El Profe: Renteria’s Mexican American Journey

He got it all from his mama and papa, his padres.

That is what Chicago White Sox manager Rick Renteria insists. The secret of his success—their work ethic, an insistence on treating everyone equally and fairly and the drive to succeed. These characteristics are at the core of who Renteria is and what led him to be the second Mexican American manager in Major League Baseball history—following only Pat Corrales who managed in Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Texas, from 1978 to 1987.

Renteria’s distinction on and off the field is the realization of the dreams of Mexican immigrant parents who left Guadalajara in the late 1950s to build a new future for their family in California. Their labor, sacrifice and upbringing shaped his sense of purpose, drive and personality, as did a childhood with eight siblings who celebrated their Mexican culture through food and family while embracing their new Americanized lives.

The benefits of moving between cultures and languages stuck with Renteria. This ability is especially useful as a big league manager in an era where Latinos are well over a quarter of MLB players, nearly a third when one includes U.S.-born-Latinos like Renteria himself.

Que Viva Mexico

Major League Baseball holds a Mexican Series this coming weekend. Although nearly 1,500 miles from home, the San Diego Padres will play host to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-game set in Monterrey, Mexico. Fernando Valenzuela, the greatest Mexican pitcher to ever come north to play in the Majors, will throw the ceremonial first pitch to open the series—a fitting recognition for the first Mexican-born player to win both Rookie of the Year and a Cy Young in 1981.

Fernando Valenzuela represents the Mexican immigrant story, that of the immigrant who ventures al norte. But Renteria is part of another story, one shared by every first generation, U.S.-born son of Mexican immigrants. His story is that of the Mexican American.

Renteria’s path to the big leagues was also different than Valenzuela’s—Renteria was a first round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates (20th pick overall). While he did not enjoy the big league success Fernando did—arguably, no Mexican or Mexican Americans has—Renteria still walked a path not often seen by those who share his origins, with only Corrales there to pave the way.

U.S.-Born with Mexican Parts

Born Christmas Day 1961 in the Harbor City neighborhood, Renteria grew up during a particularly turbulent period in Los Angeles. He was not yet four years old when the Watts Riots took place in 1965, just miles away from his childhood home in Compton—yes, Mexicanos lived in Compton then and now.

Life in Compton was not easy for his working class Mexican family, including a nine-year-old Ricky, who spent Saturdays with several of his siblings selling shoes in front of the store where his father Salvador worked. Those Saturdays taught him about teamwork, everyone working together to help the family.

The biggest lesson his parents taught a young Renteria sticks with him even through his days managing the White Sox: “Just don’t quit. I think no matter what your circumstance, there’s always a solution. At least, you can try to get to that solution and you keep working. And I think that you don’t let any obstacle, let anything hold you back. Believe in yourself and work hard, as hard as possibly you can.”

His work ethic helped Renteria’s development on the ballfield. A standout ballplayer at South Gate High School, the Pirates drafted him in the first round in 1980. Transformation from first rounder to big league star proved elusive to Renteria. While he made his major league debut with the Pirates on September 14, 1986, his time in the Majors was sporadic: 10 games in 1986 with Pittsburgh; 12 games in 1987 and another 31 in 1988 with the Mariners. Afterwards, he moved from one organization to another. In 1992, he signed with the Detroit Tigers, hoping to find a new home. He did, but not in the Motor City.

A Different Sort of Homecoming

In the middle of spring training in 1992, about to head back to the minor leagues, Renteria instead engaged in a different sort of homecoming, one that took him to Mexico, crossing paths with the winningest Mexican pitcher in MLB history. That March, the Detroit Tigers sold Renteria along with Fernando Valenzuela to Jalisco in the Mexican League.

Playing for Jalisco not only allowed Renteria to play as a teammate with Valenzuela, it also provided the Mexican American the opportunity to perform in his parent’s native land. That made 1992 a special season for the Renterias.

“They were pretty excited. They were always excited,” Renteria recalled when asked about his parent’s feelings about his time in the Mexican League. It was a joy rekindled in 2013 when Renteria was named manager of Team Mexico’s entry in the World Baseball Classic.

“I remember speaking to both of them. My dad was the one that was probably more excited about it. For them, it was just a sense of, culturally speaking, just representing a people that, I think, are hardworking, honorable, and decent.”

In performing in Jalisco and managing Team Mexico two decades later, Renteria traveled in the opposite direction of Valenzuela had during the early 1980s. Those experiences allowed Renteria to gain an appreciation for Mexican fans.

“When you go out and give everything you have, people across lines of race and ethnicity enjoy and appreciate an effort of anybody that goes out and plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Renteria recalled.

Playing as Valenzuela’s teammate in Jalisco was not the first time Renteria saw Fernando in action. He witnessed Fernandomania firsthand as a high schooler in Los Angeles. Fernando’s impact on the Dodgers and fans of Mexican descent, whether born in Mexico or in the United States, was unforgettable.

“One of the greatest pitchers that ever come out of Mexico, obviously. He carried the city of Los Angeles for a long time when I was growing up in Los Angeles. When he broke in, nobody really knew about him, soon after they did. And he did carry that organization for a long time.”

And Renteria still thinks there is great historical meaning to Fernando’s journey, whether one is Mexican or American or both.

“I think everybody should be proud, because I think it’s the great American story. He came over and completely excelled and was able to represent the Hispanic community and represent baseball in general, Anglos in general, everybody who loved baseball. He came and represented an elite class of performers.”

Those journeys will come together once more this weekend in Monterrey. A native son of Mexico, the Padres Christian Villanueva, will return home to perform. And the Dodgers Alex Verdugo will represent those like Rick Renteria, a son of Mexican immigrant parents pursuing his American dream on the Major League diamond.

Featured Image: Ron Vesely / Getty Images Sport