Obituary: Francisco Estrada (1948-2019)

RIP to Francisco “Paquín” Estrada, who served as a catcher for one game for the New York Mets in 1971. He died on December 9 from heart problems; he had been hospitalized since at least November 28 after suffering a heart attack. Estrada was 71 years old. Though his time in the United States is best remembered for that one game and being a part of one of the worst trades in baseball history, Estrada was a Hall of Famer in Mexico and won numerous championships as a player and a manager.

Francisco Estrada was born on February 12, 1948 in Navojoa, Mexico. For a complete rundown of his early life, I’d recommend his thorough SABR bio. When he was just 16 years old, Estrada got his first chance to play professional ball, with the San Luis Potosi Reds, a farm team of the Mexico City Diablos Rojos. He started playing for them in 1964 and hit .215 with 5 home runs in 73 games. After two seasons, he moved up to the Diablos in 1966 and played there for five seasons. He won his first Mexican League championship as a player in 1968. In 1970, he hit .303 with 18 home runs.

His play attracted interest north of the border. He was given a look by the Yankees previously, but the Yanks didn’t keep him, supposedly due to communication problems. Estrada was acquired by the Mets and was a non-roster invitee to their Spring Training in 1971. He arrived about a week late, because he got lost. Ted Martinez, a rookie infielder with the Mets, found Estrada in the Miami Airport and brought him to the training camp in St. Petersburg.

Estrada and the other Latin American players were given extra education at training camp. In addition to their player drills, the Mets brought Albert Miner, an instructor at the Berlitz School of Language, to teach them basic English. Whitey Herzog, who was the Mets’ director of player development, suggested the program after acquiring Estrada. The team had become quite active in the Caribbean, signing younger players who spoke little or no English. For a catcher like Estrada, it was particularly problematic.

“The only rap against him, according to scouts we talked to, was his lack of ability to communicate. But, being a catcher, that’s very important,” explained Joe McDonald, Mets director of minor league operations. “We feel if we’re going to try him out, we’ve got to do everything in our power to give him a real chance.”

On the field, at least, Estrada had little problem adapting to American baseball. Splitting the 1971 season with AA Memphis and AAA Tidewater, he hit .256 with 13 home runs. When Tidewater was eliminated from the International League playoffs, the Mets recalled a host of prospects, including Jim Bibby, John Milner, Leroy Stanton and Estrada.

Estrada, 23, was thrown almost immediately into action, appearing in his one and only MLB game on September 14, 1971. The Mets and starter Nolan Ryan were clobbered by the Expos 12-1, thanks to a Rusty Staub homer and 5 RBIs from Ron Fairly. Starting Mets catcher Jerry Grote was given an early exit from the game and was replaced by Estrada in the top of the 6th inning. In his first MLB at-bat, Estrada singled off Bill Stoneman. He made the final out of the game in his second at-bat, hitting a 3-1 ground ball. In the field, he committed a passed ball and handled a strikeout for his sole putout.

Estrada never played in another game that season, ending his major-league career with a .500 batting average. That December, he was part of an infamous trade, as the Mets sent Ryan, Stanton, Don Rose and Estrada to the California Angels for Jim Fregosi.

Estrada would remain in the Angels organization for 21 games, as he hit .268 for the Salt Lake City Angels at the start of the 1972 season. He was traded to Baltimore at the end of May and batted .255 for AAA Rochester with 6 home runs. After the season, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs for catcher Elrod Hendricks and hit a combined .294 for the organization in 1973 — mostly in AA.

Estrada did pretty well in the minor leagues, but he returned to Mexico in 1974. He played there for the next 20 years, with stops in Puebla, Campeche, Leon, Toluca and Minatitlan. The latter years were spent coming off the bench as a player-manager. By the time he retired as a player after the 1994 season, the 46-year-old Estrada had racked up 2,089 hits in 2,415 games, including 84 home runs and 923 RBIs. He had a lifetime batting average of .275 (all statistics courtesy of his SABR bio, as Baseball Reference doesn’t list his Mexican League numbers). It also doesn’t list his winter league numbers, though he played for more than 30 seasons there as well and hit .244 with 1,269 hits.

Estrada was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000. He began his managerial career in 1983 and continued through 2017. He also managed in the winter league and was the skipper of the 2006 World Baseball Classic team that beat the United States 2-1, knocking the Americans out of the tournament.

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