Mako Oliveras: A pioneer who didn’t get to be first

Not all pioneers get to be first.

Just ask Max “Mako” Oliveras. The winningest manager in Puerto Rican winter league history, he nurtured everyone from Dickie Thon to Carlos Baerga and Édgar Martínez to Álex Cora and Daniel Murphy in stints as a winter and minor-league skipper. More to the point, Oliveras should have been the first Puerto Rican to pilot a Major League Baseball team.

“I have been my own worst enemy. I was going to be the first,” Oliveras said. “But because of my attitude, I lost out on opportunities.”

It would be easy to blame the system, or a baseball culture that stereotypes Latinos as hotheads. Oliveras refuses to take that route.

Which is why at age 71, he’s still in the game, skippering the Cangrejeros (Crabbers) de Santurce in the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League after being away from pro ball the last couple of years.

He talked to La Vida Baseball in Spanish during an interview in late December, before the start of Puerto Rico’s winter-league season, shortened to 18 games this year because of Hurricane María.

Crafty Psychologist

Oliveras’ style is definitely old-school, partly because his managerial roots were planted by no-nonsense masters who coached or mentored him — people like Gene Mauch, who won 1,902 major league games over 26 seasons — and the Cuban-born Preston Gómez, who became the second Latino to manage in the bigs.

“He’s a manager who believes in young players and in giving opportunities to people,” Baerga said in Spanish in an interview with La Vida Baseball this week. “He’s not afraid to try different things or play aggressively to win. He doesn’t play by the book. He will try things that normal managers won’t.”

Baerga was a three-time All-Star second baseman with the Cleveland Indians. He remembers Oliveras as being crafty — and a bit of a psychologist.

“He would make up stuff on the spur of the moment,” Baerga recalled. “Like go to the mound to calm down a pitcher who wasn’t getting the calls. He would wait for the umpire to show up and tell the pitcher, ‘I’m going to put on a show. Don’t believe anything I say. It has nothing to do with you.’

“And when the ump arrived, he would start yelling at the pitcher. ‘How can you be complaining? You are not throwing strikes, you’re throwing balls.’ And then he would turn to the ump and say, ‘Good job. You’re calling a good game. Keep it up.’

“It always worked; the umps would start calling strikes in our favor.”

Father figure

“He should have been the first Puerto Rican manager,” said Dickie Thon, who began as Oliveras’ teammate on the Vaqueros (Cowboys) de Bayamón when he signed his first pro contract at age 17 in 1975. “He can be combative. But baseball has turned to metrics, and ‘gut feelings’ don’t count for much anymore.”

“He’s become the father of all these young managers, coaches and players,” said Jorge Fidel López Vélez, the biographer of Hiram Bithorn, the first Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues. “Everyone admires him. When he speaks, they listen. He’s a people person. With the ability to motivate anyone.”

As for Oliveras’ intensity, López Vélez considers it an admirable attribute.

“He speaks frankly, like we say in Spanish, en blanco y negro, in black and white. And the fans like that. They identify with him,” López Vélez said.

Thon, a third-generation Puerto Rican ballplayer whose career trajectory as a hot, young shortstop with the Houston Astros was derailed when he was beaned in the left eye in 1984, later played for Oliveras while with the Cangrejeros, including during the 1992-93 championship season.

“Mako knows a lot,” Thon said. “He won seven league titles. Managers who regularly won in the major leagues couldn’t beat him in Puerto Rico.”

Tony Taylor’s gift

Oliveras got his start as a player in 1968 with the Senadores (Senators) de San Juan in the Puerto Rican winter league. According to Oliveras — who can still weave a story, by the way — his debut mostly likely occurred thanks to another Latino pioneer, Cuban infielder Tony Taylor. A teammate of Oliveras’ under the direction of future Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, the veteran Taylor hatched a plan to get the rookie into a game.

“He asked me whether I wanted to play that day. And I said, ‘Yes.’ I thought that he was teasing me,” Oliveras said. “His first at-bat, he ran to first base and twisted his ankle. Or so it seemed. I think that he did it on purpose.

“Meanwhile, Sparky is looking over and pointing at me. I kept looking behind and wondering, ‘Who is he talking with, me?’ Afterwards, I found out that Tony told Sparky, ‘Get Mako into the game.’ And that’s how I got into my first game.

“Thank you, Tony Taylor.”

Oliveras shares his observations freely in columns he writes for the local newspapers and on his Facebook page, titled Mako Oliveras… Desde Mi Dugout (From My Dugout).”

“I have enough anecdotes to write a couple of books,” Oliveras said.

‘You know how to manage’

Other than a brief stint with the Triple-A Poza Rica Petroleros (Oil Workers) of Veracruz in the Mexican League in 1976 — his last season as a player — Oliveras never advanced past Double-A.

His brashness and baseball acumen led him to coaching; he started managing in Puerto Rico in 1983. The next year, he took over the Triple-A Truchas (Trout) de Toluca in the Mexican League and began his ascent through the minor leagues.

