Obituary: Julio Valdez (1956-2022)

RIP to Julio Valdez, an infielder for the Red Sox and a manager in the Dominican Summer League for several years. Journalist Hector Gomez reported on July 24 that Gomez passed away from cancer at the age of 66. Valdez played for the Boston Red Sox from 1980-83.

Julio Julian Castillo Valdez was born in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, on June 3, 1956. According to his SABR biography, he was raised by his grandmother when his mother was unable to take care of him. He grew up on a farm in Nizao and helped his family with the crops. Though not too hard; since he had baseball potential at an early age, his family didn’t want to wear him out.

Source: The Boston Globe, September 5, 1980.

When he was 16 years old, Valdez started playing shortstop on a softball team that his father coached. From there, he moved on to baseball and began playing in the Dominican Amateur League. He was signed by the Red Sox in December of 1975, when he was 19. Valdez’s first taste of U.S. baseball came with the Winter Haven Red Sox of the Florida State League in 1976. Peter Gammons of The Boston Globe told readers to “remember that name” when discussing Valdez as a possible future third baseman. He was tried out at third base in Winter Haven but had a .763 fielding percentage in 21 games. He fared a little better at shortstop and spent the next several seasons almost exclusively at that position. Valdez also needed some time to adjust to professional pitching, as he hit just .135 in 74 games, with 3 doubles and 1 triple as his only extra-base hits. He improved to a .248 average and .361 slugging percentage with Winston-Salem in 1977, with 8 home runs. He advanced to Double-A Bristol in 1978 and made the All-Star Team, with a .265 batting average. He also learned how to become a switch hitter.

Syndicated columnist Milton Richman called Valdez one of the best rookies that he saw in the spring of 1979. Richman complimented his range at shortstop and compared him favorably to Marty Marion. Red Sox manager Don Zimmer was also impressed. “If [Rick] Burleson got hurt tomorrow, Valdez would be my opening day shortstop,” Zimmer said. “If I had any guts, I’d open the season with the kid at second base.”

Instead, Valdez went to Triple-A Pawtucket to get regular playing time. Valdez was still working on his English, but he understood the decision. “He [Zimmer] tells me, ‘I think you have the ability. If we push you, I think it will hurt you.’ I understand what he means,” Valdez said. He hit .222 for Pawtucket in 1979 and .219 in 1980. Despite the low numbers, Valdez was brought to the majors in September. He debuted with an inning at shortstop on September 2 and then got his first at-bats in a 12-6 Red Sox loss to Seattle. He contributed an RBI double off reliever Byron McLaughlin for his first major-league hit and run driven in. He had two hits in his first start against Cleveland on September 16 and hit his only major-league home run in the second game of a doubleheader in Toronto. It came off Paul Mirabella and was the entirety of the Red Sox offense in a 3-1 loss. In 8 games with Boston, Valdez batted .263 and stole a couple of bases as well.

Valdez had an unabashed fan in Zimmer, who insisted on his promotion to the majors that September despite the low batting average and high error totals in Pawtucket. “I don’t care if this guy has hit .100 and made 100 errors. He’ll be a big leaguers. He’ll start in the big leagues, too. The major-league fields will help him to start with,” Zimmer said. Unfortunately, for Valdez, Zimmer was fired near the end of the 1980 season. Another youngster, Glenn Hoffman, played the majority of games at shortstop for new skipper Ralph Houk in 1981. Valdez wasn’t brought back to the Red Sox until August — which, on the bright side, meant that he kept playing in Pawtucket while the major leaguers were on strike. He made the most of his time, batting .258 and playing his best defense at shortstop yet.

“That would have been something if I had been called up in June,” he said. “Make the big leagues and then go on strike.”

When Valdez was brought back to the Sox in August, he called his father to tell him the good news. “Well, get to work,” he was told. That’s what Valdez did, albeit in limited opportunities. He had 5 hits in his first 13 at-bats with 3 runs driven in, and he ended the month of August with a .357 batting average. He went hitless in the month of September, though, to end the year with a .217 batting average. He spent the entire season with the Red Sox in 1982, but that didn’t gain any extra playing time. Middle infielders Jerry Remy (155 games) and Hoffman (150 games) hardly took days off, so Valdez played in 28 games as a shortstop, pinch-hitter and designated hitter. He batted .250 (5 hits in 20 at-bats) with 1 double, 1 RBI and 3 runs scored. He also suffered one of the most unusual injuries of the season. He and teammate Tony Perez were in Detroit and visited a friend of Perez. Valdez was carrying a plate of food when he walked into a glass door, getting a cut on his forehead that required 30 stitches to close.

“Julio showed me one thing: at least he’s got good hands and didn’t drop the plate,” Perez pointed out.

