I’m starting to get quietly jazzed (as I’ve mentioned before) about the approach of another baseball season.
Part of that involves re-immersing myself in baseball lore — all the people and places and incidents that make the game’s history as rich as it is.
Like the story of a lefty-swinging journeyman who came from nowhere 40 years ago and became, for a month-and-a-half, a useful contributor to a World Series-winning team.
His name was Gonzalo Marquez, and the Kansas City A’s had signed him early in 1966 as a 19-year-old first baseman and outfielder.
He spent five years working his way up the A’s minor-league system, hitting .341 at Triple-A Iowa in 1970 before vanishing from the radar for the entire 1971 season. I’m going to guess he either seriously hurt himself or left to play ball in some other country, because it’s a mystery to me how someone can hit that well at Triple-A and not get a call-up.
Marquez came back to Oakland’s minor-league system in ’72 and hit well enough to earn a big-league promotion in August, where manager Dick Williams used him almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter.
He began his career 1-for-6, including a strikeout in his first at-bat. But something started to click for him on Sept. 10, when his single began a game-tying rally in a game Oakland eventually won.
From there on out, Marquez hit .467 with four RBIs in spot duty. On the last day of the regular season, he made his only start of the year, and posted a single and stolen base against Nolan Ryan in another A’s win. He closed the year with a .381 average in 23 games.
On the day Marquez joined the A’s, they held a narrow one-game lead over the upstart Chicago White Sox. They ended the year as division champs, with a more comfortable five-and-a-half-game lead.
It would be absurd to credit that late-season surge to a pinch-hitter, of course. But it seems that Marquez was usually able to provide a solid at-bat when his team needed one. And since games can turn on a single at-bat, a reliable pinch-hitter is a valuable weapon to have.
Marquez’ bat grew still hotter in the postseason. He went 2-for-3 with an RBI in the AL Championship Series against Detroit, then went 3-for-5 with another RBI in the World Series against Cincinnati. Most memorable was his appearance in Game Four on Oct. 19: His ninth-inning single was the first of four straight Oakland hits that lifted the A’s from a 2-1 deficit to a 3-2 win.
1973 found Marquez in pinch-hitting duty again, and he was hitting .385 at the end of April. But then the hits dried up: He got only one in the entire month of May, and was farmed out on June 4 hitting .261.
On Aug. 29, Oakland traded him to the Chicago Cubs, who were only two-and-a-half games out of first and perhaps hoping for a little of their own Marquez magic. Cubs manager Whitey Lockman went so far as to install Marquez as his starting first baseman.
But Marquez hit only .224 in 19 games with the Cubs, during which time the team played under-.500 ball and backslid to fifth place. (Marquez did manage to hit his only big-league home run off Montreal’s Steve Rogers on Sept. 21.)
In 1974, Marquez’ big-league career petered out in ignominious fashion: 11 games with Chicago; 11 pinch-hit at bats; and no hits. In his final big-league game, on June 5, Marquez grounded to short against San Diego’s Lowell Palmer. And that was all.
Marquez went on to play in the Mexican League and the Venezuelan Winter League. If his Wikipedia page is correct, he was still active in the Venezuelan league when he was killed in a car accident in December 1984. Of course, his Wiki page lists two birthdates for him — one 1940, one 1946 — so its information might not be trustworthy.
(Retrosheet and Baseball Reference both list his birthdate as March 31, 1946. His New York Times obit gives his age as 38 and confirms that he was active as a player-coach at the time of his death, but gives an incorrect batting line for his 1974 season.)
The story of Gonzalo Marquez captures the ups and downs of baseball pretty well. If you don’t produce, the big-league ride ends quickly. But if you do produce — even in a limited niche — you can help a team win it all.
I don’t follow spring-training news all that closely; I pay a lot more attention when the games start counting for real.
I like to imagine, though, that there is a Gonzalo Marquez type in somebody’s major-league camp, swinging a hot bat and just waiting to be dropped into the right situation. Maybe we’ll see him in August … and October.