In building a bullpen for the 1982 season, the Cardinals took a look at a pitcher described as the Cy Young of Mexico.
Forty years ago, on Dec. 9, 1981, the Cardinals signed right-hander Vicente Romo and invited him to their major-league spring training camp.
Romo hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 1974 and was nearly 39 years old, but he was a consistent winner in the Mexican League and the Cardinals considered him a talent worth exploring.
Reaching the top
Romo was born in Santa Rosalia, a port city on Mexico’s Baja peninsula. The family moved to the fishing hub of Guaymas, on the other side of the Gulf of California in the state of Sonoma, when Romo was a youth.
Romo was 19 when he became a professional ballplayer in the Mexican League in 1962. The Cleveland Indians purchased his contract in October 1964 and he was sent into their farm system.
In 1967, Romo almost made the Indians’ Opening Day roster, but was sent back to the minors at the 11th hour. The Dodgers selected him in the November 1967 Rule 5 draft.
Romo began the 1968 season with the Dodgers and pitched in one game for them. When the Dodgers called up Don Sutton from the minors in April, they tried to assign Romo to a farm club, but the Indians reclaimed him.
Indians pitching coach Jack Sanford became Romo’s tutor and helped him develop into a reliable reliever. Mixing a sidearm fastball with an assortments of curves, Romo was 5-3 with 12 saves and a 1.62 ERA for the 1968 Indians.
In April 1969, the Indians traded Romo to the Red Sox. He was 6-0 with six saves and a 2.43 ERA for them as a reliever in 1970; 1-3 with a 6.10 ERA in 10 starts.
On May 30, 1970, at Boston’s Fenway Park, Romo pitched four scoreless innings of relief against the White Sox and hit a game-winning home run over the 37-foot wall in left. Boxscore
Romo also pitched for the White Sox (1971-72) and Padres (1973-74) before going back to the Mexican League.
Better with age
In Mexico, Romo thrived as a starting pitcher. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, “He is viewed as his nation’s Cy Young.” For seven consecutive seasons (1975-81), he never had an ERA higher than 2.63. In 1981, he was 16-6 with a 1.40 ERA for Coatzacoalcos.
The Cardinals were seeking depth for a bullpen projected to include Bruce Sutter, Doug Bair, Jim Kaat and Mark Littell in 1982. Scouting reports on Romo indicated he could help.
At spring training camp in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1982, Kaat was 43 and Romo was a month away from turning 39, though speculation was he might be older. Fourteen years earlier, in 1968, they first pitched against one another when Kaat was with the Twins and Romo was with the Indians. Boxscore
Romo made a strong bid to make the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster, posting a 1.80 ERA in 15 innings in spring training games. “I thought I pitched very well,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The final bullpen spot on the roster apparently came down to a choice between Kaat and Romo. The Cardinals kept Kaat, a much-needed left-hander, but as the Post-Dispatch noted, “The way the gag goes, they decided to keep 43-year-old Kaat over 39-year-old Romo because Kaat was younger.”
Back where he began
The Cardinals wanted Romo to go to their Class AAA Louisville farm club, but he opted to return to the Mexican League.
Pitching for Coatzacoalcos, Romo was 7-0 with a 1.54 ERA in eight starts when the Dodgers purchased his contract on May 24, 1982.
The Dodgers’ move surprised Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, who indicated he’d hoped Romo could come back to the Cardinals. “Herzog said his scout in Mexico, Willie Calvino, had not kept him apprised that Romo was doing so well,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
Pitching in the big leagues for the first time in eight years, Romo thrived as a Dodgers reliever. On June 18, he got a save against the Reds. Boxscore It was his first big-league save since July 9, 1974.
After posting a 1.29 ERA in nine relief appearances, Romo was moved into the Dodgers’ starting rotation. On July 19, he pitched seven scoreless innings versus the Expos and got the win, his first in the majors as a starter since April 1970. Boxscore
“He used all his pitches, and that means about seven or eight of them,” said Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia.
Expos manager Jim Fanning said, “He fooled us all night.”
In late July, Romo injured his left knee and was done for the season. His record for the 1982 Dodgers: 1-2 with a 3.03 ERA.
Romo returned to the Mexican League in 1983. He went to spring training with the California Angels in 1984, but was included in the first roster cut and spent the season, his last, in the Mexican League.
In eight years in the majors, Romo was 32-33 with 52 saves and a 3.36 ERA. In nine games versus the Cardinals, he was 0-1 with three saves and a 2.45 ERA.
A younger brother, Enrique Romo, pitched six years in the majors, including 1979, when he was 10-5 with five saves for the World Series champion Pirates. Against the Cardinals in his career, Enrique Romo was 6-1 with three saves.