Héctor Espino landed in Florida on Aug. 6, 1964. A helicopter reportedly flew over Jacksonville, Fla., trailing a banner with the words ESPINO HAS ARRIVED. The next day - the same day Lyndon Johnson signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution - Espino made his American baseball debut. Five weeks and 32 games later, he was gone, never to return, a historical footnote, destined to be forgotten by all but the most obsessive baseball fans.
There is a joke told by Mexican baseball fans about Espino arriving at the pearly gates of heaven with much less fanfare. St. Peter doesn't recognize Espino and asks God what he should do. "Don't be a coward," God says. "Pitch to him."
He hit between 755 and 796 professional home runs. The exact total, like much about Espino's career, is a matter of perspective.
Most American baseball fans wouldn't recognize Héctor Espino either, even though he was the greatest hitter in Mexican history and by many accounts one of the best hitters of all time. Espino played from 1960 to 1984. He had wrists like the barrels of baseball bats and a body like a 5'11, 185-pound vending machine. He also hit somewhere between 755 and 796 professional home runs.
The exact total, like much about Espino's career, is a matter of perspective.
Héctor Espino Gonzalez was born in Chihuahua, Chihuahua in 1939. Chihuahua is Mexico's largest state geographically, more or less the southern mirror of West Texas, and what football is to Texas, baseball is to Chihuahua. Even today, the Chihuahuan state league regularly draws better crowds and talent than Mexico's better-funded professional leagues. Héctor used to follow his big brothers to the baseball fields after school, coming along as a batboy. Then, as the scattered histories of his childhood tell it, Héctor's natural talent revealed itself. One day some of the guys asked his older brothers, "Quien es el niño?" Who's the kid?
They still called him El Niño when he began suiting up for semi-pro clubs, for the German Delicatessen and one representing the railroad workers. He was just 15 then, but starting to fill out. He was quiet, like his father, but he soon began to hit the kind of home runs that would later make him famous across Mexico. The nickname evolved too. The Kid became the Kid Killer, El Niño Asesino. Later in his life, Espino would say he hated the nickname - he never killed any children. But that was his way of deflecting attention. Espino would always be baby-faced.
Old men in Mexico still tell Héctor Espino stories and if you're the sort of person who takes taxi drivers at their word, you might believe Espino hit line drives so hard that infielders frequently dropped them, or that he signed his first winter league contract on a napkin in a Chihuahua restaurant. You might believe he was a superhero put on this earth to hit baseballs across Mexico while exhibiting only the finest of that country's collective personality traits. Of course, he was less than that, but also more.
The Spanish word for deep - as in a deep home run into the left field bleachers - is profundo. It also means profound. In baseball, few people have embodied the word in both of its definitions as completely as Espino. Ask people who saw him play, and their eyes widen at the thought of his tremendous power. Then they tell you what a humble man he was. Courted year after year by major league franchises, Espino could have been a Cardinal, an Angel, a Yankee, an Indian, a Colt .45. Yet he retired in 1984 without a single big-league plate appearance to his name. The closest he came were those 32 games at Triple-A Jacksonville, 32 misunderstood games that came to symbolize Espino's entire legacy in the United States, in all its trivial splendor.
Courted year after year by major league franchises, Espino could have been a Cardinal, an Angel, a Yankee, an Indian, a Colt .45.
There are many theories about those 32 games, about why Espino left the United States and why he never returned. A Mexican fan might say it was patriotism that kept him home in the end. At least one major league executive chalked it up to fear. Espino himself would have said it was about the money (yes, Espino could make more money playing in Mexico than in the major leagues). The real reasons lie somewhere along the borderlands of Espino's psyche and his circumstances, his upbringing and the baseball culture of his era. He was a proud, proud man, but not a vain one. "I'll knock the hell out of any pitcher," he once said when asked about playing in the big leagues. Yet, he never felt obligated to prove that. He just knew. Profundo.
