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Espino stands tall among game's home run kings

Prodigious slugger fondly remembered as 'Babe Ruth of Mexico'
Héctor Espino clubbed 453 homers in the Mexican League and 299 in winter ball over his 24-year career. (Salón de la Fama del Beisbol Mexicano)
@RobTnova24
October 12, 2020

As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, Lunes de Legacy, presented by Nationwide, shines a spotlight on Hispanic, Latino, Latina and Latinx stories throughout MiLB of those who have forged an impressive path and left a legacy in their wake. These individuals have inspired a new generation, currently writing their own

As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, Lunes de Legacy, presented by Nationwide, shines a spotlight on Hispanic, Latino, Latina and Latinx stories throughout MiLB of those who have forged an impressive path and left a legacy in their wake. These individuals have inspired a new generation, currently writing their own legacy.

Héctor Espino's life in baseball is the stuff of folklore.

There's no disputing the monster home run numbers, countless accolades and absurd pace at which the native of Chihuahua, Mexico, broke records during an illustrious 24-year professional career. But that's just the tip of the iceberg in the story of the 5-foot-11, 185-pound slugger remembered fondly as “The Babe Ruth of Mexico.”

Today, 36 years after he swatted his last long ball, fans continue to share stories of how Espino put a different charge into the ball whenever he made contact, how infielders would drop line drives off his bat because they were hit so hard. You might even hear that he signed his first winter league contract with the Naranjeros de Hermosillo on a napkin in a Chihuahua restaurant.

According to a 1985 Sports Magazine story by Leo Banks, Espino once launched a 600-foot moonshot to dead center field that exited a ballpark in Guadalajara.

Still, one question hovers over Espino’s legacy while adding to its mythic quality.

What if?

What if the man who was known as "El Niño Asesino" (The Kid Killer) -- for his baby face and the way he massacred baseballs -- pursued his opportunity to play in the Majors?

Espino arrived in Florida on Aug. 6, 1964 and made his stateside professional debut the following day for Triple-A Jacksonville. He appeared in 32 games with the then-Cardinals affiliate -- a span of approximately five weeks -- before returning to Mexico and never coming back.

The debate as to why Espino left and whether he had the talent to make an impact in the Major Leagues rages on -- but not to Mike Brito. The longtime Dodgers scout, who earned fame after discovering Fernando Valenzuela, is a former teammate of Espino and believes any discussion on the topic is misplaced.

“There is no doubt that if he decided to play here, he would have been in a lineup every day, hit somewhere between third and fifth, been a .300 hitter and been a superstar. No doubt about it,” said Brito, who played with and roomed with Espino with the Dorados of the Chihuahua state league in 1959. “I was obviously a player in those days, but, man, if I was a scout then, I definitely would have signed him. And I don’t make many mistakes, but you didn’t need to be a genius to see the type of talent he was.”

According to a biography written by Horacio Ibarra Alvarez titled, Hector Espino: A Man, a Bat, a Legend, Espino displayed no shortage of confidence when asked by a reporter how he thought he would fare in the big leagues: "I’ll knock the hell out of any pitcher,” he responded.

“That year that we played together, I hit behind him, so I got to watch him close a lot and he had the best eye. If the ball was one inch outside the strike zone, he didn’t swing at it,” Brito said. “So he only hit good pitches, and when he made contact he used the whole field. And the contact was solid. He destroyed baseballs.

“He was the best Mexican hitter I ever saw in my life.”

Espino won three straight LMB batting titles with Monterrey. Salón de la Fama del Beisbol Mexicano

While we will never know for certain what might have been or what ultimately drove Espino to return home, his career numbers are impressive: He appeared in 2,388 Mexican League games and batted .355 with 453 dingers, 45 triples, 373 doubles, 1,573 RBIs and 1,505 runs scored. He batted at least .300 every year but one and won four batting titles, including three straight from 1966-68.

Espino is considered the greatest player in Mexican League history and still holds the title of “Minor League home run king” with an official tally of 484, including the 28 homers he hit in the Mexican minor leagues and the three he hit with Jacksonville.

