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Enrique Romo

February 19, 2009

enrique-romo-801

Want your team to win big? Gather a horde of worldly, rubber-armed relievers with the ability to make a baseball move like an angry, disoriented hornet. The starting pitchers and flashy speedsters and chiseled-featured sluggers will horde the glory, but deep into each of your team’s defining games the men from the bullpen will carry the season on their shoulders. Will your team break or only bend? It’s up to the shadowy figures who spend most of every game in exile, like denizens of a faraway island colony of convicts, waiting in their dank low hutch beyond the outfield walls for trouble.

The 1979 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates had a bullpen as dominant as it was devoid of accolades and glamour. The closer, Kent Tekulve, despite being durable, effective, and a hero to nondescript thin-wristed bespectacled introverts everywhere, had all the charisma of an algebra textbook. The rest of the relief staff, if gathered together in a dark bar, would give the bar the feeling of a place you shouldn’t have walked into. Everyone had been around. Everyone had seen some things. Everyone had traveled from job to job, gathering scars and losses and, through trial and error, the barbed, shifty skills a journeyman needs to survive.

Enrique Romo epitomized this group. As the photo on this card suggests, he was a man who seems to have come by hard experience to treat each moment as unpredictable, shaky, dangerous. Trouble ahead, trouble behind. Before coming to the major leagues, he had already lived through an entire lifetime in the Mexican Leagues, and it seems to this experienced reader of back-of-the-card runes as if he would have stayed there forever had his consistently good but not great numbers south of the border not suddenly spiked toward the unhittable in 1976, a full ten years after he’d made his Mexican League debut. Year after year, he’d won in the low double-digits and recorded ERAs a bit above or a bit below 3.00. But in ’76 he not only posted an astounding 20 and 4 won-loss record in just 29 games, he also sported an infinitesimal 1.89 ERA and, perhaps most strikingly, he struck out 239 batters in 233 innings. Previously, Romo had never approached having more strikeouts than innings pitched. But suddenly, in 1976, batters couldn’t even touch him.

How did the numbers suddenly verge so close to perfection? Maybe he just figured things out. Maybe all the years of knocking on the door of pitching excellence had finally caused the door to swing wide open. Or maybe it was something else, something hinted at in a 1981 Sports Illustrated article entitled “Tricks of the Trade” (link courtesy of It’s About the Money) that mentions Romo among many other pitchers suspected of doctoring the ball.

In 1977, the Seattle Mariners, on the brink of their first season and desperate for talent, took notice of Romo’s gaudy ’76 numbers, choosing to ignore how they differed from the numbers that had come before, and purchased Romo from his Mexican League team on April Fool’s Day. Just six days later, Romo started and lost the Mariners’ second-ever game. He pitched well, striking out nine in seven innings, and pitched well in his next start five days later, another loss for the doomed team (he got a no-decision). He only lasted a scoreless inning and two-thirds in his third start, apparently sustaining an injury, and when he returned to action a month later he had been moved to the bullpen, where he would stay without exception for the entirety of his major league career (despite his 1.72 ERA in his three starts).

He took to the bullpen like an alligator to a swamp, leading the Mariners in saves in their inaugural season and winning 11 games in relief in their second. In his third season he was included in trade to the Pirates for fellow future member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame Mario Mendoza and others, and there he became a major contributor to the grizzled bullpen corps that led the Pirates to a World Series title. Romo continued to pitch successfully out of the pen for the next few years, as the Pirates edged into the earliest stages of what has become a long title drought. But at spring training in 1983 Romo was an unexplained no-show. The Pirates tried and failed to reach him. He seems to have simply, and willfully, disappeared.

11 comments

  1. I confuse him with Vicente Romo (who is his brother), who I learned by just looking at his stats pitched in the majors from 1968-1974 (he went back to Mexico after the 1974 season) and then again in 1982. If Enrique had failed to show in spring training of 1982 (instead of 1983) I would suspect that he had in fact passed himself off as Vicente in the 1982 season. If Vicente had actually gone back to Mexico after the 1975 season (instead of 1974) I would suspect that he passed himself off as Enrique during the 1976 season.

