SANTIAGO GUZMAN – Not quite the Dominican Bob Gibson
Santiago Guzman was a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher for the Cardinals who never lived up to his billing as “the next Bob Gibson” due to arm problems.
Born Santiago Donovan Guzman on July 25, 1949 in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, he worked as an auto mechanic before joining the Dominican League Licey Tigres for four appearances during the 1966-67 winter season. St. Louis Cardinals scout Tufie Hashem liked what he saw, and signed the 17-year-old Guzman to a contract to play professional ball in the United States.
The Dominican made a smashing American debut with St. Petersburg of the Florida State League in 1967, going 16-3 with a 1.74 ERA and a league-leading 159 strikeouts in 181 innings pitched. “Guzman is overpowering with his fastball,” remarked St. Petersburg manager Ron Plaza. “He has a pretty good sinker too.”
By the time Guzman celebrated his 18th birthday, he received FSL player-of-the-month honors for June, and a hefty compliment from his manager. The Cincinnati Reds had a 19-year-old named Gary Nolan on his way to 14 wins, a 2.58 ERA and Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Plaza, who had a working command of Spanish, was asked how his teenage sensation compared to the one in the big leagues. “You ask me the difference between Santiago and Nolan?” said Plaza. “The answer is nothing.”
That winter, Guzman earned 74 1/3 innings of experience pitching for Licey, and he moved up to the Double-A Arkansas Travelers in 1968. The year got off to a rough beginning when Hashem, who made Guzman his protege, passed away in April. Guzman got off to an 0-4 start, and later slipped to 3-8.
At home on July 16, Guzman hit Albuquerque’s Billy Grabarkewitz with a pitch in the final inning of a 9-0 game. Guzman mouthed something in Spanish and the 5’10”, 165 lbs Grabarkewitz, having no idea what was said, charged the mound. Both benches cleared, and two policemen had to get involved to restore order between home plate and first base. Guzman reportedly found a safe haven out in left field. Six weeks later, the Travelers clinched the East divison and brawled with Memphis. This time, according to one eyewitness, Guzman personally decked four players during a 15-minute skirmish.
He really got his act together on the mound though, rallying to win his last ten decisions, and Texas League pitcher-of-the-year honors along the way. Overall, he went 13-8 with a 3.10 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 159 innings. The Cardinals brought Guzman to St. Louis late in the year to have a cyst removed and undergo oral surgery, but he didn’t appear in any games with the big club due to a minor leg injury.
Back in the Dominican that winter, Guzman went 6-7 for a last-place Licey outfit, but with a sparkling 2.00 ERA and a league-leading strikeout total. He also led the circuit in walks, but the Cardinals thought enough of him to protect him after the first round of the expansion draft.
At 6’2”, 180 lbs, Guzman was an excellent hitter and above average runner in addition to possessing a great right arm. When you factor in his dark complexion and the uniform he was wearing, it was perhaps unavoidable that he was billed as “the next Bob Gibson”, after the Cardinals ace on his way to the Hall of Fame. To prove it wasn’t just hype, St. Louis measured both pitchers’ fastballs during spring training in 1969 and, according to The Sporting News, Guzman threw even harder than “Hoot”.
Guzman spent 1969 with Triple-A Tulsa, where he had a contentious relationship at times with another Hall of Fame hurler, his manager Warren Spahn. When Guzman asked out of an August game in the sixth inning with a 3-0 lead, Spahn was incensed. “As far as I’m concerned, he just quit,” seethed Spahn. “He didn’t throw two fastballs all day. I don’t think the guy wants to pitch.”
Guzman finished strong again though, winning four straight to end up 9-6 with a 4.08 ERA with Tulsa. The Cardinals brought him up in September, and he pitched 7 1/3 innings in his major league debut against the Phillies on September 30, losing a 4-3 decision to Rick Wise.
St. Louis pitching coach Billy Muffet managed Licey that winter, and Guzman led the league in strikeouts again while going 7-3 with a 2.74 ERA.
Guzman made the Cardinals opening day roster as a reliever in 1970, and Muffet revealed what he told the Dominican rookie on a visit to the mound early April, just before Guzman whiffed Ernie Banks for the second straight day. “Goozie, you have to strike out this guy,” Muffet told him. “Give him nothing but El Smoko.”
Guzman worked only 2 2/3 innings in four April appearances, so the Cardinals returned him to Tulsa where he could get more work in a starting role. He was away only two weeks before a dominant 15-strikeout performance earned him another shot with tge big club. This time, he wouldn’t be in the bullpen. “Guzman has to start,” explained Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst. “He doesn’t have the experience needed for the bullpen.”
Guzman earned his only major league victory with a complete game 5-hitter at the Astrodome on May 19, and keyed St. Louis’ 6-run fourth inning by bouncing a two-out, two-strike single up the middle against Scipio Spinks.
Guzman couldn’t get out of the first inning in either of his next two starts, in part because of a two-run triple off the bat of Grabarkewitz in his final start against the Dodgers.
Guzman complained of a sore arm warming up for a start at Tulsa in early July and, though he returned to crack double digits in strikeouts soon thereafter, his only other action at the major league level in 1970 was a lone relief outing in September.
Arm troubles continued to plague him over the winter, and Guzman only worked 24 1/3 inneffective innings for Licey. Still hurting in spring training, he split 1971 between Tulsa and Arkansas, before hurling ten scoreless innings for the Cardinals in September. Eight of them came in an impressive start against the Mets at Shea Stadium, in which Guzman struck out ten but got no-decision, as the game was decided in extra innings.
Guzman felt healthy enough to pitch a full winter season for Licey, albeit with mixed results. He surrendered more than a hit per inning, and went 3-6 with a 4.43 ERA. Still, the Cardinals listed him as a candidate for their starting rotation in 1972. Out of options, Guzman made the club as a reliever.
He appeared in only one game, however, allowing a home run to Philadelphia’s Greg Luzinski in his only inning of work. The Cardinals sent him back to the minors on April 21, and then to the White Sox on May 16 to complete an earlier trade. Guzman never made it back to the big leagues.
His ability to speak English and make his way in America improved dramatically in the six years he spent playing ball in the United States. Unfortunately, the arm that earned him the opportunity just wasn’t the same. The pitcher once touted as the “next Bob Gibson” finished his major league career with a 1-2 record and a 4.50 ERA.
Two winters after his last appearance for the Cardinals, Guzman returned to Licey for a single start and hurled seven innings of four-hit ball. Now 58 years old, he still resides in the Dominican Republic.
By MALCOLM ALLEN