Sergio Robles was a fine defensive catcher from Mexico. He has much in common with another receiver from the state of Sonora, Francisco Estrada. They both played very briefly in the major leagues – Estrada for one game in 1971; Robles for 16 games in 1972, 1973, and 1976. Yet both had extensive careers as players and managers in their homeland and entered the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame.
In Mexico, Robles is known as “Kalimán” after the hero of a popular radio serial and comic-book series. His first-rate throwing arm earned him another nickname – “Bazooka” – in the 1971 Caribbean Series. Robles was a mild hitter with little power. He batted .251 across eight years in the U.S. minors, .264 in 11 full seasons in the Mexican summer league, and .239 during 19 winters in La Liga Mexicana del Pacífico (LMP). However, he handled pitchers well and was a commanding presence behind the plate. He was also a member of five LMP champions with the Hermosillo Naranjeros, including the first Mexican team to win the Caribbean Series (1976).
Sergio Robles Valenzuela was born on April 16, 1946, in Magdalena de Kino. This town is about 50 miles from the U.S. border, south of the twin cities of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona. His father, José María Robles Otero, was a farmer. His mother, María Valenzuela Casanova, had eight children altogether (five boys and three girls).
For various details of Sergio Robles’ life in baseball, we may thank a 2006 interview with Eduardo Ortega for the San Diego Padres’ Spanish-language website, Padresbeisbol.com. Robles told Ortega that he first came to baseball at the age of 10 in Magdalena de Kino. From the age of 14, his dream was to play with the Naranjeros. He saw them play – Hermosillo is about 120 miles due south of Magdalena – and they were his inspiration.i
At the age of 14, Robles also went to Tucson, Arizona to see the Cleveland Indians in spring training. He remembered that they faced the Yankees, and he got to see his childhood idol, Mickey Mantle. His biggest Mexican baseball hero was slugger Héctor Espino, with whom he played in Hermosillo for many seasons.ii
Robles turned pro at the age of 20 with the Nogales Internacionales of the Mexican Northern League. In those days, Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso was managing Hermosillo, and he recommended the young catcher to the Naranjeros. Another Hermosillo player, Higinio Reynoso, told leading Mexican baseball writer Jesús Alberto Rubio about it. “He was burning up the league. . .but we signed him for his batting, and not for his defense, the aspect that eventually distinguished him throughout his career.”iii
Robles joined Hermosillo for the winter of 1967-68, and he never played for any other team in the LMP. It didn’t take long to win his nickname of Kalimán (“The Incredible Man,” as the fictional character was billed). Sportswriter Fausto Soto Silva gave it to him for making plays that no other catcher made.iv Following that season, Robles signed his first contract in the United States, courtesy of Camilo “Corito” Varona of the Los Angeles Dodgers.v The bonus was a mere $1,000.vi
Kalimán spent three summers (1968-70) at Bakersfield (Class A). After the 1969 season, when he hit .270 with 8 homers and 51 RBIs, he was named to the California League All-Star team. The Dodgers added him to their 40-man roster, along with players such as Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Bill Buckner, Tom Paciorek, and Bobby Valentine.
Robles regressed at the plate in 1970 (.251-3-34), but that December, Maury Wills – then managing Hermosillo – told the Los Angeles Times, “The only thing that’s kept my catcher, Sergio Robles, out of the majors is his bat, and he’s over .300 now. He picked Zoilo Versalles off second base with a snap peg the other night. I figured only Johnny Bench could do that.”vii
Hermosillo won the LMP championship in 1970-71 and so moved on to the 1971 Caribbean Series, held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Mexican team went 2-4, finishing in a tie with Puerto Rico and Venezuela as the Dominican Republic went unbeaten. However, the Hispanic sportswriters praised Robles highly and named him to the series all-star team. He threw out seven runners in the first three games of the series: two Venezuelans, three Puerto Ricans, and two Dominicans. According to an article in La Opinión, a Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles, San Diego Padres manager Preston Gómez had said a few years before, “Soon we’ll see him in the big leagues.”viii
In 1971, Robles jumped to Triple-A Spokane, where he played under Tommy Lasorda (.265-1-22 in 90 games). A feature about him in the Spokane Daily Chronicle that September noted his dedication to the game. “‘I like to play,’ beamed the likeable 25-year-old Mexican. . .It’s understandable, therefore, that he was upset early in the Pacific Coast League season when he did little more than warm up pitchers. The season was nearly two months old before he got his first start. So unhappy was he, that he was ready to return to Mexico just so he could play. But when Joe Ferguson was called up after playing in every game through June 14, the iron-man role fell to Robles. And he fit right in.”ix
Dodgers executive Al Campanis told a story about the catcher’s quick hands that August. “Robles lives with [pitcher] Mike Strahler. A quail got into their garage. Mike didn’t want the bird to suffer so he took a rolled-up newspaper and shooed the quail. . .it took off flying, out the door. You know how fast quail are. When it flew by Sergio, he reached out and caught it. Now you know why Robles doesn’t have much trouble catching Charlie Hough’s knuckleballs.”x
On December 2, 1971, the Dodgers made a six-player trade with the Baltimore Orioles. Veterans Frank Robinson and Pete Richert went to L.A.; Robles was one of four prospects whom Baltimore obtained. Manager Earl Weaver optimistically said, “I know the names we got are not known now. But those names will explain themselves in a few years. They look like they will fit into the category of stars. What we’ve done is make a deal to insure our future.” As it turned out, Royle Stillman played 33 games for the O’s, Robles played 10, Bob O’Brien played none, and Doyle Alexander got just 35 of his 194 big-league wins in orange and black.