Espino caught on with his first semi-pro team in 1959: the Dorados of the Chihuahua state league. The word dorado means golden, but the team was actually named after Pancho Villa's bodyguards, the soldiers he called his Dorados. Villa was a part-time bandit who, during the Mexican Revolution, transformed himself into a dashing general, comandante of the famous División del Norte. His exploits - including a raid for supplies into the United States that resulted in a famous nine-month pursuit by the U.S. Army, and bringing a Hollywood film crew to record both real and staged battles - made Villa into a folk hero before he was assassinated in Chihuahua. Héctor Espino, on the other hand, was not yet a folk hero when he joined the Dorados. Still, his roommate, a Cuban ballplayer named Mike Brito who would go on to become famous as the cigar-chomping, Panama hat-wearing scout who signed pitcher Fernando Valenzuela a generation later, remembers a young man who was destined to become one.
"I think he was one of the best hitters there has been in baseball," Brito said of Espino. "Unfortunately, he never played in the United States. But I think that if he would have, he would have been a .300 hitter. He was that much of a talent."
Unfortunately is the key word in Brito's comments about Espino. The central fact of Espino's legacy is geography - and that fact can be viewed from at least two perspectives. It is easy to see how one might regard Espino's decision not to play in the major leagues as unfortunate, just as there is an air of tragedy surrounding the great Negro League stars like Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson who were deprived of the opportunity. The competition may have been just as good, but the Negro Leagues did not come with history's official rubber stamp of approval - at least not right away.
Yet Héctor Espino did not feel deprived or denied of anything; he could have played, yet he chose not to. To him there was nothing unfortunate at all about staying in Mexico. He embraced the baseball of his nation, and in doing so also rejected the notion that Mexico was some kind of little brother; that the United States owns the history of the sport. He refused to allow himself to be defined in American terms, to be measured by those who did not know him or his country. In the United States, Espino would have been a foreign entity - always and forever a Mexican slugger. His reward for staying home was a kind of heroism, a unique status of immeasurable respect and deep reverence that eludes all but a very few. Where else but Mexico could Espino have been Espino?
Héctor Espino's home run total is less a mystery than an unanswerable question. The Liga Mexicana del Pacifico declares that Héctor hit 299 winter ball home runs in 24 short seasons. However, the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame and various other sources set that total at 310. Eleven home runs are unaccounted for. Over the summer, in the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, Héctor hit another 453 home runs, for a total of either 752 or 763. Since American baseball historians consider Mexican baseball about Triple-A caliber (and a little better in the winter league, when major leaguers come south to play), the three home runs Héctor hit in Jacksonville get counted too, to make the total either 755 or 766.
Here it gets complicated. The thing about home run records is that people get wild-eyed about high numbers. Ruth hit 714. Aaron 755. Bonds 762. The number 800 begins to look appealing, and then Sadaharu Oh's 868 home runs across the Pacific in Japan don't seem so far away. (Oh and Espino played nearly parallel careers, chronologically). Adding more home runs to Espino's career totals is like building his monument higher and higher. So a publication or a historian will include, say, the 24 home runs Espino hit in the Mexican minors, and suddenly the total is at 779 or 790.
More important than an exact number of home runs is the myth-making power that comes from not knowing the precise total.
More important than an exact number of home runs is the myth-making power that comes from not knowing the precise total. As a hitter, Espino's dominance was so thorough that he transcended statistics. Sportswriters and historians still reduce him to numbers. They usually refer to him only as the "minor league home run king." You can almost picture the man smiling and shaking his head at that. He knew what kind of hitter he was, and it wasn't minor league.
Consider this: Espino arrived in Monterrey, Nuevo León, in 1962 and hit .358 as a rookie. A decade later, in a winter league loaded with major leaguers, Espino batted .415 for Hermosillo when no other player hit above .300. And he did it all basically on his own. It's not that Espino was averse to coaches and managers, it's that he did not really require them. His talent was so innate that only he himself could truly understand it (Years later, when he was a coach, Espino was never quite able to verbalize the mechanics of his own greatness - a problem that has been faced by many star players turned coaches). Espino didn't need teammates either, for that matter. He was a quiet, private man, inside the clubhouse and out. For Espino, hitting was a vocation - it was never about the records or the adoration, which he knew were fleeting. Hitting was simply who he was, what he did, at bat by at bat. And he did it his own way.
The real-life Crash Davis
By Rob Neyer
There are two things that make Bull Durham an all-time classic: the snappy dialogue, and the pure baseball that permeates the proceedings. Not that it's a perfect movie, and some of the baseball just doesn't play well. With the exception of Kevin Costner, none of the actors really seem like baseball players at all. And would an aging Triple-A catcher with big-league experience really get sent to Class A to "hold some flavor-of-the-month's dick in the bus leagues"? No, probably not.
