SABR

Frank Estrada

This article was written by Rory Costello.

Francisco Estrada, a Mexican catcher, played just one game in the major leagues. U.S. fans may recall him as a throw-in when the New York Mets traded away Nolan Ryan. In his homeland, however, he is a baseball institution.

“Paquín” -- Spanish for “Frankie” -- played 26 summers in the Mexican League. He added an even more amazing 30 seasons in the Mexican winter league, La Liga Mexicana del Pacífico (LMP). All told, including two seasons at Class A in Mexico, he was behind the plate for roughly 4,000 games. That is far more than anyone else in pro baseball history. Even Japanese ironman Katsuyo Nomura falls well short of Estrada’s endurance as a catcher. What’s more, Paquín states that he never had an injury or any surgery while playing.[1] The grueling conditions in Mexican ball -- plus serving for over a decade as a player-manager -- elevate the feat to yet another plane.

Estrada is also the most successful manager in his nation’s history. During nearly 30 years as a skipper, he has 10 summer and winter titles to his credit. He has won respect for his leadership and acumen. He has also brought honor to Mexico in the Caribbean Series, winning two more titles, and the World Baseball Classic.

Francisco Estrada Soto was born in Navojoa in the state of Sonora on February 12, 1948. His father was Francisco Estrada Martínez; it is likely that this man was called “Paco” and so his son became “Paquín.” Nowadays, given Estrada’s stature in Mexico, he has won the title El Paquín.

Francisco was the third of Paula Soto Ley’s eight children. He was preceded by Estela and Fidel; after him came Egren, Luz Elda, Evelio, Elvia, and Héctor. Durability runs in the family; Héctor, who is 20 years junior to Paquín, was a catcher for 22 seasons in the Mexican League (1986-2007). He has also become a manager, starting in 2005.

As a 2006 feature for MLB.com described, Paquín played sandlot ball from an early age. “It was a fun thing to do,” he said, remembering his early attraction to baseball. “It was a gathering of your buddies and ‘Let’s just go out and play some ball.’ You just pick up a broom and a ball and you can start playing.”

That same article recounted how the 12-year-old Estrada lived two blocks from the local stadium, old Parque Revolución, where the Navojoa Mayos played their games. Already he knew the batters and their tendencies, and so when balls were hit out onto the street, he was able to recover more of them than any of his friends. He earned five pesos apiece from the club, which bought back every possible scarce pelota.[2]

In 1964, aged 16, Paquín turned pro. Outside Parque Revolución, a friend of his father’s urged a scout for the Diablos Rojos of Mexico City named Ramón “Chita” García to give the youth a chance. Without a proper uniform, he still did well in his tryout. At first, however, Francisco Sr. forbade his son to sign. Then the manager of the Red Devils, Tomás “El Sargento” Herrera, intervened. This time Paquín’s father, who was a great fan of Herrera’s, allowed his son to go.[3]

Estrada went to the Diablos’ farm club, San Luis Potosí in the Mexican Center League. Nervous because he had never been away from his home region, he won one of 29 spots on the roster from a crowd of 135 hopefuls, including 12 other catchers.[4] He spent two seasons with the Reds, playing outfield as well as catcher in ’64 (.215-5-21 in 73 games). Paquín then began his winter-league career at home in Navojoa, where Tomás Herrera was also manager, as the third-string catcher. Back in San Luis Potosí in ’65, he remained strictly a receiver (.253-10-64 in 128 games).

Estrada then stepped up to join the Diablos Rojos, where he spent five summers (1966-70). The Red Devils were Mexican League champions in 1968, but Paquín’s best individual season was 1970. He hit 18 homers, drove in 85, and hit .303. He even legged out 11 triples.

As early as 1968, Paquín rubbed elbows with U.S. major leaguers. That spring, he reported to the Yankees training camp in Fort Lauderdale, as the Red Devils wanted him to observe.[5] He truly began his U.S. pro career in 1971, following a deal on November 30, 1970. Tidewater, the Mets’ Triple-A farm team, obtained him from Mexico City in a swap for Cuban catcher Orlando McFarlane and cash.[6] The New York scout involved was most likely Nino Escalera, who covered Latin America for the team from 1966 to 1981. Among other players he signed from the region was another Mexican catcher, Alex Treviño.