Robles began the 1972 season with Baltimore’s top farm club, the Rochester Red Wings, and hit pretty well (.266-5-29 in 96 games). In August, the Orioles sent catcher Elrod Hendricks to the Chicago Cubs and waived utilityman Chico Salmón. They called up Kalimán, and he made his big-league debut as pinch-hitter on August 27. The Orioles were trailing the A’s, 2-1, in the ninth inning at the Oakland Coliseum. With pinch-runner Mark Belanger on first, Earl Weaver and opposing manager Dick Williams then played the lefty-righty game. Terry Crowley came in to bat for Dave McNally, and Williams lifted Rollie Fingers for lefty Darold Knowles. Weaver sent Robles in for Crowley, and the rookie singled to right, putting the tying run in scoring position. However, Bob Locker then saved it for Oakland by getting Bobby Grich to ground into a double play.
The Mexican made his first start in the majors on September 9 at Memorial Stadium. He went 0-for-4 and did not appear for the rest of the season. Robles said, however, that Baltimore’s starting pitchers – Mike Cuéllar, Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, and Pat Dobson – were very friendly to him. As many other Orioles of the past have said, Brooks Robinson was also especially nice. Robinson chatted with Robles and they gave each other foreign-language help.xi
Ahead of spring training 1973, Milton Richman of United Press International wrote about the man his Baltimore teammates called “Cochise.” Richman described Robles as “carefree and happy-go-lucky. . .Mexico’s rifle-armed gift to Baltimore could turn out to be the baseball counterpart of golf’s Lee Trevino.”xii Although Robles reported late to camp, he was one of the last two men cut. On April 1, the Baltimore Sun wrote, “Although Sergio Robles was cut yesterday, he is the best defensive catcher the Birds have. Should an early-season weakness become obvious on the squad, the Orioles could plug it by trading [Andy] Etchebarren and bringing back Robles.”xiii
Etchebarren didn’t leave Baltimore until June 1975 (Weaver liked his veterans), and meanwhile, Robles hit just .207 in 113 games for Rochester in 1973. Nonetheless, Orioles director of player personnel Jack Pastore called him “by far the best catcher we have in the organization.”xiv After the Red Wings were eliminated from the playoffs on September 7, Kalimán headed home. Two days later, Ellie Hendricks (who had returned after a trade for Francisco Estrada) broke his ankle. Again the Orioles needed another backstop. They hunted high and low for Robles in both the U.S. and Mexico, with the help of Hendricks, who spoke Spanish thanks to his experience in Puerto Rico and Mexico. Finally Sergio called from Nogales and agreed to report.xv He got into eight games for Baltimore, starting four and going 1 for 13. He was not eligible for the postseason.
Robles joined camp late again in 1974, as he “wanted assurance he’d be sold to a team in Mexico if he did not stay with the Orioles.”xvi Yet again the benevolent Ellie Hendricks helped him. Even though Robles and Ellie were competing for the same roster spot, once more Hendricks used his fluent Spanish to help general manager Frank Cashen convince Robles to report.xvii In late March, Baltimore reduced its roster to 27, and the team granted Kalimán’s wish. He joined the Diablos Rojos of Mexico City, and the Red Devils became league champions for the second straight season. Robles then went on to be part of his second champion team in Hermosillo that winter.
