Thursday, January 15, 2009

Preston Gómez, Native of Cuba Who Managed in Major Leagues, Dies at 85

January 15, 2009

Preston Gómez, Native of Cuba Who Managed in Major Leagues, Dies at 85

Preston Gómez, the Cuban native who became the first full-time major league manager from Latin America when he managed the San Diego Padres in 1969, died Tuesday in Fullerton, Calif. He was 85.

The cause was complications from injuries sustained when he was struck by a pickup truck in March 2008, said the Los Angeles Angels, for whom he worked for the last 28 years as a coach and executive.

In a professional baseball career that spanned 65 seasons, Gómez managed the Padres, the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs. He was the second Latin manager in the majors, but Mike González, also a Cuban, who managed the St. Louis Cardinals for 22 games during stints in 1938 and 1940, held the post on an interim basis.

Gómez was best remembered as a manager for twice lifting a starting pitcher for a pinch-hitter late in a game although he was throwing a no-hitter, and each time Gómez was booed.

In July 1970, he used a pinch-hitter for Clay Kirby after he had pitched eight hitless innings in San Diego against the Mets, who led by 1-0. The pinch-hitter, Clarence Gaston, struck out, and the Mets went on to score two runs and get three hits in the ninth for a 3-0 victory.

“I don’t play for the fans, I play to win,” Gómez said.

In September 1974, while managing the Astros in a game against the Cincinnati Reds, Gómez sent Tommy Helms to the plate in the eighth inning in Houston to hit for Don Wilson, his starter. Wilson was seeking his third no-hitter, but the Reds led, 2-1. Helms grounded out, and then the Reds’ Tony Pérez led off the ninth with a single.

Gómez played one season in the major leagues, appearing briefly as an infielder in 1944 for the Washington Senators, who signed many Cuban players. The newly arriving Cubans spoke only Spanish, so they relied on countrymen who had been with the Senators for a while.

“If we went to eat, we’d wait for them to order our food,” Gómez once recalled. “They were like our fathers in those days. And we used to go out with girls who wanted to learn Spanish and were interested in trying to help us in the English language.”

After playing and managing in the minor leagues and serving as a coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Gómez became the Padres’ manager when they joined the National League as an expansion team. Composed largely of castoffs, the Padres finished last in the N.L. West during Gómez’s three full seasons with them. He was fired early in the 1972 season, then managed the Astros in 1974 and ’75, and the Cubs for part of 1980.

Gómez spent four seasons as a coach for the Angels, then became a special assistant to the general manager, acting at times as a liaison with the Latin players. The Angels’ manager, Mike Scioscia, told The Los Angeles Times in 2005 that Gómez “has a special bond with our Latin players” but that “he’s all about baseball and connects with everyone.”

Gómez is survived by his wife, Elizabeth; a son, Pedro; a daughter, Elia; an adopted son, Carlos Becerra; a stepdaughter, Claudia Astorg; his brother, Jose; his sisters Rachel Valz and Sara Raspall; and two grandchildren.

For all his baseball achievements, Gómez was frustrated in one overriding desire. He yearned for free movement between Cuba and the United States. As he told The Chicago Sun-Times in 1999: “I hope in my lifetime that I will be able to see the day that people can go back and forth.”

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