Spring training 1971 found Estrada, along with 16 other Spanish-speaking Mets prospects, learning English in a Berlitz language course. This came at the suggestion of Whitey Herzog, then the Mets’ director of player development. The young men focused on baseball phrases and key social needs. Minor league director Joe McDonald said of Estrada: “The only rap against him, according to scouts we talked to, was his lack of ability to communicate. And being a catcher, that’s very important. Still, he’s a good-looking kid and everybody’s always looking for a catcher. He just might make it. We feel that if we’re going to try him out, we’ve got to do everything in our power to give him a real chance.”[7]

Noted columnist Red Smith also wrote about the Berlitz program. Smith said that according to the Mets, it was this “communication problem” that had hindered Francisco while he was with the Yankees.[8] Indeed, Estrada allegedly reported to the Mets camp a week late because he’d gotten lost; Dominican infielder Ted Martínez rescued him in a Miami airport.[9]

Tidewater assigned Paquín to Double-A Memphis in late April. He wound up playing 51 games for the Blues (.252-7-28) and 58 for the Tides (.260-6-21). The Mets rewarded him with a late-season callup, though, as he recalled wryly, manager Gil Hodges was battling to hang onto third place.[10] Therefore his only big-league action took place at Shea Stadium on September 14.

Estrada remembers getting up at 6 A.M. that day, arriving at LaGuardia Airport, and not knowing what to do. Fortunately the driver of the cab he hailed was Cuban, and the man told him the ballpark was nearby.[11] Nolan Ryan didn’t have it that day and the Mets had given up 12 runs by the time the game was four innings old. Estrada entered the laugher in the top of the sixth inning, becoming the first Mexican catcher in the majors. He allowed a passed ball, but no further damage ensued. In the seventh, facing Bill Stoneman, he hit a line-drive single over the shortstop’s head. He ended the game with a groundout and thus finished with a lifetime batting average of .500.

On December 10 the Mets made one of their most infamous trades. They sent Ryan and promising outfielder Leroy Stanton along with Estrada and pitcher Don Rose to the California Angels. Seeking to plug their perennial hole at third base, they got Jim Fregosi (and no one else) in return.

Francisco began the 1972 season with Salt Lake City, the Angels’ Triple-A club. On May 29 he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for pitcher Tom Dukes. He finished the year with Triple-A Rochester. Then, on October 27, the Orioles sent him to the Chicago Cubs as they reacquired catcher Elrod Hendricks, a favorite of Earl Weaver’s.

Estrada’s experience with the Cubs organization consisted of two games at Triple-A Wichita and 67 at Double-A Midland in 1973. He was released at the end of the season and returned to Mexico, where he had been playing winter ball all along.

During the summers Paquín played seven seasons in Puebla (1974-80, including another league title in 1979) and three with the Campeche Piratas (1981-83). In 1983, his first summer as manager, he led the Pirates to a championship. After splitting the 1984 season between León (where he did not manage) and Toluca, he returned to Campeche for four more years. He followed with three more in León, winning another title in 1990, and three in Minatitlán. As a player-manager, he appeared in anywhere from 23 to 88 games a season.

Upon retirement after the 1994 season, his summer career totals in Mexico were 84 homers, 923 RBIs, and a .275 average (on 2,089 hits) in a remarkable 2,415 games. The Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame inducted him as a player in 2000.

Estrada then continued as a non-playing manager in the summers. He went back to Puebla for 1995 and spent 1996-97 with the Quintana Roo Langosteros (Lobstermen). The club was renamed for its home city, Cancún, in 1998. Following the 1999 season he piloted the Yucatán Leones for three years. Remaining on the Yucatán peninsula, he went back to Campeche, but after four seasons -- including another championship in 2004 -- the Pirates parted ways with “El Gordo de Oro” (Golden Fats) in February 2007.[12]

Although the Monterrey Sultanes wanted to hire Paquín,[13] he managed the Chihuahua Dorados instead in 2007. That October he faced open-heart surgery for a bypass and to correct a valve problem. The operation was successful, much to the relief of his wife Luz Arcelia “Nena” de Estrada (maiden name Correa; married on September 20, 1972) and his daughters Karissa and Karelina.[14] He returned to Chihuahua in 2008 and got his 1,500th win in the Mexican League that April. Estrada became only the second manager after José “Zacatillo” Guerrero to reach that mark.

In the winters Estrada played 1,538 games across 30 seasons (1964-65 through 1993-94) with Navojoa, Ciudad Obregón, Mazatlán, Culiacán, and Mexicali. He batted .244 with 1,269 hits, 74 homers, and 514 RBIs. He began his managing career with the Tomateros of Culiacán in the winter of 1982-83. He has had three tenures there totaling 13-plus seasons: 1982-88, 1995-98, and from 2001 until he was fired in December 2006 after a so-so start. In between were stretches in Navojoa (1988-91), Mexicali (1992-93 and 1998-99), and Obregón (1993-95).[15]

In January 2008, the Hermosillo Naranjeros named Paquín their manager for the 2008-09 season. What also made the choice surprising is that Hermosillo and Culiacán are arch-rivals in the winter league. The Naranjeros replaced him with Vinicio “Vinny” Castilla in November 2008, though, after the club got off to a 12-14 start.

