Omar Moreno added speed to power in Pittsburgh

By Nick Diunte

Panamanian legend Omar Renán Moreno Quintero represents the hopes and dreams of every Panamanian competing in the 2018 Little League World Series. A smalltown kid from Puerto Armuelles Moreno became a major league speedster.

His career jump started by Pittsburgh Pirates scout Herb Raybourn in 1969 when Moreno was 16 years old.

“He used to live in Balboa,” Moreno said of Raybourn. “He was the same guy who signed Manny Sanguillen and Rennie Stennett.”

To illustrate Raybourn’s touch for recognizing Panamanian talent, in addition to the aforementioned All-Star trio, his Mariano Rivera signing in 1990 sealed his reputation as a keen eye for the republic’s vast baseball treasures. Moreno was a raw gangly teenager who relied on his blazing speed.

Breaking New Ground

Following the lineage created by Humberto Robinson and Hector Lopez, Moreno dug in the hallowed grounds of Estadio Juan Demóstenes Arosemena. He was barely 17 years old and fresh off a season with the Pirates rookie league team.

“It was my first time playing in Panama as a professional,” he said. “I have a lot of memories there.”

Moreno’s experience playing as a professional in Panama was the first step on a winding seven-year path to the major leagues. He spent that time traversing the myriad Pirates farm teams trying to sharpen his tools for his eventual breakthrough. His moment of clarity came in 1973 after he stole 77 bases with Class A Salem, earning a three-game taste at Class AAA Charleston.

“That’s why I specialized in stolen bases in the minor leagues because I knew that was [my] only chance to get into the big leagues,” Moreno said. “We had so much power with Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Dave Parker, and all of those guys. They were looking for someone to steal bases.”

Learning to Speed

His relentless pursuit of base-stealing excellence came from his beach training in Panama. He carried that approach to spring training when he would get up before his teammates to do his work in the sand.

“I depended on my speed work in my hometown when I used to run a lot in the sand and on the beach,” he said. “I used to practice on the beach before I came to spring training. I used to run my 100 meters early in the morning on the beach to try to get my speed.”

After Moreno stole 112 stolen bases the next two seasons in the minors, Pittsburgh could no longer keep him in a holding pattern. Recalled in September 1975, Moreno batted .167 (1-for-6) in six games with the first of his 487 career MLB stolen bases.

Eager Student

With Moreno now on his way, he leaned on the guidance from Pittsburgh’s veterans to put his best tools to work on the field. They encouraged him to use his speed to wreak havoc on the bases and chase down fly balls on defense while they took care of driving in runs.

“Those guys helped me so much, especially Manny Sanguillen and Willie Stargell,” he said. “They helped me to play at that level because they taught me how to play my game. My game was speed. They told me to get on base and steal bases because we had so much power; I learned everything from them.”

As the Pirates ascended towards baseball immortality with their “We Are Family” team of the late 1970s, Moreno emerged as one of baseball’s premier base-stealing threats. Following the lead of Lou Brock and Maury Wills, Moreno led the National League in stolen bases in 1978 and 1979. He narrowly missed the trifecta in 1980 despite stealing 96 bases. Montreal’s Ron LeFlore surpassed him on the last day of the season.

“Lou Brock helped me a lot to steal bases too,” he said. “I remember the first time when we went to play St. Louis. Lou was a good friend of Willie Stargell. Willie introduced me and we started to talk with my little broken English. I listened to him tell me how to steal second base. Maury Wills helped me a lot too.”

Winning it All

Moreno was an integral part of Pittsburgh’s 1979 World Series championship, batting .333 while starting all seven games in center field. When Pat Kelly’s fly ball landed in Moreno’s glove for the last out it was a realization that a journey started a decade earlier at 16 was finally official.

“It was a great feeling,” he said. “To catch the last out, it was like, ‘Wow! We did it!’”

Moreno played in the major leagues another seven seasons with the Houston Astros, New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals before reuniting with Chuck Tanner and Stargell in Atlanta for his last tour around the league in 1987.

Student Becomes Teacher

He currently works for the Pirates as an instructor, sharing not only the techniques he used to be a threat on offense and defense, but also the lessons of his late manager.

“When I used to play with Chuck, I felt so confident on the bases,” he said. “I specialized in trying to get a good jump; that is why he gave me the green light to steal. These kids now, if they get a good jump, they can’t be afraid to take a risk.

“I told Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte, ‘Once in awhile, you have to bunt. You have to make the pitcher work.’ We have to play the little game. When you play the little game, you win a lot of games. We need to get on base, steal second base, and put pressure on the defense. With a man on second base, the defense plays you completely different. That’s baseball. A lot of people think you win with power. You really win by doing these things.”

Featured Image: Focus On Sport