But of course that's a necessary conceit. Another, perhaps, is the notion that Costner's character, Crash Davis, is approaching the minor-league record for career home runs ... but nobody seems to know except Crash himself, and Anny Savoy. At one point, Annie suggests that someone ought to alert The Sporting News. Crash spurns the idea, but in real life nobody would have to alert The Sporting News, because the erstwhile "Bible of Baseball," perhaps with the help of the Society of American Baseball Research, would have been quite aware of Davis's slugging heroics.
As it happens, Crash Davis would have needed at least 485 home runs to break Hector Espino's minor-league record, because according to Baseball Reference.com, which does not recognize hundreds of Espino’s professional home runs, Espino hit the 484th (and last) homer of his long career in 1984. Below, a few notes about Espino and the other three men who topped 400 homers in the minor leagues ...
Hector Espino - 484. Alone among the top minor-league sluggers, Espino did nearly all of his professional work south of the border. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Espino debuted in the Mexican Central League in 1960, and closed his career in the Mexican League nearly a quarter-century later. Throughout, Espino played in Mexico except for a brief, month-long stretch with Jacksonville in the International League in 1964. He batted .300 with three home runs in 32 games, and never played in the U.S. again.
Buzz Arlett - 432. Russell Loris Arlett was the Babe Ruth of the Minor Leagues. In his first five professional seasons, all in the high-class Pacific Coast League, Arlett was mostly a pitcher. And like the Babe, Arlett was a good pitcher, winning nearly 100 games before his 24th birthday. But Arlett had thrown a ton of innings at a tender age, and his arm simply gave out. A natural right-handed hitter, Arlett taught himself to switch-hit while lobbying his manager for playing time in the outfield. And as an outfielder, Arlett quickly established himself as one of the PCL's top sluggers. There he remained until 1931, by which point he was 32 and packed maybe 245 pounds on his 6'3" frame. That year, the Philadelphia Phillies finally brought Arlett to the major leagues, and he finished the season with a .528 slugging percentage, fifth-best in the league. But he seems to have been hopeless in the outfield, and after the season the Phillies traded him back to the minor leagues; specifically, to the International League's Baltimore Orioles. Arlett never played in the majors again, but would hit 93 homers in two seasons with the Orioles, then play a few more years before retiring because of age and injuries.
Nick Cullop - 420. Like Buzz Arlett and Babe Ruth and Hall of Famer George Sisler, Nick "Tomato Face" Cullop began his career as a pitcher. In his fifth pro season, he shifted to the outfield and hit 40 homers with the Western League's Omaha Buffaloes. While spending the great majority of his career in the minors, Cullop did get brief trials in the late 1920s with the major-league Yankees, Senators, Indians and Dodgers. Like Arlett, Cullop finally got his big shot in 1931; he hit decently with the Reds, but struck out a ton and didn't impress anybody with his fielding. He returned to the minors for good in '32, and piled up big numbers for most of another decade. When he finally retired in 1944, Cullop had totaled approximately 1,856 RBI in the minors. That's still the all-time record.
Merv Connors - 400. While Espino and Arlett and Cullop are well-known to the cognoscenti, Connors and his 400-homers-on-the-nose remain largely forgotten, perhaps because he spent relatively little time in the high minors. While Connors did play briefly for the Chicago White Sox in 1937 and '38, he did much of his best hitting in the East Texas League and the West Texas-New Mexico League; in 1953, his last pro season, Connors walloped 34 homers with the Longhorn League's Carlsbad Potashers.
In Bull Durham, Crash Davis finally sets a new minor-league record with his 247th home run. With the contraction of the minor leagues in the 1950s and '60s, 247 homers would be a tremendous number for a minor-league catcher. But thanks to Hector Espino and a host of others, 247 would remain far short of any record.
