One of the best stories of the Orioles’ 2020 season was the return to the major leagues of 35-year-old César Valdez. The Orioles signed him out of the Mexican League. He wasn’t invited to major league spring training, but he performed well as an extra pitcher during Grapefruit League games.
The Orioles added him to the roster for the last four weeks of the season. In his first big league appearances since 2017, he had a 1.26 ERA in nine games, allowing two earned runs on seven hits in 14 1/3 innings. What made his story even better was the way he got hitters out — with slow and slower stuff while everyone else was focused on the radar gun.
Valdez, who has pitched in just 29 major league games with Arizona, Oakland, Toronto and the Orioles, will pitch for Licey in the Dominican Winter League for the eighth time. That season begins on Sunday.
With the assistance of Orioles interpreter Rámon Alarcon, Valdez spoke from the Dominican Republic on a Zoom call.
This interview was edited for style.
Question: What was last season like?
Valdez: “It was a blessing from God. It was a great opportunity provided by the Baltimore Orioles, and it’s something I’m never going to forget. I was not expecting something like that to happen at this stage in my life. It did, and I’m very appreciative for it.”
Q: How surprising was that opportunity?
A: “To be quite honest, I was not expecting something like this to happen at 35 years old. It was very surprising to me. That’s why I’m very happy about it. I was so excited about it. It gave me a lot of joy and pride. I’m looking forward to more next year. Hopefully, I can continue to be with the organization and just provide what I can do.”
Q: You’ve never pitched a full season in the big leagues. Is that your next goal?
A: ”That is something that’s on my mind. If given the opportunity to come back, I’d like to do that. Right now, I’m getting ready for it. I’m training and, hopefully, I get that opportunity. It’s something I’m missing in my career and, hopefully, I can accomplish that next year.”
Q: How was it being the old guy in the bullpen with all those young pitchers?
A: “I felt comfortable with the group of guys that were there with me. There was a whole lot of respect from me, and from them. They made me feel comfortable right from the get-go. It’s something I’m never going to forget, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again next season.”
Q: Did they come to you with questions because you were the veteran?
A: “They wanted to know my grip, how I grip my ball, and how I threw my pitches and my breaking ball, especially my changeup. They wanted to learn more about the Mexican League, and where I was the past few years. It was good to provide that feedback to them. Hopefully, they can use it for their development.”
Q: In today’s baseball, pitchers are taught to throw as hard as can for as long as they can. Do you feel different because that’s not your style of pitching?
A: “It’s no secret that I’m not a flamethrower. I don’t throw 95 mph. I can’t do that, but I try to stick with what I have. I try to do what I’ve been successful at and try to do it as often as I can. That’s how it’s been throughout my career, and that’s what’s gotten me an opportunity at the big-league level. I’ll try to continue to do that.
Q: Your numbers in the Dominican and Mexican leagues were so good in 2018 and 2019. Did you change anything to make yourself so successful?
A: “I have made several changes from five or six years ago. One of them is to change the angle of my pitches, also try to increase movement of my pitches and especially to play around with my changeup to try to make it as unpredictable as possible. I made several adjustments in my career. I had to do it in order to survive.”
Q: What was pitching in the Mexican League like as a veteran? Was it a comedown from the major leagues?
A: “At the beginning, it was very tough. Obviously, I was not used to that kind of baseball before. It’s the same baseball, but it’s a different league. I had to make an adjustment to playing in that league. My mindset was that I need to provide for my family, so I need to do whatever it takes in order to support my family.”
Q: Most people think that baseball players make lots of money, but you’ve had to struggle. How would you compare your lifestyle with other big leaguers? (Valdez laughed at the idea that all players are wealthy.)
A: “I signed to play professional baseball in 2005 for a signing bonus of $7,000. Definitely, in my case, I haven’t had the privilege of making millions and millions of dollars. I’m very thankful for the family that I have, for the teachings of my parents. They taught me not to throw away money. I’ve always had the support from them. That’s my main thing, to try to take care of my family and support them. I am comfortable. I have my house. I have my family. I can provide for them, but it’s definitely been a long journey.”
Q: What’s been the hardest part of your journey?
A: “In 2014, I was not able to play baseball anywhere. I was hurt and that was a really tough situation for me. I’m very thankful for the wife that I have. She was able to provide for our family and support me during those difficult times. I’m never going to forget that. The following year, 2015, I lost my dad. That was a very painful experience.”
Q: Are you going to pitch in the Dominican Winter League?
A: “I am. I will participate this season. The season starts on Sunday. I’m going to pitch out of the bullpen just to keep my arm active and to be ready for spring training.”
Q: Are you doing this because it’s enjoyable or to help support your family?
A: “I enjoy it and also it’s an opportunity for my arm to continue to be active. I’ve been used to pitching winter ball for so many years. That’s what I’m used to by this time so I’m looking forward to it.”