Obituary: Rafael Carmona (1972-2021)

RIP to Rafael Carmona, who had a 4-year career as a reliever with the Seattle Mariners before injuries brought an end to his career. It was reported by the Puerto Rican National Baseball Team that he has passed away at the age of 48. An exact date or cause of death was not immediately available; I will update as more news becomes available. Carmona had worked as a coach for minor league teams in Puerto Rico and also for the men’s and women’s national baseball teams in the country. Carmona played for the Mariners from 1995-97 and 1999.

Rafael Carmona was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, on October 2, 1972. He attended high school in Puerto Rico but moved to Iowa afterwards. He attended and played ball for Indian Hills Community College in Centerville. The school reached the National Junior College Baseball World Series tournament in 1993, and Carmona was a big reason why. He had a 2-0 record and recorded 12 saves, while keeping his ERA around 1.00 for most of the season.

“Lucky we’ve had him to pull us out of some sticky situations,” said coach Cam Walker.

Carmona was drafted by Seattle in the 13th Round of the 1993 MLB Amateur Draft and signed with the Mariners just days later. There were a total of 17 Iowa ballplayers drafted that year, and four of them came from Indian Hills. Seattle sent him to the Bellingham Mariners of the Northwest League after he signed, and he appeared in 23 games with the team in relief, picking up 2 wins, 3 losses and 2 saves. He struck out 30 batters and walked 14 in 35-2/3 innings.

Carmona returned to Puerto to play winter ball, something he did regularly in his career. When he returned to play in 1994 for the High-A Riverside Pilots of the California League, he emerged as one of the league’s best young closers. The Pilots finished first in their division, and Carmona led the California with 21 saves. He also added 8 wins and had a 2.94 ERA, with 63 strikeouts in 67-1/3 innings.

In 1995, the Mariners started Carmona in AA with the Port City Roosters (Wilmington, N.C.) of the Southern League. Due to the fact that Seattle’s bullpen was in an absolute shambles by May, he was brought right to the majors. The worst offenders in the team’s relief corps were all lefties, so it was thought that the addition of the righty Carmona would balance things out a little. The 22-year-old made his debut on May 18, 1995, against Kansas City. He was brought into the game in the sixth inning after reliever Lee Guetterman had allowed runners on the corners with 1 out. Carmona worked his way out of the jam, getting a couple of ground balls sandwiched around a walk to Vince Coleman. He then gave up a game-tying home run to Gary Gaetti in the next inning, but that was the only run he allowed in 3-2/3 innings of work.

Carmona picked up the loss in his next appearance but then won his first major-league game on May 24, throwing 2-2/3 innings of scoreless ball against Boston. The Mariners’ starting rotation was banged up and ineffective (aside from Randy Johnson), and manager Lou Piniella gave Carmona the start on May 29 against the New York Yankees. It was the pitcher’s first professional start at any level. He allowed the first three batters to reach — Luis Polonia walked, Wade Boggs hit an RBI double and Paul O’Neill had an infield hit. Boggs later scored that inning, but Carmona overcame the rocky start to throw a couple of scoreless innings before the Yankees struck early and often. He was removed after 5-2/3 innings, having given up 7 runs on 10 hits. At least he retired Yankees starting shortstop Derek Jeter, who was making his major-league debut and went 0-for-5, including three hitless at-bats against Carmona.

He started a couple more times and relieved some more, and the Mariners sent him to AAA Tacoma to stretch out as a starter. He finally pitched past the sixth inning on August 12, throwing 8-1/3 innings in a win over Edmonton. “I’m happy I made it through eight innings. Let’s just see if I can brush my teeth in the morning,” Carmona joked, referring to his tired arm.

Carmona was brought back to Seattle at the end of the season and pitched well in a couple of relief outings, picking up his first save. He ended the year with a 2-4 record and 5.66 ERA with 3 starts and 12 relief appearances. Back in the village of Comerio where he lived, residents held a carnival in his honor.

