Grave Story: John Noriega (1943-2001)

Here lies John Noriega, a pitcher who appeared briefly for the Cincinnati Reds in 1969 and 1970. He made it to the majors in spite of the fact that he had only one fully functional eye. His left eye was paralyzed since birth and could only focus straight ahead, but it didn’t affect his athletic prowess. It also left him with the nickname of “Cyclops” in the clubhouse. Baseball players are of course known for their sensitivity.

“It’s a handicap — the eye can’t move. But it hasn’t hurt my pitching,” he told The Cincinnati Enquirer in his rookie season in 1969. One of his teammates said (anonymously) that the eye helps him as a pitcher. “I mean, the batter never really knows which way he’s looking.”

John Alan Noriega was born in Ogden, Utah on December 20, 1943. He was a high school and college star athlete in his home state. He attended Davis High School in Kaysville and was part of an all-state All-star team in his senior year of 1962. He also played on the football and basketball teams there. He went to college at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, pitching for them during the school year and then in amateur leagues during the summer. He played for a team called Big Vern’s in 1964 and then for the Winner Pheasants of the Basin League (in the Dakotas) in 1965. Noriega was drafted by the Milwaukee Braves in the 20th Round of the 1965 June MLB Amateur Draft but decided not to sign with them.

It ended up being a wise move, as Noriega was instead drafted by the Reds in the 1966 Winter Draft in the 4th Round, foregoing his senior year at Utah. He ended up on a team with plenty of young prospects; his teammates in the Florida Instructional League included Johnny Bench, Bernie Carbo and Gary Nolan, to name a few. He was added to the Reds’ 40-man roster early in his career, showing that the team thought pretty highly of him. He spent most of his first 3 minor-league seasons in AA for the Reds, playing two seasons with the Knoxville Smokies and one with the Asheville Tourists. His ERA shrank year after year, from 4.21 in his first season all the way down to 2.66 in 1968. He was the most reliable and frequently used reliever for Tourists’ manager Sparky Anderson. Noriega had a 9-3 record in 62 games and started 4 of them. He fanned 116 batters in 122 innings while walking just 33 men.

Noriega earned a promotion to AAA Indianapolis and debuted a sidearm delivery that he learned in winter ball in Venezuela. He mixed it into his repertoire occasionally, along with the standard overhand delivery, to ease the wear and tear on his arm. He went 7-7 in Indianapolis with a 4.35 ERA in 33 games and was brought briefly to the Big Leagues when the Reds needed emergency pitching help.

The 1969 Reds were mediocre at the time. Some of the pieces of the Big Red Machine were in place (Bench, Rose, Perez), but the pitching staff was in shambles. Noriega appeared in 5 games, all of which the Reds lost, allowing 5 earned runs in 7-2/3 innings, with 3 walks and 4 strikeouts. Aside from his last outing, where he allowed 3 runs to the Mets in an inning of work, Noriega pitched pretty well. But the Reds weren’t winning many games at the time, and manager Dave Bristol didn’t seem interested in putting the rookie into a close situation.

It was much the same story in 1970. Noriega pitched well in Indianapolis (6-6 record, 3.48 ERA) and was brought up in July. Though his AA manager Anderson was running the club and the Reds would go on to win the NL pennant, he was still used exclusively as a mop-up reliever. Again, he never got into a game that the Reds won, but this time he struggled with his control. He walked 10 batters in 18 innings while allowing 16 earned runs. He was demoted back to AAA after a disastrous performance against the Dodgers. He allowed 7 runs in 2-2/3 innings of work in a 13-3 loss on August 9.

Noriega may not have had the most glamorous job on the Reds’ pitching staff, but he accepted his mop-up role with grace. “I feel happy that I’m good enough to make this club. You can’t take any job on a big league ballclub and say it’s a bad job,” he told the Journal Herald (Dayton, Ohio).

Noriega appeared in a total of 13 games with the Reds and had a 7.36 ERA. He fanned 10 and walked 13 in 25-2/3 innings. He pitched in the minor leagues through 1971, splitting the last season with the AAA teams of Philadelphia and Minnesota. All total, he had a 31-30 record in 6 seasons in the minors with a 2.88 ERA.

Noriega spent the last 25 years of his life working for Davis County Mental Health as a recreation therapist, according to his obituary. “He worked with youth and families, teaching them to heal and empower themselves through recreational activities such as river rafting, snow skiing, mountain climbing, biking and golf to name a few,” it said. He also founded a non-profit organization called HITE (High Impact Teaching Empowerment) to help victims of abuse.

John Noriega died on September 29, 2001 from a stroke. He was was 57 years old and was survived by his wife of 36 years, Barbara and three children. He is buried in Kaysville City Cemetery in Kaysville, Utah.

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