There is no full-blown account in the sports pages of Espino's time in the United States. What little scrutiny it has gotten has come mostly in retrospect, in books that dismiss Espino as a passing curiosity - too proud or lazy for the American game. A person who merely skims the facts is bound to get easy answers. "Briefly put, Espino could not adjust and he seemed to look for any excuse not to continue," wrote Peter Bjarkman in his book "Diamonds Around the Globe: The Encyclopedia of International Baseball." There is little mention anywhere of how difficult it must have been to adjust to life in the International League in the 1960s, to go from being a beloved superstar to a foreign curiosity. A casual observer leaves with the idea that Espino was too simple for the American game, too scared, or just not good enough.
The Spanish word for simple is sencillo. It can also be used to describe a single element, like a scoop of ice cream, or a regular base hit. However, when used to describe a person, sencillo is a high compliment. A man who is sencillo is humble, comfortable in his own skin, and down to earth. He has a sense of himself. Nobody in Mexico has ever described Héctor Espino without using the word sencillo, an essential aspect of his nature that has been consistently overlooked by writers north of the border. The word sencillo, the manner of being, has a lot to do with Espino's decision not to return to the United States after the 1964 season.
There are two basic versions of what happened in Jacksonville. The version told by the media, by Espino's teammates, and even by Bobby Maduro, the Cuban baseball man who owned the Jacksonville Suns and brought Espino to Florida goes like this: Espino never really got comfortable. He struggled with the language barrier, with the day-to-day racism of the 1960s American South, and with the unfamiliar food. He also isolated himself from his teammates. "He never talked much to any of us," said Joe Morgan, a Suns teammate who would go on to manage the Red Sox. "He was not a happy camper, I'll tell you that much." Then again, Espino isolated himself from his teammates in Mexico, too.
The second story, as told by Espino's wife Carmen, is much less interesting. "Did he miss Mexico? No," said Carmen, who still lives in a quiet part of Monterrey in a home decorated with every manner of Héctor Espino memorabilia. Espino was not aloof because he was sad; he was aloof because he was aloof. "Bobby Maduro was very helpful, very nice," Carmen said afterward. She even accompanied her husband to Jacksonville. "He put us up in an apartment," she remembers, "and the people of Jacksonville were very good to us. We didn't have any problems there."
The Cardinals liked what they saw, and agreed to buy Espino's contract the following season for $30,000.
Even Espino's performance on the field in Jacksonville has been subject to various interpretations. He struggled defensively, moving from first base to play the outfield. One story, found in a 1985 Sport Magazine profile, has Espino chasing down a fly ball only to have his cap blow off. He stops to pick up his cap as the ball falls for a hit. Offensively, Espino got off to a slow start, but soon found himself. In 100 at bats, he hit an even .300 with three home runs and six doubles. "Naturally they were disappointed he didn't hit more home runs," said Morgan. But that disappointment was based on a misunderstanding: Espino had never been a pure slugger, in the Frank Howard vein. Given more time, Espino's power would have revealed itself. "He would have hit quite a few home runs," Morgan added. Besides, the outfield fence in Jacksonville was 25 feet high and it was the most difficult park in the league for power hitters. Jacksonville's parent club, St. Louis, understood this. The Cardinals liked what they saw, and agreed to buy Espino's contract the following season for $30,000 -- a lot of money at the time. The Cardinals won the World Series in 1964, and in 1965 Espino would have hit in a lineup with Curt Flood, Lou Brock, Ken Boyer and Bill White. In 1965, without Espino, St. Louis fell from first to seventh place.
A right-handed hitter, when Espino came to bat, he strolled up to the plate as casually as if he was walking across a driveway to greet a neighbor. He rubbed a little dirt on his hands and stood heavily in the box, like he was making it home. Espino had a wider-than-average stance. He stood relaxed, with his big bat held before his back shoulder, like he was waiting for the pitcher to step up to the rubber so he could get into his real stance. Only that was his real stance. When the pitcher delivered, Espino hitched his wrists slightly, then whipped the bat across the zone with hardly any stride.
"He had very quick hands, and his wrists were always like this," said his son Héctor Jr., sizing his father's forearms against his own, which are themselves formidable. "He got them out fast. A lot of hitters don't do it with ability, they do it with strength, with their bodies. But my father was wrists, a little bit of hips, and a little bit of shoulders." (Héctor Jr. did not play pro ball, but Espino's son Danny did.)
At some point during his career, they started calling Espino “the Babe Ruth of Mexico.”