Estrada regards his best seasons as those in the winter league, given the results. Culiacán won titles six times under his direction: 1982-83, 1984-85, 1995-1996, 1996-1997, 2001-02, and 2003-04. He added another with Mexicali in 1998-99. No other manager in league history has more than four.[16]

The winter league champions go on to represent Mexico in the Caribbean Series. Paquín played as a reinforcement on the 1986 Series champs, Mexicali; his single in the last game decided the tournament. In 1996 and 2002, the Tomateros won with him as skipper. All were upsets, considering the competition is the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. The 1996 squad featured just two big-leaguers, Esteban Loaiza and Benji Gil. Author Peter Bjarkman noted, “The Mexicans were obviously simply much hungrier, and they played far over their heads for the overjoyed Estrada. . .‘The ugly ducklings are the belle of the ball,’ he crowed.”[17] The 2002 edition was led by tournament MVP Adán Amezcua, a minor-leaguer.

Mexico was a spoiler in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. The green, white, and red team knocked out the United States in the second round with a 2-1 win on March 16. Oliver Pérez pitched three scoreless innings, Jorge Cantú got his second RBI off Roger Clemens in the 5th, and the bullpen hung on from there. Even though his team had no hope of advancing, Estrada said, “We came here to win, and that is how we performed this evening.”[18]

Vinny Castilla took over the Mexican team in the 2009 WBC. Paquín Estrada was back in Chihuahua to lead the Dorados for the 2009 season, although another slow start cost him this job too in April. For the winter of 2009-10, however, he is set to return once more to the place where he feels most at home: Culiacán. At age 61, this man’s long and winding journey through Mexican baseball still looks to have some road ahead.

Thanks to Karissa Estrada de Vizcarra, Jesús Alberto Rubio.

Sources

Araujo, Alfonso

Culiacán Tomateros website: http://www.tomateros.com.mx

Hermosillo Naranjeros website: http://www.naranjeros.com.mx

Minor League Baseball Stars, Volume III (SABR, 1992)

Professional Baseball Player Database V6.0

SABR Minor Leagues Database

Treto Cisneros, Pedro, editor, Enciclopedia del Béisbol Mexicano. Mexico City, Mexico: Revistas Deportivas, S.A. de C.V., 1998.




[1] Rubio, Jesús Alberto. “‘Paquín’ Estrada charló con los peloteros búhos de la Unison”. Unknown date, 2002. Interview for website http://www.geocities.com/elbitdigital/deportes/paquin01.htm

[2] Perkins, Owen. “Baseball a lifetime love for Estrada”. Special to MLB.com, March 5, 2006.

[3] Húgues Sánchez, Angel. “Disfruta Paquín el Béisbol”. El Imparcial (Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico), unknown date. Presented on the website http://www.latribudenavojoa.com.mx/text/333925.html.

[4] Rubio, op. cit.

[5] “Mexican Leaguer in Camp”. The Sporting News, March 9, 1968: 23.

[6] “Center Fielders Are Exchanged”. New York Times, December 1, 1970: 79. See also “Angels Get Ken Berry”. Associated Press, December 1, 1970.

[7] “Baseball Teams With Berlitz To Help Out Mets Rookies”. Associated Press, March 23, 1971.

[8] Smith, Red. “Good Old Golden Rule Days”. Mansfield (Ohio) News Journal, March 25, 1971: 24.

[9] St. Petersburg Times, February 26, 1971: 3-C.

[10] Rubio, op. cit.

[11] Ortega, Eduardo. “Cinco Minutos con ‘Paquín’ Estrada”. Aguilas de Mexicali website, http://www.aguilasdemexicali.com.mx/noticias/publish/noticias_181.html, December 29, 2006.

[12] “Cesan los Piratas a ‘Paquín’ Estrada”. Notimex, February 7, 2007 (http://www.esmas.com/deportes/beisbol/602428.html).

[13] “Sultanes tras ‘Paquín” Estrada”. Notimex, December 12, 2006.

[14] Family information from: Urquijo, Miguel Angel. “Enfrenta Paquín un nuveo reto”, El Imparcial (Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico), January 16, 2008. Ortega, op. cit. E-mail from Karissa Estrada.

[15] Llanes Reyes, Arturo. “¡Paquín es naranjero!” Expreso (Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico) January 15, 2008: C-1.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Bjarkman, Peter C. Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005: 498.

[18] “U.S. eliminated from WBC with 2-1 loss to Mexico”. ESPN.com, March 17, 2006.

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