At the start of the 2018 season, Latinos comprised slightly less than one-third of major-league rosters and about one-half of those in minor-league baseball. As a result, the sport is seeking diligently to expand its base of fanaticos of this background. An example of such efforts was MLB’s Ponle Acento program from 2016, which saw the placement of tildes on jerseys, so that surnames would appear correctly in Spanish. Other efforts include broadcasting games in that language. As of 2018, 22 of the 30 major-league teams offered such broadcasts. Prior to the efforts of pioneers such as Buck Canel, Felo Ramírez, and the arrival of the Dodgers in Los Angeles (with the labors of René Cardenas and Jaime Jarrín), the “Spanish-speaking fans in the United States had no avenues for listening to any games in their native tongue.”1 Things have changed dramatically as the major leagues moved into markets with large Latino constituencies, and other markets witnessed the rise of the Spanish-speaking demographic.2 One of the longest running of the voces servicing these constituents is that of Eduardo Ortega. His story provides not just a sense of the international appeal of baseball, but also the power of sport to unite individuals of differing backgrounds.
Ortega’s path to the booth began in the late 1960s. He was born on June 5, 1963, and raised in the Colonia Juárez neighborhood of Tijuana. Like many other Mexican youths, he loved to play baseball, but said, “I was so bad. They sent me to right field, but I was always benched.”3 Ultimately, he would scamper up a tree and “broadcast” the action before him, imitating the stylings of Mario Thomas Zapiáin (known as “Don Mario”), the first Spanish-language voice of the Padres (starting when the team became a major-league franchise in 1969), and his sidekick, Gustavo López Moreno. He quickly earned a local reputation for his aptitude in describing athletic contests.
Ortega’s capabilities also came to the attention of one of his teachers, Juan Manuel Martínez- Pérez, who provided encouragement and even helped him get his first job: serving as master of ceremonies at local graduations (Eduardo was 12 at the time). In turn, this led to a plethora of narrating opportunities: boxing matches, bullfights, beer commercials, and serving as a disc jockey at a local radio station. He even attained another pinnacle of Mexican broadcasting: working as an announcer for lucha libre contests alongside Juan Manuel Martínez. Still, his dreams of broadcasting baseball were at the forefront of his mind. Ultimately, Ortega moved on to broadcast both winter (with the Tijuana Potros) and summer league contests (with the Torreón Algodoneros) in México.4
While his dulcet tones graced the airwaves throughout his teen years and early 20s, there was one person, his biggest fan, who could not hear any of it: his beloved mother, Amparo Díaz. Eduardo’s parents divorced when he was 3, and his mother, who had been deaf since she was 14, had to work diligently to support her family. The many jobs Eduardo held in his early career helped, and his mother grew to love baseball because of her son’s passion for the sport. In an interview with Curt Smith for the book A Talk in the Park, Ortega recalled how his mother reacted to his first appearance on the radio. “Your brothers tell me there was a beautiful voice on the radio. … Remember, while you may not be before me, I will always listen with my heart.”5 Amparo Díaz died during the offseason of 2011. “It gets me sentimental … because I took inspiration from her. … I wanted to make her proud,” Ortega said.6
The voice of Don Mario was not the only connection between Eduardo and the Padres. One of the most important memories of his youth took place in the mid-1970s when Ortega got the opportunity to attend a home game courtesy of another San Diego legend. He recalled the importance of the Dave Winfield Pavilion and how he appreciated all that the player did to assist disadvantaged youths on both sides of the border. When, in 1995, the broadcaster (then working the World Series for the CBS Americas Radio Network) had an opportunity to visit with the Hall of Famer, he thanked Winfield for using his wealth and the sport of baseball to reach out to the needy above and below the international divide. “I just wanted to tell you, on behalf of my family, thank you very much. You motivated me to pursue a life in baseball.”7 A friendship developed between the two, and when Winfield was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001, he asked Ortega to be in attendance at Cooperstown.
After several years of success in Mexico, Ortega, through the efforts of Gustavo López Moreno, was offered his dream job in 1986: sitting in the booth next to the legendary Spanish-language voice of the Padres franchise. Fulfilling a childhood flight of the imagination, Ortega shared the microphone next to his idol for the final 11 years of Don Mario’s career, through 1997. Don Mario died in 2009.