When Espino made contact, the ball jumped off his bat like it held an electric charge. Even his singles were no-doubt-abouters. At some point during his career, they started calling Espino "the Babe Ruth of Mexico," which is apt insofar as he's the most famous and beloved ballplayer in Mexican history and that he hit a lot of home runs. However, as a hitter Espino was more like Hank Aaron. He hit line drives and happened to have power; he used all fields and rarely struck out. The home run records were as much a product of durability as they were of towering strength - not that Espino lacked strength.
The most complete English language treatment of Héctor Espino is that 1985 story in Sport Magazine. In the story, called "Babe Ruth of Mexico," author Leo Banks passes on two anecdotes about Espino's power. The first recalls a Ruthian 600-foot-home run to dead center field and clear out of a Guadalajara ballpark. The second is more Héctor. When Espino played for Monterrey, before games he used to walk down the aisle of the team bus with an upturned cowboy hat collecting money for the driver, a poor man named José. One day the bus was approaching Poza Rica for a game against the Petroleros. The Poza Rica ballpark had a promotion in which any player who hit a home run won a coupon for a free suit:
José turned to Espino and said, "Are you going to win me a free suit tonight?" Espino said, "Sure, José, I'll win you a suit." When José looked away, Espino held up two fingers and whispered, "Two suits." He won two suits.
This story is Ruthian as well. But Espino shared none of the Babe's dramatic personal flair - nor did the Mexican press worship and mythologize him as American newspapers did for Ruth. This wasn't some photo-op in a New Jersey hospital - this was a man, José, who was a friend. Mexican teams spent a lot of time on buses, and Espino's father was a chauffeur. He was taking care of someone close, not creating a colorful scene for a biography. Neither could Espino be found after ballgames out on the town, drinking beer and chasing women with his buddies like the Babe. When he could, he skipped the team bus to drive home with his family. Profundo.
Nicknames matter in Mexico. They help make men into legends, and they make legends as accessible as ordinary men.
Nicknames matter in Mexico. They help make men into legends, and they make legends as accessible as ordinary men. Pancho Villa was really Francisco Villa. Before that, he was José Arango. Schoolchildren learn that Mexico's most beloved president, Lázaro Cárdenas, was called "El Tata," a reference to his caring, paternal stewardship. Mexico's brightest boxer right now, a redhead named Saul Alvarez, is called "Canelo," which means cinnamon. Its greatest soccer player, Javier Hernández, has "Chicharito," written on the back of his jersey: little pea. Even the narcos have nicknames. The most powerful criminal in the country is Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman. Shorty.
In the case of Héctor Espino, it can feel like the media used nicknames to fill in the spaces where his charisma fell short . He was "El Niño Asesino," "El Babe Ruth de México," and eventually "El Rebelde de Chihuahua," the Rebel of Chihuahua - more on that later. But if you ask his teammates, he was just a very quiet man.
"He was a serious person, a person who knew nothing better than how to hit, how to play baseball," said Paquín Estrada, a catcher turned manager who spent decades playing and coaching against Espino. "He didn't talk to anybody - and not because he didn't want to talk, but because that was his temperament, his way of being."
Mexican baseball in the ‘60s was not a player-friendly business. In newspaper articles and communications between franchises, players were referred to casually as popiedad - "property" - of one team or another. Espino did not see things this way; Anuar Canavati, the owner of the Monterrey Sultanes franchise he played for, did. Their drawn-out contract negotiations were more like bar fights. They earned Espino a lot of empty-gesture suspensions and that other nickname, "the Rebel of Chihuahua."
Players were referred to casually as popiedad - "property" - of one team or another.
Canavati gave Espino more trouble than any pitcher ever did. He was your classic tycoon, puffing on a fat cigar and grinning a weak-chinned grin underneath his pencil-thin mustache - it only made sense that Canavati owned a team called the Sultanes. First, he tried to cut Espino's pay when Espino was promoted to the Liga Mexicana from the minors in San Luis Potosí (Espino refused to report). Years later, when Espino was a star, Canavati sent him to Jacksonville, and then sold him to the Cardinals to finance reconstruction on Monterrey's stadium. Espino knew that all he was to his owner was a product, a piece of meat - and he resented the hell out of it.
