Pedro Borbon was best-known as a Reds pitcher, but it was with the Cardinals that the right-hander began his professional playing career and ended his big-league tenure.
Borbon, 65, died June 4 in Texas. Most of his obituaries rightly focused on his years as a reliable reliever for the Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s. In 12 big-league seasons (1969-80), Borbon was 69-39 with 80 saves. He pitched in the World Series for the Reds in 1972, ’75 and ’76. He won 11 and saved 14 for Cincinnati in 1973 and was 10-5 with 18 saves for the ’77 Reds.
What’s not as well-known is that Borbon became a professional baseball player on one of the most magical days in Cardinals history. The Dominican was signed as a non-drafted free agent by St. Louis on Oct. 15, 1964, the day the Cardinals won Game 7 of the World Series against the Yankees.
Borbon was a success in his three seasons in the St. Louis system. He was 6-1 with a 1.96 ERA in 38 games for Class A Cedar Rapids in 1966 and 5-4 with a 2.29 ERA in 36 games for Class A St. Petersburg in 1967. Both clubs were managed by Ron Plaza.
In 1968, Borbon, 21, caught the attention of several big-league organizations with his performance for the Cardinals’ Class A Modesto club of the California League.
He established a league record by appearing in 18 consecutive games without allowing an earned run. In a May 15 game against Fresno, with the score 4-4, Modesto manager Joe Cunningham brought in Borbon in the ninth inning with a runner on first, one out and a 3-and-0 count on batter Chris Arnold. Borbon struck out Arnold on three pitches and catcher Ted Simmons, 18, threw out the runner attempting to steal second. Modesto scored in the bottom of the ninth, giving Borbon the win.
Borbon finished 8-5 with a 2.34 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 100 innings for Modesto in ’68. In December, the two-time defending National League champion Cardinals failed to protect Borbon on their major-league roster and he was chosen by the Angels as the fourth pick in the first round of the Rule 5 draft.
The Angels were one of at least five big-league clubs that rated Borbon as the best available player in the draft, according to The Sporting News.
“He might be a real catch,” Angels manager Bill Rigney said. “Everyone was high on him.”
Borbon made the Angels’ roster in ’69. He got the win in his major-league debut on April 9 against the Seattle Pilots. Boxscore He finished 2-3 with a 6.15 ERA in 22 games for the ’69 Angels. In November, the Angels dealt Borbon and pitchers Jim McGlothlin and Vern Geishert to the Reds for outfielder Alex Johnson and infielder Chico Ruiz. Bob Howsam, the Reds’ general manager, had been the Cardinals’ general manager when Borbon signed with St. Louis.
Eleven years later, Borbon, 33, was looking for work after being released by the Giants in April 1980. The Cardinals gave him a job as their batting practice pitcher. After two weeks, they determined Borbon was better than some of the pitchers in their bullpen. St. Louis relievers had a collective 7.46 ERA. Desperate for help, general manager John Claiborne acquired Jim Kaat, 41, from the Yankees and signed Borbon. A headline in The Sporting News blared, “Redbirds Turn to Greybeards to Liven Up Their Bullpen.”
Borbon provided immediate results. He pitched three scoreless relief innings against the Astros in his Cardinals debut on May 3, 1980. Boxscore
In his second Cardinals appearance, Borbon earned a save _ and got revenge against the team that released him _ with 2.2 scoreless relief innings against the Giants. Boxscore
Borbon’s third appearance resulted in his first Cardinals win _and last of his big-league career _ in a 15-7 St. Louis victory over the Dodgers. Boxscore
But Borbon’s effectiveness soon waned. He yielded a home run in each of his final three appearances. The last two came in consecutive games _ a three-run homer by Padres catcher Gene Tenace on May 24 Boxscore and a grand slam by Padres third baseman Barry Evans (his second and last home run of a five-year big-league career) on May 25. Boxscore
Four weeks after they had added him to the roster, the Cardinals released Borbon. His St. Louis record: 1-0 with one save and a 3.79 ERA in 10 games. With that, Borbon’s big-league career was finished.
His son, a left-handed pitcher also named Pedro Borbon, had a nine-year big-league career with the Braves, Dodgers, Blue Jays, Astros and Cardinals. Like his father, he finished as a Cardinal, pitching seven games for St. Louis in 2003 and posting an 0-1 record and 20.25 ERA.
Previously: Ron Plaza was mentor to Steve Carlton, Jose Cruz