SABR

Rolando Roomes

This article was written by Rory Costello.

Three young men from Kingston, Jamaica, made it to the majors in the 1980s. They were all outfielders, blessed with power and speed. Chili Davis played in 19 seasons, hitting 350 home runs. Devon White’s career spanned 17 seasons, with 208 homers and seven Gold Gloves. The third player, Rolando Roomes, got into just 170 games across parts of three seasons. He wound up with nine homers in The Show.

What prevented Roomes from breaking through? Strikeouts, more than anything else -- he fanned roughly once in every three plate appearances in both the minors and majors. In 1989, his batting coach with the Cincinnati Reds, Tony Pérez, said, “He’s a strong kid and has a lot of power. The strikeouts are a mechanical thing. Breaking balls fool him. He’s hitting off his front foot a lot. I’m trying to get him to keep his hands back.”[1] “He’s a good defensive player,” manager Pete Rose also said that year. “He’s got a lot of potential. If he figures out how to put the ball in play, he’s awesome.”[2] Unfortunately, the Ks quickly landed him in the doghouse of Rose’s successor, Lou Piniella. By that time, Roomes was already 28, and he only played in 16 more big-league games after the Reds waived him.

Rolando Audley Roomes was born on February 15, 1962. His father, Vincent, was a sergeant-major in the Jamaican Army. His mother, Enid Coley Roomes, had three other boys besides Rolando: Cosmo, Ray, and Steven (there were no daughters).

When he was young, Roomes -- like Devon White and (probably) Chili Davis -- played cricket (or a stickball version thereof, as Enid Roomes remembered in 2011). That’s not surprising, considering that Jamaica was a British possession until 1962. Baseball existed in Jamaica, but it was a fringe sport, much less popular than cricket and soccer. The Roomes brothers played cricket on the Kingston Army base.[3] Little Rolando was age six when he first got into the game.[4] “I was young, and I had just started learning the rules to cricket when we moved,” he recalled in 1988.[5]

In search of a better life, Vincent Roomes brought his family to Brooklyn, New York, in 1969. They lived in the Bushwick neighborhood; Vincent worked as a manager in a factory and attended college, eventually becoming a social worker. In May 1989, Rolando recalled, “My first exposure to baseball was through my dad watching the Mets on TV. I started swinging a bat and I tried to copy their style. I played a lot of stickball. We lived across from an elementary school and we played on the asphalt playground. I picked it up pretty quick. Baseball is like cricket.”[6] A couple of weeks earlier, he had said much the same thing. “You just see the ball and hit the ball. I always had talent. I could run, and I could catch. From sunup to sunset I could catch.”[7]

Roomes remained a Mets fan in the 1970s, watching the likes of Cleon Jones and Rusty Staub. The family had moved from Brooklyn to Arverne, in the Rockaways section of Queens, around 1973. As Enid Roomes recalled of Bushwick in 2011, “The neighborhood was getting bad. The boys had to put their pocket money in their shoes.”

Rolando did not take up baseball seriously, though, until his senior year at Beach Channel High School in Rockaway Park. Before that, he participated in track, softball, and football. The Rockaways had a rough side too. As a teenager, Roomes was under pressure to join gangs, but he said, “I’d keep playing until the sun went down, and then my mother always made me come home. I’d do my homework. It kept me out of trouble. There were black gangs, Latin gangs and white gangs. All [the black gangs] wanted to do was fight with the whites and Latins. I said, ‘Those guys are my teammates.’”[8]

In 1989, Roomes spoke with the Chicago Tribune. “He said he believes the late start retarded his development. ‘It hurt me a lot,’ he said. ‘Especially playing high school baseball in New York, where there were really no coaches. And when we had games, you always wondered if nine guys would show up.’”[9] The previous year, he had said, “The baseball program at my high school wasn’t very good. I was lucky there were scouts watching when I was a senior.”[10]

One of those scouts was Billy Blitzer, then a Brooklyn-based bird dog for the Major League Scouting Bureau. Blitzer’s mentor was Ralph DiLullo, a longtime scout for the Chicago Cubs.[11] On July 14, 1980, DiLullo and Frank DeMoss signed Roomes as an undrafted free agent for the Cubs. Rolando turned down an offer to play college football and went to the minor leagues.[12]