Carmona improved by leaps and bounds in 1996, getting into 53 games, with just one of them a start. He threw 90-1/3 innings, the most of any reliever and the fourth-most on the entire pitching staff. He won his first six decisions and finished the season with an 8-3 record and 4.28 ERA. His only save of the year came on May 11, when he threw 4 hitless innings against Kansas City in support of starter Rob Wolcott. He walked 3 and fanned 5 in the outing.

That 1996 season was Carmona’s only full season in the major leagues. He was one of the last cuts of spring training, as the Mariners elected to keep pitcher Josias Manzanillo and corner infielder Mike Blowers instead of Carmona or veteran pitcher Dennis Martinez. He was primarily a middle reliever with Tacoma and was effective enough to get a call-up in September. He appeared in 4 games and allowed 2 runs in 5-2/3 innings for a 3.18 ERA, along with 6 strikeouts.

After the season, Carmona pitched for Arecibo in the Puerto Rican Winter League. On November 30, 1997, he was driving back to his home in Comerio when he was involved in an automobile accident. A car traveling the other way veered into his lane, and Carmona swerved on the rain-slicked road into a palm tree. He broke two bones in his right forearm and underwent surgery immediately. He was expected to miss up to six months.

What made the injury especially traumatic for Carmona is that he had been pitching great in winter ball with a 1.59 ERA in 12 games. “A few days before the accident, I had Thanksgiving dinner with my parents,” he told Tacoma News Tribune columnist John McGrath. “As we were playing dominoes and having some fun, I had a talk with my father. I said, ‘Dad, I’ve got a feeling this is going to be one of my biggest years.’ Five days later, the lights went out.”

Carmona credited his parents and wife, Delyn, for supporting him through a dark time. While he was rehabbing, he was bombarded with the question “Are you gonna make it back to the big leagues?” so often that he almost shut down. “Over and over, I heard the exact same question, only from different people. It got so bad that for two or three weeks I stayed inside. I didn’t even go out to the balcony of my house. That’s how bad I was feeling.”

Eventually, the pressure built up to the point that he launched into a 1998 comeback before he was physically ready for it. In 8 starts in the Mariners’ low minors, he threw a total of 24-1/3 innings and had a 9.99 ERA and four losses. He had dedicated himself so much to his comeback that pitched with a steel plate in his arm, which columnist McGrath likened to playing the piano while wearing oven mitts. He and the Mariners agreed to postpone his comeback until the plate had been removed, and he fared much better in the Arizona Instructional League and winter ball.

Carmona performed well enough during spring training in 1999 to put himself in a position to return to the majors. He started the season in Tacoma and was 1-1 with a 3.81 ERA when Mariners outfielder Raul Ibanez was put on the 15-day disabled list. Carmona returned to the Mariners and first appearance was on May 18 against Minnesota, and he pitched two scoreless innings while receiving a warm welcome from the Mariners fans. He pitched pretty well up until the Mariners played the Rockies in Colorado on June 9. In 2/3 of an inning, Carmona gave up 4 hits and 3 walks, including a 3-run homer to opposing pitcher Curtis Leskanic. The outing blew up his ERA from 3.86 to 8.10, and after another rough performance a few days later, he was put on the disabled list with a right triceps strain. Once he had recovered from the strain, Carmona was sent back to Tacoma and did not return to the majors. The Mariners did not offer him a contract after the season, making him a free agent. He returned to the Mariners on a minor-league deal, but after being roughed up in 3 appearances for Tacoma in 2000, he was released and did not pitch professionally again.

Over parts of four seasons, Carmona appeared in 81 games and had an 11-7 record with 2 saves and a 4.94 ERA. He struck out 96 batters and walked 100 in 155 innings and had a 1.748 WHIP. Carmona also had 17 wins in the minors, with 33 saves.

It’s fair to say that many ballplayers in Carmona’s position — suffering a critical injury right as he was on the verge of putting it all together — might have slammed the baseball door behind them. Carmona stayed in the game, though, working to instruct others in Puerto Rico. Maybe he took the advice that his family gave him after his car accident to heart.

“They told me, ‘It’s not the end of the world.'” It’s hard to listen to that stuff in the moment, you know,” he explained. “But when your head clears and you get a chance to be alone and you start thinking about it, you realize something. They were right.”

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