In 1986, his work as a replacement manager with the Miami Marlins, then an independent team in the Florida State League, caught the eye of the California Angels. They handed him the Double-A Midland Angels in the Texas League, and two winning records in three seasons were enough for a promotion to the Triple-A Edmonton Trappers in 1990.

That year, Oliveras finished second and took the Trappers to the Pacific Coast League finals, managing and tutoring Rubén Amaro Jr., who would later become the second Latino general manager in major league history. Three straight winning seasons with the Trappers and a fourth one with the PCL’s Vancouver Canadians in 1993 was enough to impress another future Hall of Fame manager, Whitey Herzog, who at the time was helping run the Angels, including serving briefly as general manager.

“Whitey said, ‘You know how to manage. I think that you have what it takes to coach in the major leagues.’ I thought it was another guy telling me what I wanted to hear,” Oliveras said. “But he was the first one to keep his word. He promoted me to the major leagues.”

One argument too many

Oliveras was hired to work under manager Buck Rodgers. But Rodgers got fired 40 games into the strike-shortened 1994 season and was replaced by Marcel Lachemann. When baseball resumed the following year, Oliveras had moved on to the Chicago Cubs under skipper Jim Riggleman.

“We used to match wits in the Puerto Rican winter league. Sometimes it got heated,” Oliveras said of Riggleman. “When he offered me the job, I asked why. He said, ‘I want the guy who gives me the most trouble in the other dugout to be on my side.'”

Coaching first base for the Cubs, Oliveras frustrated opposing teams with his ability to decipher when the pitcher would try to pick off the runner. In 1997, his third season with the Cubs, Oliveras ticked off general manager Ed Lynch when he pointedly complained about how the Cubs were handling a matter related to his time served in the major leagues that affected his pension.

“Lynch sat me in a chair. He stood 6-foot-6. A big guy,” Oliveras said. “He started pointing his finger at my face, yelling at me. He kept pointing his finger. I told him, ‘If you don’t remove your finger from my face, I’ll shove it up your ass.’

“He never thought I would react like that. And from that day on, I knew that I was done. Preston Gómez, who had been my mentor, said that I was blackballed.

“That’s life,” Oliveras said. “But I was not going to let him yell at me like that in my face.”

Oliveras returned to the minor leagues the following season, managing teams for the Cleveland Indians, Tampa Bay Rays and New York Mets. He never got an offer, let alone an interview, to skipper in the majors.

Hero to Puerto Ricans

While Oliveras’ temper may have given pause to prospective employers, what was lost was a manager with a high baseball IQ who knew how to nurture young talent. In Puerto Rico they still talk about the 1989-90 champions Senadores, which featured future All-Stars Baerga, Martínez and López.

“He’s a hero to everyday Puerto Ricans, because he plays baseball like we like it — aggressive,” López Vélez said. “His Senators were known as los pillos de Mako, Mako’s Thieves. He took underdogs and made them winners by playing small ball — stealing bases, bunting, running the bases aggressively.”

“He’s the most unique manager I’ve played for,” said Baerga, who first played for Oliveras as a 12-year-old in Little League. “I enjoyed so much playing for him, on and off the field.

Oliveras has been around long enough that his baseball family tree extends to the two new-school Puerto Rican skippers hired this winter — Boston’s Cora and Washington’s Dave Martínez.

“I always said that Álex Cora was a future manager,” Oliveras said. “I managed him. And managed against him. He was the kind of ballplayer that kept on top of everything. I had to worry more about Cora than about the opposing manager.”

Years after Oliveras’ star lost its luster, Edwin Rodríguez finally broke through and became the first Puerto Rican manager in the majors in 2010, with the Florida Marlins. Sandy Alomar Jr. was an interim manager of the Cleveland Indians for six games in 2012.

Sadly, Mako’s journey forms part of a damning statistic: Through the end of the 2017 season, there have been 699 managers in history and, according to La Vida Baseball‘s count, only 17 have been Latinos, including those who briefly served as interim skippers as well as Mexican-American Rick Rentería, who took over the Chicago White Sox last season.

‘I don’t regret anything’

Oliveras insists that he’s not bitter.

“I tell it as it is,” he said. “I’ve never been a ‘yes’ man. You will know if I don’t agree with you.”

In his opinion, Cora and Martínez — two men he’s helped in different ways, including putting Martínez up at his mother’s house during the winter league — herald a generation that is finally getting a chance. Gabe Kapler, the Phillies’ new manager, recently hired Puerto Rican José David Flores as his first base coach. And after a two-year absence, José Oquendo is returning to the Cardinals as third base coach.

“I don’t regret anything,” Oliveras adds. “I’m very happy now because a number of boricuas are getting opportunities to manage. And there are more on their way.

“Baseball is my life, my passion. Thank God that I still have my wife, my family. I owe a lot to baseball. And I’m still here. I’m a blessed person.”

Featured Image: José Hudo Castañer / Cangrejeros de Santurce

Inset Image 1: Clemson Smith Muñiz / La Vida Baseball

Inset Image 2: Jorge Fidel López Vélez