It took eight seasons in the minors before Roomes made his big-league debut. He displayed a good arm in the outfield as well as power and speed, but he led his league in strikeouts three times. He wanted to quit in 1986.[13] “My low point was in ’86 when they sent me back to Class A [to start his fifth season at that level],” he said in 1988. “I threw my uniform away. I was sure they had no use for me any more.” However, Larry Cox, who had managed Roomes in 1983, told him to hang in there. “He always had the tools and a great attitude,” Cox said. “I’ve never seen a guy work harder.”[14]

When Rolando played in the Arizona Instructional League in the fall of 1986, minor-league batting instructor Richie Zisk called him “a late bloomer, with real power potential.”[15] He fulfilled Zisk’s assessment, as the 1987 season with Pittsfield in the Eastern League (Double A) was a great stride forward. Roomes finished second in the EL in homers (21) and RBIs (95), while batting .308 and leading the league with 12 triples. He was added to the 40-man big-league roster.

At age 26, Roomes jumped to the majors to start the 1988 season. At that point, he had been with the Cubs organization longer than any other player. In late March, with several cuts still to come, the Chicago press focused on the soft-spoken underdog. “It’s been a very long time,” said the personable outfielder. “There have been a lot of ups and downs. I’ve worked long and hard to be in the position I’m in now.”[16] When the Opening Day roster was set, Cubs manager Don Zimmer said, “I didn’t come in here thinking Roomes was going to make this ball club, but I didn’t come in here thinking he wasn’t going to make the team. I didn’t know him. He came in here and won a job.”[17] Rolando himself said, “What a dream, it took a long time, but it was worth the wait.”[18]

The rookie saw hardly any action during the season’s first month, though -- he got into just seven games, pinch-hitting twice, playing once in the field, and coming in four times as a pinch-runner. On April 13, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the ever-astute Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog sniffed out one of Zimmer’s favorite plays: the double steal. Whitey held a mound conference because he knew what Zim would do in the situation: with Chicago trailing 4-3 in the ninth inning and Roomes (running for Rafael Palmeiro) at third base, the Cubs skipper ordered Jim Sundberg to break from first to draw a throw. But second baseman Tommy Herr cut off the ball and threw home, and Roomes was called out even though replays made it look as if he’d slid under Tony Peña’s tag. Rolando didn’t argue -- “It wouldn’t have made a difference if I did,” he said. “I think that I kind of got in there, but it was one of those borderline plays.” [19]

Zimmer had wanted to give Roomes a start at some point, but in early May, the Cubs called up Mark Grace to begin his distinguished big-league career. They optioned Rolando to Triple-A Iowa. He hit well again (.301-16-66), though the strikeouts were still high at 134 and he walked just 26 times. When the rosters expanded in September, Chicago recalled Roomes, and he got into 10 more games. He later observed, “It was a big adjustment for me in the major leagues. It was like feeding me to the wolves.[20]

In the winter of 1988-89, Rolando went to Puerto Rico to play with the Ponce Leones. While he was down there, he got the news that the Cubs had traded him on December 8 to the Reds for backup catcher Lloyd McClendon. It helped both teams, at least for a season, as both men had their career years in the majors in 1989.

With Cincinnati’s Triple-A affiliate, Nashville, Roomes was impressive early in ’89. “He hit two of the longest home runs I’ve ever seen and another long shot to the opposite field -- all in the space of a week,” said Larry Schmittou, president and general manager of the Sounds. “[On the first,] the center fielder didn’t even move. The second one was more gigantic. . .We have a scoreboard in left field. Rolando’s shot cleared it so fast the crowd didn’t even have time to react until the ball was already over it. He has tremendous, quick wrists. He’s an athlete.”[21]

