Panama Legend Sanguillén Still Brings Pirates Fans Joy

PITTSBURGH – The little girl couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8 years old.

Yet the father couldn’t resist the opportunity of having her and her slightly older brother getting a picture taken with one of the most popular Pirates in the franchise’s long history during a recent Saturday night game at PNC Park.

She could not have known anything about Manny Sanguillén, that he was a two-time World Series champion with the Pirates in 1971 and 1979 while also being selected to three All-Star Games during his 13-year career.

After all, Sanguillén last played in a major league game in 1980. That was nearly four decades ago and long before she was born.

However, she was clearly captivated by the man sitting at the barbeque stand that bears his name on the concourse behind the batter’s eye in center field wearing a ’79 throwback jersey and cap. After the picture was snapped, the little girl gave Sanguillén a big hug.

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Still standing

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Sanguillén has that kind of effect on people of all ages. Whether they can vividly recall details of his decorated career or never saw him play, fans are drawn to the man with the trademark smile and infectious personality.

“We all love Manny,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He might be the most lovable man in baseball.”

Which makes him the perfect goodwill ambassador for the Pirates, a franchise that doesn’t always engender positive feelings from their fans. Since Sanguillén played his last game on Oct. 5, 1980, Pittsburgh has had a winning record in just seven of 39 seasons and is assured of yet another sub-.500 finish this year.

In addition to lending his name to the barbeque stand, Sanguillén serves as a special instructor for two weeks each year during spring training in Bradenton, Fla.

Seeing Sanguillén allows people to think back to happier times.

“It’s always one of the highlights of coming to the ballpark,” said Sam Rose, a 60-year-old fan from suburban Wexford. “You see him sitting there smiling and talking to fans and waving to everyone and you think back to happier times. Sangy just makes you feel good.”

Making people feel good is what Sanguillén is about. Years of catching have ravaged his knees to the point that he needs the aid of a walker, but that hasn’t dulled his personality.

“I like people and I like to see them happy,” Sanguillén said during a break from the steady stream of fans seeking autographs, photos and handshakes. “I love the fans. They make me feel so good with all the nice things they say. I never would have thought all this would happen when I signed with the Pirates.”

The Pirates were on the forefront of procuring Latin American players in the 1960s when scout Herb Raybourne discovered Sanguillén playing the outfield on his father’s softball team in Colon, Panama, a city near the Atlantic Ocean entrance of the Panama Canal.

Sanguillén was in his late teens and had never played baseball. He did some amateur boxing and loved playing basketball, though he had no dreams of becoming a professional athlete. The son of a fisherman and a deeply religious man, Sanguillén had hoped to become an evangelical minister.

Raybourne, though, was impressed by Sanguillén’s raw physical strength, speed, quick hands and strong arm. He projected him as a potential major-league catcher. A Houston Astros scout also caught wind of Sanguillén and asked him to come to a tryout camp. However, when the Pirates countered by offering a $500 bonus, he signed with them.

“My father said to take the money,” Sanguillén said with a big laugh.

Sanguillén quickly turned out to be quite the bargain as he made a rapid rise through the Pirates’ farm system.

He reported to the Pirates’ minor-league spring training camp in 1965 at Fort Myers, Fla., then spent his first professional season playing in Batavia, N.Y., in the New York-Penn League.

By the end of the 1966 season, he had reached the Class AAA level at Columbus, Ohio. Sanguillén received the promotion in part because of his ability to catch knuckleballer Wilbur Wood, then another Pirates’ prospect, but his bat and strong arm landed him in the major leagues on July 23, 1967.

Sanguillén played in 30 games for the Pirates in 1967. After spending all of 1968 back at Columbus, he beat out Jerry May for the starting catcher’s job the following spring and went on to hit .303 in 129 games to cement his spot in the lineup.

That began a stretch in which Sanguillén started at least 104 games behind the plate in seven of eight seasons. The only break in that string was 1973 when Sanguillén began the season as the Pirates’ right fielder following the death of the legendary Roberto Clemente in 1972 in a New Year’s Eve plane crash off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

He shifted back to catcher at midseason.

Sanguillén admits that was the most difficult season of his career. Clemente had taken Sanguillén under his wing as a young player and the two became close friends. In fact, Sanguillén says a day doesn’t go by that he still doesn’t think about his departed friend.

Sanguillén was so anguished by Clemente’s death that he spent the day of his funeral working with a rescue team searching for his body in the Atlantic.
“He was like my big brother,” Sanguillén said. “He always took care of me.”

The entire Pirates’ team struggled in 1973 as they had an 80-82 record and failed to win the National League East for the only time in a six-season span from 1970-75.

The Pirates finished second in the division behind the Philadelphia Phillies in 1976 and more tragedy struck after that season. Longtime manager Danny Murtaugh died in December, and his passing wound up having a direct impact on Sanguillén’s career.

The Pirates traded Sanguillén to the Oakland Athletics that offseason for manager Chuck Tanner. Sangy spent the 1977 season as the Athletics’ designated hitter and admits he never felt comfortable in Oakland and missed Pittsburgh and the Pirates.

Sanguillén was reacquired by the Pirates from the Athletics in a deal just before the start of the 1978 season and spent the final three seasons of his career as a pinch-hitter and third-string catcher. He finished his career with a .296 batting average while throwing out 39 percent of runners who attempted to steal a base.

“I know God wanted me to be back with the Pirates,” Sanguillén said. “He answered my prayers.”

While Sanguillén’s playing time was limited, he was a World Series hero in 1979 as his pinch-hit single won Game 2 for the Pirates and evened the series with the Baltimore Orioles at a game apiece. The Pirates went on win in seven games in what remains their last appearance in the Fall Classic.

When Sanguillén reached first base following his hit, he looked skyward.

“I was looking at Roberto,” he said. “I knew he was proud of me.”

Panamanians are also proud of Sanguillén. Just 63 players from that nation have reached the major leagues, including Pirates rookie right-hander Dario Agrazal, who made his major league debut this season on June 15.

Agrazal watched with pride when Sanguillén received his plaque for being inducted into the Hispanic Heritage Hall of Fame on Aug. 24 prior to the Pirates’ game with the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park.

“It was a marvelous feeling,” Agrazal said. “I felt great witnessing not only another Latino entering the Hall but another countryman. He’s someone who means a lot to my country and for him to be honored is a big deal.

“It’s been a great honor just to be able to spend time with him, talk shop with him, learn from him. It’s been huge. Everyone in Panama loves Manny Sanguillén.”

So, too, does everybody in Pittsburgh.

Featured Image: Jared Wickerham / Getty Images Sport