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.