On May 3, the Reds called Roomes up after injury-prone Eric Davis severely pulled a hamstring muscle. Injuries to Kal Daniels and Herm Winningham then gave him more playing time. “We don’t expect to see him back here,” Larry Schmittou had said, and indeed Roomes finished out the season in Cincinnati. Highlights of the year included May 26, when he went 3-for-6 at Wrigley Field and beat his old team, the Cubs, with a two-run homer off Calvin Schiraldi in the 12th inning. On June 3, another two-run homer, off Eric Show of the Padres, capped a five-run rally. The fans at Riverfront Stadium began chants and ovations of a drawn-out “Roooomes!”[22]

When Paul O’Neill went on the disabled list in July with a broken thumb, Roomes saw more action in right field. He went 4-for-6 as the Reds thrashed Houston 18-2 at Riverfront on August 3. The team set multiple records in a 14-run first inning. Rolando said, “It was contagious. Everybody was a superstar today. Every time you had a chance to sit down, you had to get up to shake somebody’s hand.”[23]

Roomes had also made progress with his bugbear, the curveball. Pete Rose said that August, “There are still certain righthanders with great curves that give him trouble. But there are some righthanders I’m not afraid to play him against.” Rolando credited his work with Tony Pérez on staying back, plus being in the lineup on a steady basis. “The only way to be somebody is to be out there every day,” he said.[24]

Roomes finished the year with a batting line of .263-7-34; he had 18 doubles and five triples too. He stole 12 bases but got caught eight times -- and he walked just 13 times against 100 strikeouts. That is tied with John Bateman (Houston, 1963) for fewest walks in a 100-K season.

Cincinnati hired a new manager after the season, Lou Piniella. Early in 1990, Piniella talked up Roomes, saying, “He is a hell of a player. I think I can help him. I like young players and if they can play or pitch, they’ll be on the field.”[25] Not long afterward, though, he said, “One of the things I’m most concerned about, and one of the things our ball club will work on this spring more than anything, is to cut down the strikeouts. . .We have to make our hitters attuned to the fact (that) if you make contact, you can score runs. A strikeout does nothing.”[26]

The skipper could not have been pleased, therefore, when Roomes struck out nine times in 15 at-bats during camp. Just before the season opened, though, Cincinnati acquired Billy Hatcher from Pittsburgh and put him in left field. With Davis in center and O’Neill in right, Rolando barely made the Reds roster again as a reserve. He hit just .213-2-7 in 61 plate appearances, with no walks and 20 strikeouts.

When the Reds acquired Glenn Braggs from Milwaukee on June 9, Piniella said, “Braggs is a heck of a lot better than Rolando Roomes, isn’t he?”[27] With that vote of no confidence, Rolando was clearly expendable; he was waived on June 18. It was a curious echo of what had happened with the Cubs a couple of years before. The team wanted to open up a roster spot for a smooth-fielding young first baseman -- this time, it was Hal Morris. The big loss for Roomes was that he missed being part of a World Series champion that fall.

Some open questions remain about Roomes’ time with the Reds. Did the team give him a World Series ring? Would he care to comment either on Lou Piniella or Marge Schott, who owned the club then? Did he mind losing his mustache? He had one with the Cubs but had to shave it under the Reds’ former policy (abolished in 1999) of no facial hair.

The Montreal Expos claimed Rolando the very same day the Reds waived him. He got into six more games with them over the rest of the month, but after rookie Marquis Grissom came off the disabled list, the Expos then sent Roomes down to Triple-A Indianapolis. After a fair showing there during July and August (.232-7-31), he returned for his last 10 games in the majors that September.

During his big-league career, Roomes struck out 130 times in 426 plate appearances. That 31% ratio is not far behind Mark Reynolds (34% lifetime through 2010), the only man ever to fan 200 times in a season. Aside from Reynolds, only three other men have struck out over 190 times in a season, and all of them were active as of 2011 too. Ryan Howard’s career ratio of Ks to plate appearances was 27%, Jack Cust was at 26%, and Adam Dunn at 24%. Those sluggers also all balanced their strikeouts to a degree with a high number of walks, which Roomes did not. Even so, perhaps his strikeouts would be viewed with a more forgiving eye today.