So when Espino was sold to St. Louis after that 1964 season, it was no surprise that he demanded a cut of the bonus the Cardinals paid Canavati. Un trozo del pastel, Espino used to say, which translates directly to "a piece of the cake." A deal was worked out that would pay him 10 percent, leaving enough for Canavati to complete his stadium. "This is a great opportunity for me and I'm not going to disrespect it," Espino told the media. "From now on, I'm going to do everything possible to make it to the big club. It's my greatest longing."
He would make it as far as the Dallas airport. When it came time to leave for spring training in Florida, Canavati had still not paid him his percentage of the signing fee. Only after great deliberation did Espino board the flight from Monterrey at all. During the first leg of his trip, he contemplated the situation. His principles dictated that he ought to be paid for his service. Espino's bags reportedly made it to Tampa, but the man himself returned to Chihuahua. Espino became a holdout.
It's hard to imagine a player in Espino's position today. When he played there were no safeguards in place on either side of the border to ensure his fair treatment in the transaction between Monterrey and St. Louis. In Mexico, players had nothing resembling fair representation in their negotiations with club owners and the situation was only nominally better in the U.S. It was five years before Curt Flood brought his lawsuit to the Supreme Court, demanding liberty from baseball's system of indentured servitude, and martyring his career in the process. Six years later, Mexico would pass a law requiring that athletes sold to international teams be paid 25 percent of the proceeds.
He was Mexico's greatest ballplayer - an icon in the making - and he refused to be treated like anything less.
Yet even at 25 years old, Espino had something Curt Flood did not: the leverage to create his own justice. He was Mexico's greatest ballplayer - an icon in the making - and he refused to be treated like anything less. He was Héctor Espino, not just another piece of property. The holdout stretched through spring training, and into April. Bobby Maduro flew to Chihuahua from Jacksonville to try and convince Espino to give the big leagues a shot. The Cardinals gave up on Espino and demanded Canavati return the money. Then, on May 11, Canavati fell off his horse on a Texas polo field and died. He was 53 years old. The holdout ended. Espino returned to the Sultanes.
Espino's demand of a trozo del pastel was first a business decision, but it was also a demand for respect, a nod to the very basic concept that a human being ought to be paid fairly for his or her work, a matter of right and wrong. For Espino, the Rebel of Chihuahua, who liked to say that he never rebelled against anything in his life, it genuinely was not about rebellion. It was about Espino being himself. Sencillo.
Imagine being so confident that you never feel the need to prove yourself to anybody. There's no insecurity, no creeping self-doubt. Espino displayed this confidence when he turned down major league contract offers, even as executives tried to goad him north by questioning the caliber of his competition. They kept calling and calling him, and in 1967, Espino reached an agreement to break camp with the California Angels. There was a large Mexican community in southern California and home would not be far away. The Angels were thrilled to have a potential marketing dream; 14 years before Fernando Valenzuela took the mound for the Dodgers and became a national phenomenon, Espino may well have inspired Espinomania.
Then, in February, Angels Manager Bill Rigney announced that he didn't want any Mexican players crossing the border during spring training in Palm Springs, Calif. "I realize we are not at war with Mexico, but I would prefer my guys stay on this side of the border," Rigney told the Long Beach Press-Telegram in a story headlined "Rigney Puts Check on Angel Wetbacks." Espino chose to stay on his side. When Angels executive Marvin Milkes wrote a bitter letter accusing Espino of being scared, of wasting an opportunity, and of "wanting to be a one-eyed man in the land of the blind," Espino didn't budge. He wasn't blind; he saw more than anybody knew.
Espino was a big enough star in Mexico that he felt he could make more money playing at home than in the majors.
More offers came and went. He flirted with the Yankees in 1970, but Tampico, Espino's team at the time, could not work out a deal. No matter: Espino was a big enough star in Mexico that he felt he could make more money playing at home than in the majors. There were two baseball seasons in Mexico, taxes were lower, and so were living costs. "If here I make twice what they're offering me over there, it's not worth the trip," Espino told reporters in Chihuahua. Perhaps more importantly, nobody would mess with him in Mexico. Nobody would try to change his swing or put him in his place. Nobody would try to make a king into a pauper.
Héctor Espino's daughter, Karla, died in 1995 of a brain aneurysm. She was not long out of college. As people close to Espino tell it, he was never the same after that. "He changed completely," said Espino's friend Lino Gonzalez. "He couldn't replace the happiness he found with his family." Espino died two years later: a heart attack in his sleep.
