I remember the joy of first discovering baseball cards. It was the bicentennial summer of 1976 and I made a trip to Buttrey’s- a grocery store located in the Karcher Mall- with my mother. Having caught the baseball bug only a year earlier at the age of six, the red wax pack with a baseball jumping off the front of the pack caught my eye. Curious, I asked mom what it was and she explained the contents, to my bewilderment. I asked her to buy me a pack, to which she obliged. I was her baby- how could she say no?
That same summer, a pitcher in the Mexican League posted a remarkable season in which he finished 20-4 with a 1.89 ERA while striking out 239 batters over 233 innings. With an arsenal that included a good fastball and equally impressive screwball, Enrique Romo had helped lead the Mexico City Reds to the 1973, 1974 and 1976 league championships. And with 50 new jobs on the horizon due to Major League Baseball’s expansion, it was only a matter of time before someone signed the Reds’ ace.
Romo had actually attracted the attention of Mariners GM Lou Gorman when the executive was still with the Kansas City Royals and remained on his radar for the next few years. Gorman, acting on a tip from a scout who told him that Enrique was major-league ready, contacted Reds owner Angel Vasquez, whom he had dealt with previously, and was able to work out an agreement to purchase Romo. It was a coup for an expansion team looking to add cheap talent. Players taken in the expansion draft cost $175,000; Romo reportedly cost the Mariners only $75,000.
Enrique’s arrival at spring training 1977 was delayed because of visa issues and when he did arrive, did so with a slightly pulled hamstring. There were also questions about his true age. The Mariners media guide had him listed at 29; Enrique stated he was 27; others around the sport said he was more like 31. Whatever his age, there was no denying the righty was going to be a welcome addition to the staff.
Once the season began, the fiery righty was slotted in the #2 spot in the rotation, right behind the Ancient Mariner, Diego Segui. Unfortunately, his hamstring injury would force an early exit from each of his first three starts. After his third start was cut short, the team placed Romo on the 21-day DL. Upon returning to the team on May 10, Enrique found himself in the bullpen. Yes, he had thrown well as a starter- but the team desperately needed relief pitching and by limiting his innings they could nurse him back to health. The move paid dividends. Enrique became the Mariners top reliever- and one of the best firemen in the American League. In fact, once the offseason arrived, Gorman received a number of inquiries about the availability of his diamond in the rough. As tempting as it might have been to move him for depth, Romo wasn’t going anywhere. Not yet, anyway. Club officials (as well as manager Darrell Johnson) considered Romo one of the game’s elite relievers and were underwhelmed by the offers they received. And so he
Enrique reported to camp in better shape for the 1978 season but would still battle back and hamstring issues early in the year. Unfortunately, the pitcher also encountered early season struggles on the mound, something those close to him attributed to all the trade talks involving the mercurial right-hander. Despite an improved disposition once the trade deadline passed, Romo’s struggles continued and he would finish the season with significantly fewer strikeouts per nine-innings and more walks/9 than the previous season. Also up were his home runs allowed per nine, going from 0.6 in ’77 to 1.0 in ’78.
Having failed to maximize their return while his trade value was at its peak, the Mariners jettisoned Romo to the Steel City following the 1978 season, getting back pitchers Odell Jones and Rafael Vazquez and infielder Mario Mendoza. There had to have been regrets about not pulling the trigger earlier; Jones and Vazquez each lasted one season in the northwest (and were abysmal), while Mendoza (yes, he of the “Mendoza Line”) contributed a career worse -1.7 WAR to the 1979 Seattle squad.*
The trade worked out really well for the Pirates, who entered the 1979 season short on left-handed relievers. Though Enrique was a righty, his screwball was a great neutralizer on left-handed hitters and he allowed the team to reduce the workload of its primary left-handed reliever, Grant Jackson. As a strikeout pitcher, Enrique was a nice complement to the ground ball-inducing Kent Tekulve.
I rediscovered the joy of collecting in 1991, after a seven-year absence. A lot had changed since the cards of my childhood. New brands (Leaf, Score, Sportflics and Upper Deck), the concept of insert cards, autographed cardboard. Even the packs were- for the most part- different than the wax ones I had purchased in 1983. There was so much to learn about this new endeavor. I can’t imagine how confusing it would have been for me if buybacks were a part of those first packs I opened up in the spring of 1991. An old, worn out card from 1979 in a pack of 1991 Topps? That would have confused the hell out of me.
* The shortstop was better in 1980, his second and final season in Seattle, hitting for a career-high .245 batting average and improving his WAR to -0.6