Accidental Pioneer: Meet Baseball’s Original Utility Man

Versatility in baseball is coming back. To be fair, it may have never actually arrived in the first place. However, players who are capable of playing multiple positions and specialize in doing the little things that help win games are finally getting recognized around the game. Not too long ago, super-utility man Ben Zobrist signed a four-year, $56 million contract, showing how important those types of players have become. If flexibility and versatility are going to start to become valuable commodities throughout baseball, it’s only fair to recognize the player who helped to pioneer that role in the big leagues, Jose Oquendo.

“It’s so much help for a manager when you have guys who can play multiple positions because he can play around with pieces and plug holes with a bunch of guys in a bunch of different ways.”

Joey Cora

Oquendo was undersized but scrappy, and even when he was pushed to the bench, he found a way to carve out a role on a major league roster for himself. Without even realizing it at the time, Oquendo would become the model for a type of player that has quietly gone from oddity to luxury to necessity.

Of course, Oquendo, like everyone, had aspirations of being a star, or at least an everyday player. In fact, at one time he appeared destined for stardom. The New York Mets signed him out of his native Puerto Rico when he was just 15 years old. Oquendo ended up making his major league debut when he was only 19.

Alas, it was not meant to be. The young and undersized Oquendo struggled in New York and was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, who went him back to the minors for the 1985 season. Upon his return to the big leagues in 1986, Oquendo was blocked by legendary shortstop Ozzie Smith, forcing him to a variety of different positions in order to get on the field.

But Oquendo embraced his role as a nomadic fielder. During the 1987 season, he played every position except catcher, even making his first big league appearance as a pitcher. In 1988, he got behind the plate and spent at least one inning at all nine positions. More importantly, he played them well. Even on the mound, he gave the Cardinals a couple scoreless innings before ultimately taking the loss in a 19-inning game.

Of course, Oquendo moving from one position to the next was no gimmick. The Cardinals were hit hard by injuries that season. When Terry Pendleton missed time, Oquendo was able to take over at third base. When Jim Lindeman was hurt, Oquendo was able to play first base. He even replaced a slumping Vince Coleman in the outfield for an extended period of time. His versatility during that season prompted Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog to give Oquendo the nickname of “the secret weapon.”

“Overall, he’s the best I’ve ever seen doing what he does.”

Whitey Herzog

Eventually, Oquendo’s willingness to play anywhere and do whatever it took to help the team paid off. From 1989 to 1991, he was the primary second baseman for the Cardinals, playing alongside Smith in what was a defensively brilliant middle infield. During the 1990 season, Oquendo committed just three errors, the fewest ever committed by a second baseman who played at least 150 games. For his career, Oquendo had a .992 fielding percentage at second base, but somehow it was never good enough to pry the Gold Glove award from Ryne Sandberg, who won nine in a row from 1983 to 1991.

Unfortunately for Oquendo, a hamstring injury in 1992 forced him to miss most of the season. He was never able to get his starting job back afterward. For the rest of his career, he returned to being a flexible and unselfish utility man. By both embracing and excelling in that role, Oquendo helped to pave the way for a new type of player who could carve out a fulfilling career in such a role. All of the utility men playing today who make big money and receive great praise should feel forever indebted to Oquendo.