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A look back at Cookie Rojas

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Tallis pulls off another great trade

Octavio Victor Rojas, known to Royals fans as “Cookie”, was born March 6, 1939 in Havana, Cuba. Octavio’s mother nicknamed him Cuqui, which is Spanish for charming or adorable. Looking at that face, with his wide rim glasses and full smile, the name is fitting. Naturally, when Octavio started playing baseball in America, the nicknamed got anglicized to Cookie. Cookie’s father, who was a physician, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. Thankfully, he chose his own path and Royal fans were forever grateful.

Cookie Rojas has led one of the more interesting lives I’ve ever read about in baseball. He was signed by the Cincinnati Reds as a 17-year-old free agent in 1956. He steadily moved up their minor league system, making his major league debut in April 1962, but the Reds were stocked at second base, including a youngster named Pete Rose, so they traded Cookie to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1962 season.

While with the Reds, Cookie got his first major league hit, a single off of Sandy Koufax. He hit his first Major League home run in 1963 at the Polo Grounds and played shortstop during Jim Bunnings perfect game in 1964 in what Cookie calls, “The game I’ll never forget.”

While a member of the Phillies, Cookie played every position on the field. Always excellent with the glove and blessed with quick hands, Cookie started to put it together in 1964, hitting .291. He batted a career high .303 the following season and was selected to play in his first All-Star game. Teamed with Phillie shortstop Bobby Wine, the pair formed the best double play combination in the National League. Vin Scully termed the duo, “The plays of Wine and Rojas” a takeoff on a popular 1962 movie called “The Days of Wine and Roses”.

Late in September, during the 1964 season, with the Phillie’s struggling to hold onto a division lead, Cookie was involved in one of the most controversial plays in Phillie history. The Phillies held a slim ninth inning lead over the Milwaukee Braves. Hank Aaron hit a sinking liner to second that Cookie made a diving catch on. Except the umpire ruled it a trap. Rojas was ejected in the ensuing argument and the call opened the door for a Braves rally and another Philly loss. Five decades later Cookie, and legions of Phillie fans are adamant that he caught that ball, and if the ump hadn’t blown the call, the Phillies would have won the game and the pennant.

In 1969, the Phillies had a young Denny Doyle surging through their farm system, so in October they traded Cookie to St. Louis in a blockbuster trade that changed the course of baseball history. In addition to Rojas, the Cardinals received slugging first baseman Dick Allen and pitcher Jerry Johnson in exchange for Tim McCarver, Byron Browne, Joe Hoerner and Curt Flood. Flood however, refused to report to the Phillies and subsequently sued commissioner Bowie Kuhn and Major League Baseball, challenging the Reserve Clause which ultimately led to player free agency and the introduction of the 10/5 rule, which became known as the Curt Flood Rule. 10/5 stated that when a player has played for one team for five consecutive years and in the Major Leagues for ten years, they have to give the club their consent to be traded.

The Cardinals already had a solid second baseman in Julian Javier, and after a slow start, St. Louis traded Cookie to Kansas City in June of 1970, for utility player Fred Rico. New Royals manager Bob Lemon plugged Cookie into second base and he responded by hitting in eleven of his first thirteen games while providing veteran leadership to the young Royals.

A rejuvenated Rojas made four consecutive American League All-Star teams between the 1971 and 1974 seasons. In the 1972 Summer classic, Cookie hit a pinch hit, two run home run in the eight inning to give the American League the lead. The home run was the first by a non-American born player representing the American League in the mid-summer classic. In all, Rojas made five All Star teams, and with his selection to the American League squad in 1971, became just the ninth player in history to play in the All-Star game for both leagues.

Cookie also holds the distinction of being the first Royal player to hit a grand slam home run in Royals Stadium, when he connected on May 28, 1974 against the Baltimore Orioles. Cookie was also part of the first triple play in Royals history on August 13, 1972, against the Texas Rangers, which went 2-5-4-5: Kirkpatrick to Schaal to Rojas to Schaal.

In 1973, Rojas achieved career highs in RBI (69) and doubles with 29. His biggest impact though, came on the field and in the clubhouse.

On the field, Cookie teamed with Fred Patek to form the greatest double play combo in Royals history and one of the best in major league history. Royals announcer Denny Matthews said of Patek and Rojas, “they were the first guys I ever saw work on the play, where, on a groundball up the middle, the second baseman gets to it, backhands it and flips it to the shortstop with a backhand motion of his glove.”

In fact, in 1972 alone, Rojas and Patek pulled off this feat five separate times, with Rojas flipping the ball to Patek, who would then gun out the runner at first. Rojas and Patek seemed to have a second sense of where the other would be. They also enjoyed playing together. Prior to a 1974 game, while fielding batting practice, a waltz began playing over the Royals Stadium speakers. Patek moved to his left, Rojas moved to his right. They met behind second base, embraced in a dancing pose and started to waltz to the cheers of teammates and fans.

Max Rieper rates Rojas the 29th greatest Royal of all time, which sounds about right. However, in terms of clubhouse influence, I would rate him in the top five. There are certain players and managers, who with their will to win or their leadership, can turn a team into a winner. Among those in Kansas City history are luminaries such as George Brett, Hal McRae and Whitey Herzog. More recently, James Shields was a player whose experience and leadership showed a young team how to win. I believe Rojas played a similar role on those early Royal teams.

Cookie was a season veteran who had played in tight pennant races. He was a hard worker and a vocal leader. I still remember a game in 1973, when Cookie argued with the second base umpire about a close call that went against Kansas City. After some persuasion, the umpire reversed his call and ruled the runner out at second. Understand, in those pre-replay days, this never happened. The event made the nightly national news.

After helping the Royals clinch their first American League West pennant in 1976, Cookie and Fred Patek climbed into the right field water fountains for an impromptu celebration, much to the delight of the Kansas City fans. In a limited role, Rojas performed well in the 1976 and 1977 playoffs, going four for thirteen for a .308 average. One of Cookie’s biggest roles was grooming future superstar, Frank White, to take his job. Rojas played for four teams over a sixteen-year career, collecting 1,660 hits good for a .263 batting average. Remarkably, Rojas never won a Gold Glove, though he ended his career with a fielding percentage of .9837. Bill James ranks Rojas as the 69th best second baseman in Major League history. After his retirement, after the 1977 season, Rojas was elected to the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame (2013), the Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame (1982) and the Royals Hall of Fame (1987). He managed the California Angels during the 1988 season and is currently the Spanish language television announcer for the Miami Marlins.