In March 1975, Baltimore repurchased Robles from Mexico – and promptly peddled him to the St. Louis Cardinals.xviii He played 45 games as a backup in Triple A for the Tulsa Oilers. Once again, the more satisfying part of his play that year came in Hermosillo. In the winter of 1975-76, the Naranjeros won their second straight LMP title and advanced once more to the Caribbean Series. In Santo Domingo, the Mexicans lost their first game, but manager Benjamín “Cananea” Reyes said, “Don’t worry, boys, now we’re going to win five straight” – and so it happened.xix The squad included local stars (Héctor Espino, Celerino Sánchez, and Francisco Barrios) and Americans (George Brunet, Bump Wills, Chet Lemon, and Jerry Hairston – plus Jerry’s father Sam, who was a coach.) Robles batted .333 with three RBIs and four runs scored and was named again as the all-star catcher of the series.
Even so, he had to step back to Double A to start the 1976 season. After 44 games with Arkansas in the Texas League, he rejoined Tulsa. On July 23, he then returned to the Los Angeles organization in an unspecified transaction.xx He played for Albuquerque, the Dodgers’ top farm club.
At age 30, Kalimán played his final six games in the majors with the Dodgers that September. In each case, he replaced the starting catcher after the Dodgers had sent up a pinch-hitter. The starter in the last five of those games was Kevin Pasley – but of greater interest was what brought about Sergio’s first outing. In the seventh inning on September 6, number-one catcher Steve Yeager – who had played behind Robles at Bakersfield in 1969 – was in the on-deck circle at San Diego Stadium. Randy Jones broke Bill Russell’s bat, and the flying barrel struck Yeager in the throat, piercing his esophagus. The scary accident prompted Dodgers trainer Bill Buhler to invent the “billy goat” strap that Yeager (and soon many other catchers) hung from the catcher’s mask for protection behind the plate.xxi
Robles was hitless in three at-bats, bringing his career average in the majors to .095 (2 for 21). He did not commit an error during his 70 total innings in the field. He let through two passed balls, and the only runner who tried to steal against him was successful.
Returning home, Robles was a more finished and experienced player. The Sporting News said he was “considered to be without a peer as a native Mexican catcher.” In the summer of 1977, he signed with Mexico City’s other club, the Tigres, after refusing to report to Unión Laguna.xxii After that season, though, he played again with the Diablos Rojos, who won two more championships in 1981 and 1985.
Kalimán’s last winter season was 1985-86. He played 1,016 games in the LMP, with 18 homers and 281 RBIs. He was such an integral part of the Hermosillo team that when another strong-armed young catcher named Alex Treviño joined the club in the late ’70s, Treviño (who eventually played 939 games in the majors) had to serve as a utilityman. In addition to the three championships already noted, the Naranjeros won in 1979-80 and 1981-82. All told, Robles went to seven Caribbean Series because he reinforced Team Mexico on two other occasions.
Robles joined the Aguascalientes Rieleros in 1987, his last summer season, appearing in one game with two at-bats. He played 875 total games in the Mexican League; although he had just 5 homers, he drove in 310 men while setting various fielding records. A word frequently used to describe him in Spanish was aguerrido – battle-hardened.
When Eduardo Ortega asked Robles what it takes to be a good catcher, Kalimán replied, “First you have to like the position. You have to be intelligent, a good observer and student of the game, and know the opposing batters, one through nine. The best part of a catcher is knowing how to manage the pitching staff.” He noted that after working with his fellow Mexican pitcher Maxímino “Max” León for 17 seasons, they understood each other so well that they didn’t need signs – which solved skipper Reyes’ worries about sign-stealing.xxiii
Robles began his managerial career with Hermosillo in the winter of 1986-87. He did not complete the following season, perhaps because the Naranjeros got off to a start of only 12-12.xxiv He managed Aguascalientes for parts of the 1987 and 1988 seasons; in 1988 he was also one of three managers for the Saltillo Saraperos. In 1990 and 1991, he led the Campeche Alacranes for portions of each season. During the winters, Robles also spent four more years with Hermosillo as a coach (1989-1990, plus another stint in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s). Managers and their staffs come and go through a revolving door in Mexico.
