If it weren’t for his beautiful, gleeful smile, Luis Valbuena would be most remembered for his bat flips. The Venezuelan infielder was almost always smiling, and his bat flips were the perfect metaphor for his emphatic love for life and the game that took him out of poverty.
He brought joy to every clubhouse he called home. He also gave big hugs, whether to opponents around the batting cages, teammates and even, from time to time, beat writers.
My heart aches at the news that Valbuena and José Castillo died in a car crash late Thursday night in his native Venezuela.
I covered both men when they played with the Astros, but I got to know Valbuena a tad more throughout the 2015 season and in spring training 2016 before taking a job as a lead columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Luis was always smiling and was one of the happiest players in baseball,” Astros president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow said. “He provided joy to his teammates and our fans. He helped our franchise turn a corner in 2015 and provided many cherished memories.”
“We will forever remember him.”
Ironically, the last interview I conducted with him in Mexico City focused on death. He wanted me to know that he would dedicate his 2016 season to the grandmother who raised him after he was abandoned by his father.
Valbuena didn’t meet his father until he was 17, but he never let bitterness overcome or define him because his maternal grandmother Francisca Chourio provided for him.
“She was my everything,” Valbuena told me on March 30, 2015, six days after Chourio died. “She helped raise me. She played the role of mother and father for me.”
He lost his maternal grandmother and father in 2016. Even in mourning, he found the strength to smile often and keep his teammates loose.
Valbuena was a major part of the young 2015 Astros team that reached the postseason for the first time in a decade, setting the important, winning foundation that led to the franchise’s first World Series title in 2017.
He had played third base most of his career, but he didn’t hesitate when Astros manager AJ Hinch asked him to play first base for the first time in his career.
The Astros were playing the Angels at the time, so the confident and cheerful Valbuena reached out to the best Latino superstar of his generation for a first baseman’s mitt.
Sure enough, Albert Pujols gave him one.
“Ortiz,” he yelled out to me, “Just call me Pujols” as he triumphantly showed me the glove Pujols had given him.
In a part of the clubhouse where All-Star José Altuve, Marwin González and eventual Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa resided, Valbuena was the center of the chatter. He truly had a magnetic personality.
González, a fellow Venezuelan, paid tribute to his former teammate on Instagram.
Loosely translated, González said: “What sadness. Your passing leaves an emptiness in all of us who had the opportunity and honor to call you AMIGO. And to me you were more than that. You leave this world without an enemy because your principles, gentleness and charisma wouldn’t let you have any enemies.
González is right. Valbuena, 33, leaves this world without an enemy.
Even his emphatic bat flips were harmless in a sport that often takes offense when batters or pitchers, especially Latinos, show the love of the game that is common place throughout the winter leagues.
Valbuena’s love of the game was evident until the last day of his life. Rich beyond his dreams and financially set for life, he didn’t need to play winter ball. He wanted to play because he loved to perform in front of his Venezuelan gente.
He died on a drive after a winter ball game. Reports indicate that his car hit a boulder. More will be known in the future.
For now, we remember a young man who leaves a void in all of us who hovered around his orbit in the majors.
“I am so sad to hear about the sudden loss of Luis Valbuena and José Castillo,” Hinch said. “I will miss Luis’ banter, smile, genuine love for his teammates, and, of course, the bat flips.
“He was a beloved person whether he was on our team or across the field. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and the lucky ones who could call him a teammate or friend.”
Featured Image: Bob Levey / Getty Images Sport