    Enrique pitched the second game ever for Seattle. For some reason I remember that Diego Sequi started and lost their first game ever. I also remember going to a Yankees-Mariners game that year and sitting in front of a woman who for some reason repeatedly cheered for Joe Lis (“Go Joe! Yay Joe!”) the entire game.


  2. Enrique and Vicente (who has graced this site with one of my favorite cards) pitched in the same game in 1982, though they didn’t face one another or appear in the same inning; neither did particularly well, and Vicente got the loss.

    Good memory about Segui. He did in fact take the first L. The Mariners were shut out in both of their first two games (to Tanana and Ryan in their flamethrowing primes).


  3. That 1979 World Series was magic to me. I was ten and got to stay up and watch the whole thing. I was forever sold on baseball after that year.


  4. Let’s see if gedmaniac can pinpoint were this card’s photo was taken. To be honest, I can’t tell if that’s a home uni or a road one. I’m guessing road because it says Pirates instead of Pittsburgh.


  5. I would guess that’s the Bucs’ Sarasota home park. I was there once and don’t remember there being much beyond the outfield wall.


  6. thanks for the link, Josh. I found that article interesting, too. Glad you found a use for it here, too.

    Jason @ IIATMS


  7. jnr98:

    Yeah, I’m sure I read that article when it first came out all those years ago, and I’m sure I cursed Graig Nettles and his superball bat. Anyway, thanks for digging it up and for your timely take there and elsewhere on your blog about the so-called historical “purity” of the game.


  8. I appreciate that, Josh. And that concludes the Mutual Admiration Society meeting of the week.

    Rest up, another big week is around the corner!


  9. Ennui–one thing I’m not good at is determining spring training sites, from any team or year. A guy in a road uni with palm trees behind him could be anywhere in Florida. As for this one, that is, I think, a road Pirates uni, though it’s hard to tell with all their combinations back then. Checking other ’80 Topps Pirates, I see two other uni combinations in spring training shots. Those have the stands behind them, which could be identified (probably their home park). This could be yet another shot (with yet another uni combo) from home, or it could be away. By the way, I looked it up and from 1954-1989, they didn’t have the word “Pittsburgh” at all on home or road uni. It was all “Pirates” anyway.

    Okay, I was gonna end it there, but you got me all curious. So I looked for a pic of the Pirates’ ST park (McKechnie Field in Bradenton) from BEFORE its 1993 renovation, and I found one (an old postcard on ebay) which shows that the park’s stands were divided. One stand behind the plate, then a separate stand on each side, with significant space between. The ’80 Easler card pretty clearly shows this space between stands. So that proves his card is at McKechnie–if the all-white uni didn’t. Ed Ott is wearing all yellow, and his background matches Easler’s. So those guys are at home. However, I don’t think the card above (and Grant Jackson’s card–he also has yellow top, black pants) can be proven to be McKechnie. Especially since that outfield wall doesn’t look like the one in the postcard.

    Final analysis: I would say Romo was at a road spring training game, city unknown. For now. (Then again, they could’ve shot him on a practice field–I mean, if you’re going for shots in March, and you have access to McKechnie, why not get all the Pirates in Bradenton, instead of waiting to get them while you’re at some other team’s park? I feel like most ST shots by default are at that guy’s home park.)


  10. i’m sure some of you checked in wikipedia dot com but just in case some newer commenters would not know, here is some wiki info in Enrique Romo

    *In spring training 1983, Romo failed to report to camp. Attempts by the Pirates to locate him failed, and he was released. He is known to have eventually returned to Mexico, as he appeared publicly several years ago with his brother at his induction into the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in Monterrey.*

    ___

    maybe it was a simple case of him wanting to spend more time with his family, in any case, it was an irresponsible way to go…


  11. According to a user comment on Amazon, a book about the ’79 Pirates called When the Bucs Won It All relates this bit of gossip about Romo’s vanishing act:

    “In relief pitcher Enrique Romo’s bio, they talk about his mysterious disappearance from Pittsburgh and baseball after the 1982 season, and the rumor that he had a relationship with a woman involved with a mob figure who told him never to return. To date, Romo has never appeared at any of the ’79 Pirates reunions or autograph signings.”



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