FORT MYERS, Fla. - You want to see someone special? Felix Maldonado asks. You should have seen Carlos Lowell, father of the Red Sox third baseman, who pitched a dozen years for the Puerto Rican national team after fleeing Cuba.
"There was a pitcher," said Maldonado, who scouted him in an international tournament almost 40 years ago. "He could throw. He was aggressive. He was a tall guy, with good mound presence. He was the best pitcher we had in Puerto Rico."
Maldonado mentions a couple of center fielders he saw in other international competitions, a couple of college kids from the States. One was named Fred Lynn. The other was Terry Francona.
Talk to Maldonado long enough, and you're going to hear a lot of names. He played against Roberto Clemente in the Puerto Rican winter leagues. He played on the legendary Santurce teams on the island with Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez and managed by Earl Weaver. He came through the Giants system with players like Juan Marichal and the Alou brothers, and played center field in the minor leagues flanked by Manny Mota and Jesus Alou. He was in the Sox system with kids like Reggie Smith and Tony C. He coached Ruben Sierra, was Jeff Bagwell's first manager, and was one of Hanley Ramirez's first mentors.
The mystery, as Felix Maldonado enters his 50th year in baseball, 45th with the Red Sox, may be that his name is not better known, except as a source of puzzlement for Sox fans who visit the team's training complex when they notice that one of the practice diamonds is named Felix Maldonado Field and wonder who that might be.
Or maybe it really isn't a mystery at all. Maldonado, as trim at age 71 as he was during a 12-year playing career in which he fell short of making it to the majors, gives you one of those smiles that make you feel like you're talking to an old friend.
"One of my mentors here, Charlie Wagner," Maldonado said, "used to say that the least important word in the vocabulary is 'I.' Now I'm going to talk about I."
Of the top 30 Sox prospects chosen by Baseball America, four are from Latin America. One, Argenis Diaz, a 21-year-old shortstop from Venezuela, is on the team's 40-man roster and yesterday played in Boston's 7-6 exhibition win over the Twins. Hanley Ramirez, the Dominican-born shortstop and the best Latin prospect the Sox have ever had, was voted the 2006 National League Rookie of the Year for the Florida Marlins, the team to which he was traded in the Josh Beckett/Lowell deal.
In the new Sox media guide, 47 Latin players besides Diaz are listed among the team's minor leaguers. One, Dominican shortstop Oscar Tejada, played as a 17-year-old for Single A Lowell last season and at No. 9 is the team's highest-ranked Latin prospect. Another 17-year-old Dominican, third baseman Michael Almanzar, last summer was given a $1.5 million signing bonus, the largest the team ever has given to a Latin player.
Since 1990, 35 players from the Dominican have played for the Sox, including eight who made their big league debuts with the team. Over that same span, 18 players born in Puerto Rico have played for the club, including two, Angel Santos and Tony Rodriguez, who broke in with the Sox.
Eddie Romero Jr., son of the former Sox shortstop, is beginning his second full season as coordinator of Latin American operations. Alou, Maldonado's old teammate, has been running the team's Dominican academy since 2002. Manny Nanita is the coordinator of Dominican baseball operations. Johnny DiPuglia is the Latin American scouting coordinator, with scouts in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and the Dominican Republic.
Maldonado, who became a part of the Sox organization as a player in 1963, when he was traded by the Giants and hit his high-water mark with Triple A Seattle, has his roots in the era when Latin America was all but ignored by the Sox. From 1950 to 1990, the Sox had a dozen players from Puerto Rico, only five who began their career with the team: Rogelio Moret, Juan Beniquez, Rey Quinones, Luis Alvarado, and Ramon Aviles. In that same period, they had four players born in the Dominican: Marichal, at the tail end of his career, catcher Tony Pena, and two players who broke in with the Sox, Julio Valdez and Mario Guerrero.
Maldonado, the son of a Puerto Rican pitcher of some renown - Rafael "Caro" Maldonado - entered baseball when big league teams did not offer their Latin players classes in English, didn't school them in how to save their money or what was best to eat. He'd gone to Catholic University in Puerto Rico, where the nuns and priests made him sit in the front row during English classes, so he was ahead of many of his teammates. But still, it was a different world when he left the island to come to the States to play.
"Like changing the channel," he said. "Now they have so much support in so many ways. Like Duncan Webb, who teaches the English classes. He's a kid from Boston, but he is as fluent in Spanish as I am. And they put him in a uniform on the field, so the kids can get to know him."
Providing a bridge
Maldonado, who is beginning his fifth season as a player development consultant, serves as a bridge to this new age of Sox enlightenment, the primary reason for that big sign here bearing his name. After scouting for the Sox in Puerto Rico from 1971-89 and serving as an instructor, he became the organization's first Latin manager when, on the recommendation of Eddie Popowski, for whom Maldonado once had played in Pittsfield ("He was my father away from home"), Maldonado was made skipper of the Gulf Coast League Sox, a position he held for seven years. It was during that time he managed Bagwell.
Longtime farm director Ed Kenney Sr. gave him the job. "Felix and Eddie Popowski ran our extended spring training program for years, during the '80s and '90s," said his son, Ed Kenney Jr., who also worked for the Sox. "He and Pops made a great team. Felix was someone the young Latin players could look up to."
When Dan Duquette became general manager in 1994, he transformed the culture of the club, giving Latin America a priority it never had known with Boston. For coordinator of Latin American instruction, he named Maldonado, who held the job for seven seasons before assuming his current role as consultant.
Yesterday, Maldonado was shepherding a new batch of young Latin players, many setting foot in the US for the first time. He preaches hard work and persistence. He counsels, cajoles, comforts. Most of all, he lets them know he cares.
"There are so many people here who look out for their welfare," he says.
And a few people looked out for Maldonado, too. A year ago December Maldonado was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Two-thirds of his stomach, he said, was removed in surgery. The Sox flew him up to Boston for the procedure, and took care of his chemotherapy and other treatments. When he was in Brigham and Women's Hospital, he used to walk each day down the corridors, with the help of a Haitian-born nurse. "You know why I look at you?" she said to Maldonado one day. "Because God is with you."
When he was a teenager growing up in Ponce, Maldonado ran track, the first Puerto Rican to run 800 meters in under two minutes (1:56.12). Last Dec. 10, a year to the day he was diagnosed with cancer, Maldonado said, he was told his cancer was in remission. "I won my toughest race," he said.
He gives you one of his biggest smiles before launching into another story.
"The person who has good memories," he said, "is never alone."
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.