The Expos released Roomes in December 1990, and after another winter in Ponce, he spent his last pro season at Triple-A in 1991. First he was with Milwaukee’s top affiliate, Denver in the American Association. The Zephyrs released him with a .164 average in May. About a week later, the Minnesota Twins signed Rolando to a minor-league contract. He got into 50 games with the Portland Beavers (.235-4-25). Oddly enough, by this point he’d acquired at least a bit more plate discipline, drawing 13 walks to go with 45 Ks in 157 plate appearances.

It appears that Roomes then retired, rather than trying to continue his baseball career in Mexico or another country. The likelihood is that he wished to be with his family; he and his wife Sandra eventually had four sons. They live in Mesa, Arizona (home of the Cubs’ spring training site).

According to his mother, Roomes has never been back to Jamaica since he moved, but it’s easy to imagine that his homeland remains in his heart. One may also imagine possible conversations between him and his fellow Jamaican big-leaguers. Those would have to have taken place in spring training, though. By the time Roomes broke in, Chili Davis had moved to the AL, where he remained for the rest of his career. Devon White didn’t come to the NL until 1996, the year before interleague play started. Yet perhaps in another decade or two, Jamaica’s latest fledgling baseball efforts may yield some homegrown major-league talent.[28]

Grateful acknowledgment to Mrs. Enid Roomes (telephone interview, July 7, 2011) for her memories.

October 3, 2011

Sources

www.baseball-reference.com

www.retrosheet.org

www.checkoutmycards.com

 

Photo Credit

The Topps Company

 




[1] “Cricket groomed Roomes for Reds.” Spokane Chronicle, May 29, 1989.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sullivan, Paul. “National League: The Week in Review.” Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1989.

[5] Nordlund, Jeff. “Roomes loves taste of big league chance.” Chicago Daily Herald, May 1, 1988: Sports-3.

[6] “Cricket groomed Roomes for Reds”

[7] Kay, Joe. “Reds’ Roomes: A Copycat.” Associated Press, May 12, 1989.

[8] Nordlund, op. cit.

[9] Sullivan, Paul. “Lord of the Bleacher Bums.” Chicago Tribune, June 11, 1989.

[10] Nordlund, op. cit.

[11] Lowenfish, Lee. “29 Years and Counting: A Visit With Longtime Cubs Scout Billy Blitzer.” Baseball Research Journal, Society for American Baseball Research, 2011.

[12] Nordlund, op. cit.

[13] Solomon, Alan. “Cubs Option Two Rookies to Set Opening Day Roster.” Chicago Tribune, April 2, 1988.

[14] Nordlund, op. cit.

[15] The Sporting News, December 8, 1986: 55.

[16] van Dyck, Dave. “Roomes may live dream with Cubs.” Chicago Sun-Times, March 23, 1988.

[17] Solomon, op. cit.

[18] The Sporting News, April 18, 1988: 17.

[19] “Snuffed out: Cubs lose as ninth-inning double steal fails.” Associated Press, April 14, 1988.

[20] Kay, op. cit.

[21] “Roomes has talent to make it big.” Associated Press, May 26, 1989.

[22] “Roomes stirs fans in Cincy.” Chicago Sun-Times, June 7, 1989. “Roomes Has ’Em Cheering in Cincy.” Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader, June 5, 1989: C1.

[23] Associated Press, August 4, 1989.

[24] McCoy, Hal. “Curves No Longer Confound Roomes.” The Sporting News, August 7, 1989: 14.

[25] The Sporting News, January 15, 1990: 36.

[26] The Sporting News, January 29, 1990: 41.

[27] McCoy, Hal. “Piniella’s Plan Calls for Morris’ Return.” Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, June 15, 1990: 5B. At that time, Morris was also playing some outfield.

[28] Pitcher Justin Masterson (MLB 2008-2011) moved when he was two years old and did not have Jamaican roots. For further details, see Chili Davis biography on the SABR BioProject.

Individual Memberships start at just $45/year

Become A Member Today

When you join SABR you are making a statement of support for baseball history. You are joining a worldwide community of people who love to read about, talk about and write about baseball.