The reputation that survived Espino's death in 1997 is almost impossibly pure: a family man, through and through. Honest. Humble. Legitimately boring. His family says his favorite hobby was grilling meat. He also liked to watch sports on TV: boxing, American football, any baseball game he could find. Later in life, Espino watched a lot of Michael Jordan and the Bulls. All the talking he didn't do with teammates or reporters, he apparently saved for his family. "At home he wasn't so serious, he loved to joke around with his kids," said his wife Carmen. "He was very humble. It was his manner, never getting into any trouble. But here? No. Here he was tremendous."
Toward the end of his career, Espino would reportedly disappear for weeks at a time from his summer league teams, then walk back into the clubhouse like nothing happened and be inserted into the lineup without so much as a wayward look from his manager. Yet if you ask the people close to him now, that never occurred. Such a thing would be impossible. Espino was a great teammate. Only after some prodding would Espino's longtime friend Gonzalez even admit that Espino could enjoy a dirty joke or two (but only when the women and kids weren't around). Espino was even too honest for politics. At one point, he was recruited to run for office in Chihuahua. He declined. "A politician has to be a little bit of a hypocrite, tell lies, because that's how it is, it's necessary," said Gonzalez. "I don't think he was capable of engaging in that kind of situation."
This is what happens when people as momentously accomplished as Espino, who felt little need to explain himself, leave so little behind in the way of interviews. Blank spaces and quiet personalities get filled in by the rosiest and most nostalgic inclinations of collective memory. There has only been a single widely published biography of Espino in any language, Horacio Ibarra Alvarez's official Spanish biography, "Hector Espino: Un hombre, un bat, una leyenda" ("Hector Espino: A Man, a Bat, a Legend"). It's a sprawling and detailed book, loaded with interviews, facts and photos to be found nowhere else - this article relied heavily on it for background. But Ibarra's is only one book documenting the legend, not shaping it.
When Espino decided not to play in the United States, he chose to give up on the opportunity to create a reputation north of the border for the sake of his life and legacy in Mexico. In the United States, Espino is so unknown, so far removed from even the lesser annals of baseball history that his Baseball-Reference.com page only lists 23 career home runs - the three he hit in Jacksonville, plus 20 in the Mexican minors. It is not even updated with the date of death; he is listed as alive, age 73. In Hermosillo, Sonora, where Espino played his entire winter ball career for the Naranjeros, the team's stadium was re-named after him while he was still an active player. Yet if an athlete's greatness is the reflected glory he leaves behind, it is hard to imagine Espino being any greater in Mexico.
Espino did not need America at all. He was too confident to be caught up in the promise of major league glamour.
Espino's wife Carmen walks with a cane these days, but still cuts out newspaper clippings about her late husband and beams with pride at the memorabilia, trophies, and keepsakes that fill her both her living room and an additional room in the house. The mementoes were there when Espino was alive, but he ignored them. "He never said I won this for this, that for that,'" Héctor Jr. said. "He never bragged about everything he won in baseball." The one honor Espino was especially proud of, and took most seriously, was that stadium named after him in Hermosillo. The stadium was a reward for staying in Mexico, and with it came a sense of duty. "For my father, it was a challenge." The only nickname he ever took kindly to was really just a title of respect: Don Héctor.
Espino's legend in Mexico is rooted in a quiet kind of heroism. When people talk about him, they smile slightly, and unknowingly lower their voices. Outside of playing baseball exceptionally well, Espino's most forceful acts were passive: staying at home, refusing to sign an unfair contract. His insistence on remaining in Mexico separates him from that other Mexican legend, Pancho Villa, of the dramatic cross-border raiding. Espino's humility stands in contrast to the film crews Villa brought along into battle. Villa needed supplies and money from America to continue his revolution, to propel his legacy forward. Espino did not need America at all. He was too confident to be caught up in the promise of major league glamour; absolutely certain that Mexico offered everything he could possibly need. The only legacy Espino wanted was a legacy built on just being himself, sencillo.
He was, said Lino Gonzalez, "Un caballero. Por eso lo adoraba la gente."
A gentleman. For that the people adored him.