Latino pitchers: The best of the best

Latino pitchers: The best of the best

Latino pitchers: The best of the best
In the wake of "The Year of the Pitcher" and in a salute to Hispanic Heritage Month, MLB.com posed the following question to some of the most respected authorities on baseball -- men and women who have deep knowledge of Latinos in baseball: Who were the top Latino pitchers in the history of the game? Only retired players could be considered. Based on a compilation of experts' rankings, the countdown toward No. 1 begins.

Their legacies are found in the overpowering fastballs, the nasty sliders and the changeups and the nightly celebrations of their heritage -- merengue and salsa and reggaeton and Latin hip-hop played several times a night at ballparks from coast to coast, Major League and Minor League.

One can only wonder what the standard-bearers -- talented ballplayers like Martin Dihigo, Adolfo Luque, the Alou brothers (Matty, Jesus and Felipe), Orlando Cepeda, Jose Mendez, Minnie Minoso, Lefty Gomez and Roberto Clemente -- think or would think when seeing how Latinos have contributed to the American pastime and how big an influence they have on today's game.

Or at least what they'd think of Latin beats echoing through gleaming baseball cathedrals.

If it seems only recently that Latinos have truly made their mark on baseball, consider this: Latinos were playing in the United States for years, in the Negro Leagues and even in the Majors, before Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947 and broke the color barrier for blacks in the Majors.

BEST FIVE LATINO PITCHERS
A panel of 20 experts was polled to determine who are the top five retired Latino pitchers of all-time.
No. PITCHER
Overview Best of the best?
No. 5 Fernando Valenzuela
No. 4 Dennis Martinez
No. 3 Luis Tiant
No. 2 Pedro Martinez
No. 1 Juan Marichal

Now, go to any Major League or Minor League ballpark and the rosters are diverse; Spanish is often spoken as much as English.

The time will come when the National Baseball Hall of Fame will feature more than three Latino pitchers, those being Dihigo, Mendez and Juan Marichal. But that won't preclude a discussion about the very best.

It's easy to come up with a top-five list of active Latino (foreign or U.S.-born) pitchers. But their time will come. Until then, there are five retired pitchers who are considered the best of the best. Their stature is the result of their statistics, their mound presence, lengthy careers and their indelible mark on the game and its fans. They are men who changed perceptions, who rallied entire communities in the United States and in their homelands and became household names from San Francisco to Canada to New York.

While the list features mostly pitchers from a more recent generation, it is as much a tribute to the contributions of Latinos to the game as it is to the success of each pitcher. And the good part is, these honorees, all still living, are able to see the fruits of their labor being passed on to the next generation of Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, U.S. Latinos, Central Americans and South Americans who are in the big leagues or striving to make it there.

Voting panel
Peter Bjarkman: Bjarkman, a freelance author, has been a leading expert on baseball in Cuba and other Latin American countries.
Adrian Burgos: Burgos, a history professor at Illinois, was one of 12 members of a Hall of Fame committee that led to the induction of 17 black and Latino players and administrators in 2006.
Dick Clark: Author, historian, SABR member and a member of the 2006 Hall of Fame panel.
Raymond Doswell: Curator for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Doswell has done extensive research on baseball in America and in Latin America and was part of the Hall of Fame panel in 2006.
Leslie Heaphy: A history professor at Kent State, Heaphy has written extensively on the history of baseball, particularly on the Negro Leagues and on women in baseball. She was also on the 2006 Hall of Fame panel.
Bob Kendrick: President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kendrick has lectured broadly about black baseball and its role in civil rights.
Larry Lester: One of the founders of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum was another member of the 2002 Hall of Fame panel.
John Thorn: Thorn is the official historian of MLB. He founded Total Sports Publishing and was its publisher from 1998-2002 and was a consultant for Ken Burns' documentary, "Baseball."
James A. Riley: Author of Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues (seminal work in this area) and authority on black baseball.
Luis Rodriguez-Mayoral: A one-time front-office executive with the Rangers and the Tigers, Rodriguez-Mayoral has written and lectured extensively and he has ties to the Clemente family that go back to 1961.

It wasn't so long ago when the first great Latino ballplayers faced racism and had to adjust to life in the United States, coming from a different culture and speaking a different language.

"The impact of Latinos in the game stretches back not just in the Major Leagues with 'Papa' Joe Cambria scouting Cubans for the Washington Senators in the 1940s," said Anthony Salazar, a respected baseball historian. "But prior to that, you have Alex Pompez, owner of the New York Cubans of the Negro Leagues, scouting incredible talent in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

"It is a confounding fact, however, that only a handful of Latino players are enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. ... In recognizing the accomplishments of Latinos in baseball, certainly more could always be done."

Baseball is getting there. Times have changed. Yankees fans unite behind all-world closer Mariano Rivera. Brewers and Royals fans roar when Yovani Gallardo strikes out another hitter or Joakim Soria closes out the ninth for another save. And "Fear the Beard" is as much for setup man Sergio Romo as it for closer Brian Wilson, two facial-hair phenoms in the San Francisco Giants' bullpen.

"The public perception has changed quite a bit from the early days, definitely," Salazar said. "Nearly a third of all Major Leaguers are Latino, while nearly half of all Minor Leaguers hail from Latin America. It's an amazing statistic that will continue northward."

This five-part salute to Latinos in the Majors -- a history lesson as much as anything else -- is a countdown to the experts' choice as the greatest Latino pitcher ever to take the mound. Before we get there, there are four others who made knees buckle, helmets fall off, bats break and heads duck for cover from some of the most challenging pitches the game has ever seen.

Jose M. Romero is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.