An injury to Remy gave Valdez the chance to start the season as the Red Sox second baseman in 1983. He started the team’s first eight games but managed only three hits in that time, plus his only major-league walk. He played a few more games as a defensive replacement or pinch-runner, ending April with a .120 batting average. Then Valdez’s career came to an abrupt end. It wasn’t an injury or a demotion to the minors; it was an arrest. If you don’t want to read about statutory rape, skip the next three paragraphs.

Valdez was arrested on Friday, May 5, 1983, at Fenway Park — in the seventh inning of a game against the Seattle Mariners, no less. Red Sox officials had been notified about the impending arrest, and Valdez was in the clubhouse waiting for officers. The 26-year-old Valdez, who was married, was charged with having sex with a 14-year-old girl in a motel after the Opening Day game on April 5. In an interview with The Boston Globe, the girl admitted that she lied about her age and said she was 17 years old. The age of consent in Massachusetts was 16. The girl had run away from her home in Berkley, Mass., on March 28 and had made her way to Boston with a friend. She already knew Valdez, having met him when he played for Pawtucket. Valdez admitted to being acquainted with the girl from Pawtucket but denied anything more than giving her autographed baseballs and pictures. Valdez testified that, on April 5, he met some Dominican friends after the game and went to a restaurant in Jamaica Plain and drinks at a hotel before going back to his motel room, ending the evening around 1:00am.

Source: The Boston Globe, August 30, 1983.

Valdez was released on $1,000 bail. The police said that no other ballplayers were under investigation in the matter. The Red Sox placed Valdez on the “restricted” list, which allowed him to continue to receive a salary. Red Sox spokesman George Sullivan said that he would be “on vacation” but would not work out with the team.

It’s unclear how thorough the police investigated the matter before making the arrest. However, the decision to arrest Valdez at Fenway Park during a game smacks of grandstanding by the Boston Police Department. It made the entire case a spectacle right from the start, and the public trial about the girl and her alleged motivations took place well before the actual legal trial for Valdez. This development will not surprise anybody who is familiar with more recent cases involving pro athletes and sexual misconduct. Any serious discussion about the crime that may or may not have taken place was pushed aside by talk of baseball groupies and “boys will be boys” excuses. It was especially heinous in this case, as the shaming was directed at a 14-year-old who had enough problems at home that she ran away and traveled 40 miles to Boston. Syndicated columnist Dick Young was the absolute worst, saying of Valdez, “They have nailed him to a cross.” For Young, it was a clear case of a seductive baseball groupie (who was fourteen years old, bear in mind) leading a poor ballplayer astray. He even threw in a bit of racism to boot, noting that Valdez was Dominican. “…in his native land, 17 is mature, if not middle age,” Young wrote.

The case against Valdez was dismissed in July when the grand jury failed to indict him. The Red Sox immediately designated him for assignment, but no other team claimed him. He returned to the Red Sox minor leagues, playing for New Britain for the remainder of 1983. After regaining his swing in 1984 with New Britain and Pawtucket, Valdez was granted free agency and signed with the Chicago Cubs organization. He played for Triple-A Iowa from 1985 through part of 1988, playing every position in the infield and even a handful of games in the outfield. Despite his versatility in the field, he never hit well enough for the Cubs to return him to the majors. He hit a career-best .276 in 1987, but it was in only 63 games, as he suffered a knee injury that carried over to the 1988 season. That year, the Cubs were managed by Zimmer — an early admirer of Valdez. Had his knee been in better condition, Valdez might have made the ’88 Cubs as a backup shortstop to Shawon Dunston. As it was, Valdez moved up and down the Cubs minors, rehabbing his injury but failing to hit .200 at any level. It was his last season as a pro ballplayer.

In parts of 4 seasons with the Red Sox, Valdez played in 65 games and had 96 plate appearances. He slashed .201/.231/.264 with 18 hits, including 2 doubles and 1 home run. He scored 11 runs and drove in 8. He walked once and struck out 18 times. Defensively, he had a .955 fielding percentage at shortstop over 196-1/3 innings, as well as a .939 percentage over 62 innings at second base. Valdez also hit .235 in 12 seasons in the minor leagues. He played Dominican winter ball in 9 seasons and hit .251, per his SABR bio. He was a part of two championship teams while playing as a reserve with Licey.

Valdez was taken to court in a civil lawsuit filed by the family of the girl who had accused him of statutory rape. A Boston Superior Court jury determined that the incident hadn’t taken place and ruled that Valdez was not liable for the $700,000 in damages the family was seeking. “I’m very happy that this is finally over,” Valdez said. “All this time I maintained my faith in God that it would turn out this way.”

After his playing career ended, Valdez worked as a hitting instructor in the Cubs organization. He then returned to the Dominican Republic and managed summer league teams off and on through 2018. His last assignment, according to the SABR bio, was manager of the Dominican Summer League White Sox from 2015-18. Valdez is survived by his wife Maria and six children.

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