***

Espino began his pro career at age 20 with San Luis Potosi of the Class A Mexican Central League in 1960. After pummeling the circuit's pitching to the tune of a .412 batting average through his first two seasons, Espino broke into the Mexican League with Monterrey in 1962 and earned Rookie of the Year honors with a .358/.459/.613 slash line, 23 roundtrippers, 12 triples and a league-leading 103 RBIs. He carried that momentum into the winter in the Mexican Pacific League, where he hit .402 and was named MVP.

In 1964, Espino won his first Mexican League batting title with a .371 average while setting the single-season record with 46 dingers. His 115 runs scored that season were third-highest in league history. The performance earned him a contract with the Cardinals, who assigned the slugger to their International League affiliate in Jacksonville.

“I remember them telling us we were getting the Babe Ruth of Mexico,” said Joe Morgan, who played alongside Espino with the Suns and went on to manage the Red Sox from 1988-91. “It didn’t quite work out that way, though.”

Battling a language barrier and being away from home for the first time, Espino got off to a slow start but rallied to hit .300 with six doubles, 15 RBIs and 15 runs scored in 32 games. However, he clubbed only three homers.

“Jacksonville was a tough place to hit home runs in that day because we had the high walls all around then, but still, I’m just not sure he ever got comfortable here,” Morgan said. “I talked to him a little, he didn’t speak much English and you definitely got the feeling he was homesick.

“He was a well-put-together kid, he played great defense at first and he could move pretty good for his size. But it just didn’t work out for him here. I don’t know, I just got the feeling he was down. He wasn’t himself. He didn’t want to be there.”

In 1965, the Cardinals invited Espino to big league camp, but he never reported. A contract dispute over Espino wanting a fair share of his sale price to St. Louis is believed to be the main reason for his holdout.

“He believed that he deserved a fair cut of that deal, and they basically told him that playing in the States is how he would make so much more money,” Brito said. “But he wasn’t buying that. He was a celebrity in Mexico, playing ball all year round, he was making money and he was happy. But if they gave him the money, he definitely would have stayed and played. Like I said, he would have been a star. I think for a few dollars, he made a mistake.”

Espino returned to Monterrey late in the season and hit .355 with 17 homers in only 67 games. He remained with the club for the next five seasons and won three straight batting crowns, led the league in homers twice and set a personal best with a .377 average in 1967.

Espino still holds the Mexican League record for intentional walks. Liga Mexicana de Béisbol

In 1971, Espino was traded to Tampico, where he continued his dominance at the plate for the next eight seasons. He returned to Monterrey in 1981 and finished his career there. While several of his records have been eclipsed since his retirement, Espino still holds the standards for intentional walks in a season (53, 1969) and career (408).

Even after his departure from Jacksonville, there were two instances where it appeared Espino would return to the U.S. In 1967, he reached an agreement to break camp with the California Angels but never made it further than Dallas for a connecting flight before going home. In 1970, Espino was engaged in talks to join the Yankees, but Tampico could not work out a deal.

Over 24 winter league seasons with Hermosillo, Espino batted .329 with 299 homers and 1,029 RBIs. He won 13 batting titles and played in six Caribbean Series, leading the Mexican entry to its first crown in 1976. He remains the only player in Mexican Pacific League history with a career average over .300 and is enshrined in the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame.

On Oct. 5, 1972, while Espino was still an active player, Hermosillo renamed its stadium after him.

In 1988, Espino was inducted to the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame and was part of the inaugural class of the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010. The latter occurred posthumously after Espino suffered a fatal heart attack in his sleep on Sept. 7, 1997 in Monterrey.

“In Mexico, he was a great personality so ultimately, I don’t think he felt like he missed much not playing in the U.S.,” Brito said. “He was a quiet guy. He didn’t talk a lot of nonsense, he didn’t go out late or party. Héctor Espino was Héctor Espino and they respected him everywhere he would go.

“But I’m telling you, if he made the decision to play in the U.S., he would have been one of the best hitters there. This guy was amazing.”

Rob Terranova is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobTnova24.