The Houston Astros completed a four game sweep of the Phillies yesterday in Philadelphia, which is not only remarkable unto itself but is also surprisingly consistent with how much the Astros have owned the Phillies in the last few years. Since 2004, Houston is 30-16 against Philadelphia; the only National League team with a winning record against the two-time NL Champs.
Helping to power the Astros effort was Carlos Lee, of Aguadulce, Panama, who had 2 doubles, 2 home runs, and 6 RBI’s in the four game series. “El Caballo” had been having a subpar season thus far for his standards, only hitting .245 with 16 home runs, and an OPS hovering around .700 going in to the series, but there seems to be something about the Phillies that brings out the best in every Astro.
Lee is a tremendous player whose numbers are probably suffering, in part, from the Year Of The Pitcher. He’s signed with Houston through at least 2012, but with a $19 million salary this season he will probably get moved by the rebuilding Astros, seeing as how he’s already 34 years old.
No matter what Lee does, he will probably always be known as the second best hitter to come out of Panama, the first being Rod Carew. Actually, the Hall of Famer Carew was technically born inside the U.S. controlled Panama Canal Zone, went to high school in New York, and was never the home run hitter (92 career home runs), that El Caballo is (325 HR as of yesterday).
Now, allow me to go off on a tangent about baseball in Panama, because it’s a great country with great people, and they love baseball:
For being such a small country (3.3 million population), Panama has produced many noteworthy players. Of course, everyone knows who Mariano Rivera is, but there have been many other notables to come out of Panama, including Roberto Kelly, Ben Oglive (who also went to high school in the U.S.), and Manny Sanguillen; all of the aforementioned multiple time Major League All-Stars.
A total of 51 Panamanian-born players (include the Panama Canal Zone) have played in the Major Leagues. Though a few of them were Americans whose parents were U.S. service men or women, the vast majority of them have been native Panamanians. Some of the other current Panamanian players in the Majors include Bruce Chen, Manny Acosta, Manuel Corpas, Luis Durango, Carlos Ruiz, and Ruben Tejada.
A couple of years ago, I was on a flight from the U.S. to Panama, along with a number of Panamanian baseball players who were returning home after the U.S. minor league seasons had ended. It was pretty cool to see them with their MLB duffel bags, walking out of the airport terminal in Panama City and being greeted by family, friends, girlfriends, and local sportswriters after their stint in the U.S. for the summer.
In 2009, there were 32 Panamanian-born players in the U.S. minor leagues; again, quite an impressive number for such a small country though it demonstrates how ingrained the sport is in to the social fabric of Panama. If you are ever in Panama during the U.S. baseball season you will see MLB games on in nearly every restaurant or bar that has a television, especially if the Yankees or Astros are playing!
Panama once had a professional baseball league, but its been many years since its existence, and various efforts to ressurect it have been unsucessful. Recently, however, Major League Baseball has voiced its support for a professional league in Panama, as it realizes more than anyone else the amount of baseball talent that exists in the country. Perhaps, with the support of MLB, another pro league in Panama is in the not-so-distant future.