Robles has also been skipper for Magdalena, Caborca, and Ciudad Juárez in a lower-level circuit, La Liga Norte de Sonora. When he hasn’t been involved in pro ball, he’s been with national and state teams as an instructor. His greatest satisfaction in this respect has been seeing some 50 Mexican pro players come from the ranks of the young men he instructed while working for the Mexican Baseball Federation.xxv
When the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Robles in July 2006, he called it one of the most emotional days in his life. He felt the same way that November, when Hermosillo retired his uniform number 6. He said, “I was very happy to see the response of the people, a full stadium, and above all to have come back to the organization after 14 years, where I spent 25 seasons as manager, player, and coach.”xxvi
Sergio Robles married Patricia Guerrero Quintero on January 28, 1981. They had three children: Gerardo, Sergio, and Marisol. Robles was proud that they all became business professionals.xxvii
“El Kali” returned to the Red Devils as coach in 2010. He also still finds time to work with young players at the Academía del Carmen in the state of Nuevo León. He shows no signs of slowing down, despite a serious bout with anemia (the result of a gastrointestinal ailment) in 2009.
As Jesús Rubio put it around the time of Robles’ Hall of Fame induction, “It’s important to say it, above all for the new generations who didn’t see him to appreciate his incredible throws to the bases. . .Sergio Robles is synonymous with passion, dedication, and toughness. Those who saw him and enjoyed his spectacular arm could apply many other adjectives.”
Grateful acknowledgment to the following people in Mexico for their research: Jesús Alberto Rubio, Alfredo Marrón Santander and Alfonso Hurtado Ruíz of Once TV, Carlos Alberto Fernández (Director of Media Relations, Diablos Rojos de México).
The Topps Company
Leyendas del Deporte Mexicano: Sergio Robles, El Kalimán del Béisbol. Short documentary film by Alfredo Marrón Santander about the career of Robles for Once TV in Mexico, released September 2011 (http://vodpod.com/watch/15417629-leyendas-del-deporte-mexicano-sergio-ro...)
iii Jesús Alberto Rubio, “Miñoso, ‘Un alma de Dios,’” (http://www.salondelafama.com.mx/salondelafama/beisbol/articulo.asp?n=140), 2009.
iv Ibid. For those interested in such lore, Kalimán is a mysterious figure clad all in white with a turban that bears a jeweled K. He is a seeker of justice who relies not on weapons but on his martial-arts skills and mental powers acquired through self-discipline. The radio play started in 1963 and the comic book in 1965.
vi “La Prensa de San Juan Elogia al Receptor Mexicano, Sergio Robles.” La Opinión (Los Angeles, California), February 10, 1971, 10.
vii Frank Finch, “Making of a Manager,” Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1970, H1.
viii “La Prensa de San Juan Elogia al Receptor Mexicano, Sergio Robles”
ix Chuck Stewart, “Tag of Dedicated Fits for Catcher,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, September 1, 1971, 37.
x Harry Missildine, “Sergio Too Quick for Quail,” Spokane Spokesman-Review, August 23, 1971, 10.
xi Ortega, “Cinco minutos con Sergio ‘Kalimán’ Robles”
xii Milton Richman, “‘Cochise’ new and different,” United Press International, March 25, 1973.
xiii Bob Maisel, “The Morning After,” Baltimore Sun, April 1, 1973, B1.
xiv “Robles Strong Defender,” The Sporting News, September 15, 1973, 24.
xv “Search Ends, Catcher Found,” Associated Press, September 13, 1973.
xvi “Fifth Title in Six Years Possibility for Baltimore,” Associated Press, March 6, 1974.
xvii Doug Brown, “Orioles May Flash ‘No Vacancy’ Sign for Two Rookie Pitchers,” The Sporting News, March 23, 1974, 50.
xviii Ken Nigro, “Royals rally, nip Birds, 8-7,” Baltimore Sun, March 21, 1975, C5.
xix Ortega, “Cinco minutos con Sergio ‘Kalimán’ Robles”
xx “Robles Returns,” The Sporting News, August 14, 1976, 31.
xxi Ortega, “Cinco minutos con Sergio ‘Kalimán’ Robles”
xxii The Sporting News, July 2, 1977, 38.
xxiii Ortega, “Cinco minutos con Sergio ‘Kalimán’ Robles”
xxiv Arturo Arellano, “Hasta la vista Ever,” El Imparcial (Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico), November 5, 2011.