Curt Smith, a noted historian of baseball broadcasting, argues that “Hispanic broadcasters call baseball in a lively way,” which he refers to as a “mi casa es su casa” style that involves great storytelling and a great deal of emotion.8 This is certainly true for Eduardo Ortega’s broadcasts. One of the stories Ortega related to Smith of such differences occurred during a spring-training game with the Brewers in Chandler, Arizona. The attendance at the contest was minuscule, and Ortega began to count up the balls and strikes in “our festive Latin style.” Not surprisingly, not everyone appreciated his narrative methodology. Several retirees seated in the stands in front of Ortega stared intently and asked, “Who the heck are you and what are you doing here?” “By game’s end, no one was sitting directly in front of us, moving to different sections to get away. I haven’t taken it personally,” Ortega recalled.9
Over the past 30-plus years, Eduardo Ortega has become the voz of the Padres for the local Latino community, as well as for fans in Mexico. Not only does he work for the franchise, he also, since 1993, has broadcast games in Spanish for ESPN Deportes radio and other entities. Among these have been World Series, All-Star Games, and World Baseball Classic contests. He is also active as a volunteer on both sides of international divide: raising funds for scholarships, leading toy drives, and being a presence in the wider communities and classrooms. His professionalism also led to his nomination for the most important recognition in baseball broadcasting, the Ford C. Frick Award. Although he did not receive this honor in 2013, no less of a legend than the late Dick Enberg (himself a Frick winner in 2015) proclaimed, “Oh, he’s going to be in the Hall of Fame one day. He’s that good.”10
Even more significant than his accomplishments with the Padres are Ortega’s efforts to connect the Latino community with the broader society of the United States; and baseball is a perfect mechanism with which to accomplish this. He is a consummate professional, and always argues that the presence of the Spanish-surnamed in our nation is a promising development. Not only are there more Latinos than ever on the field, but also by introducing these players to a national audience, broadcasters such as Ortega help to unite our nation’s different groups through our mutual love for the sport. Here, he follows in the grand tradition of his other idols: Canel, Ramírez, and Jarrín. Eduardo Ortega is a shining example of the power of baseball to unite individuals of various backgrounds through a passion for the “national pastime.”
1 Samuel O. Regalado, “‘Dodgers Beisbol is on the Air: The Development and Impact of the Dodgers Spanish-Language Broadcasts,1958-1994,” California History, Vol 74, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 280-289. Quote on pages 283-284.
2 For a discussion on this trend, see Jorge Encinas, “How Latino Players Are Helping Major League Baseball Learn Spanish,” NPR.org, March 26, 2017, npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/03/26/519676864/how-major-league-baseball-came-to-officially-speak-spanish; Jerry Milani, “On the Airwaves and Online, Spanish Language Baseball Business Grows,” Portada, March 27, 2018, portada-online.com/2018/03/27/on-the-airwaves-and-online-spanish-language-baseball-business-grows/; and Mike Elk and Karina Moreno, “Baseball, Latino America’s Pastime, Faces New Challenges in Age of Trump,” The Guardian, March 29, 2018, theguardian.com/sport/2018/mar/29/baseball-latino-trump-mlb.
3 Bryce Miller, “Padres’ Eduardo Ortega Is a Spanish-Language Star,” San Diego Union Tribune, March 27, 2016, sandiegouniontribune.com/sports/padres/sdut-eduardo-ortega-baseballs-boy-in-a-tree-2016mar27-story.html
4 Author interview with Eduardo Ortega, April 26, 2018.
5 Curt Smith, A Talk in the Park: Nine Decades of Baseball Tales from the Broadcast Booth (Washington: Potomac Books, 2011), 230-231.
6 Miller. See also Matt Calkins, “The Padres’ Hall of Fame Nominee You Might Not Know,” San Diego Union Tribune, October 11, 2013, sandiegouniontribune.com/sports/padres/sdut-padres-eduardo-ortega-calkins-2013oct11-story.html.
8 Author interview with Curt Smith on March 16, 2018.
10 Miller. See also Alexandra Mendoza, “Eduardo Ortega: 30 Anos Como La Voz de los Padres,” San Diego Union Tribune, April 9, 2016, sandiegouniontribune.com/hoy-san-diego/sdhoy-eduardo-ortega-30-anos-como-voz-de-los-padres-2016apr09-story.html.
This biography appears in San Diego Padres: The First Half Century (SABR, 2019), edited by Tom Larwin and Bill Nowlin. To order your free e-book or get 50% off the paperback edition, click here.
June 5, 1963 at , Tijuana (MX)
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