades that day were good for Cincinnati, as both Jay and Freese played critical roles in propelling the Reds to the 1961 National League pennant. The trades were also good for Pizarro, whose arrival in Chicago launched his career as a full-time – and highly successful – starter for the White Sox.

In 1961 for the White Sox, Pizarro achieved career highs in starts (25) and innings pitched (194.2). He struck out 188 batters on his way to a 14-7 season with a 3.05 ERA. After a 12-14 season in 1962, he followed up with 16-8 in 1963 (2.39 ERA) and 19-9 in 1964 (2.56 ERA). Pizarro and teammate Gary Peters (20-8 in 1964) were recognized as the two best left-handers in the American League. Pizarro was named to the American League All-Star team in both 1963 and 1964.

However, Pizarro’s success was starting to take a toll on his arm. All those innings, all those strikeouts, all those fastballs led to arm miseries and diminished performance in 1965 (6-3) and 1966 (8-6). The White Sox traded Pizarro to the Pittsburgh Pirates as the player to be named later in the acquisition of pitcher Wilbur Wood. Pizarro transitioned quickly to a relief role that meant more appearances – and fewer total innings – to take full advantage of his still explosive fastball.

From 1967 through 1974, Pizarro pitched for six different teams, going 33-39 with 20 saves in 206 appearances. His combined ERA for that period was 3.76. He retired after the 1974 season.

But there was an odd turn of events for Pizarro. In 1973, barely hanging on as a big league pitcher, Pizarro showed up back in Wichita. This time he was with the Triple-A Aeros, a farm club of the Chicago Cubs.

I remember my father taking me to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium to see Pizarro pitch in several of the nine games he started for the Aeros. A far different pitcher from the hard thrower my dad had seen 16 years earlier, Pizarro was now relying on his guile to get him through games.

In those nine starts, Pizarro was 6-1 with a 3.52 ERA. He would go on to pitch in 25 more big league games, but without success.

Pizarro has always been an important player to me because he made such an impact on my baseball-loving father. And it was an unexpected surprise when we got to see him pitch together in 1973, just as I was completing high school and my father was nearing retirement.

So much of my love for baseball is tied to my dad, Ray, who died in 1986. And Juan Pizarro, still living at 76, played a part in our shared love for the game.