A good man died recently.
To his former teammates with the Baltimore Orioles, Mike Cuellar was a carefree, superstitious soul who needed to wear the same cap on days that he pitched. Perhaps that's where he found the magic in that nasty screwball.
To Cuban-Americans, he was part of the country's rich baseball legacy from his days as a pitcher with the Havana Sugar Kings.
To fans from Baltimore to Central Florida, he was a humble guy who always had time for a handshake and a smile.
There was another face of Mike Cuellar, too. He died a poor man. He was barely getting by, going from paycheck to paycheck on a limited pension, when he died on April 2 at Orlando Regional Medical Center. His family didn't make any pre-arrangements. There was no money to pay for a visitation and mass service, followed by a proper burial.
And that's when the goodwill for Cuellar mushroomed into a poignant tribute. A lot of people decided to pay it forward, literally, and honor Cuellar's legacy.
Hall of Fame teammates Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer reached out with kindness and contributions. A group of Cuban-American businessmen from Central Florida galvanized fund-raising efforts. A bunch of ordinary fans reached out after reading a column I wrote on Cuellar, published a day before his death, wanting to help.
The tab is getting picked up, dollar by dollar, check by check, in increments of $50 here and there to multithousand-dollar donations. The leftover money will go to his family.
"I didn't expect that much help for him," said his daughter, Lydia Cuellar. "I appreciate everything that everyone did."
I don't know of many people who aren't jaded by the egos and the excess of professional sports these days. There is none of that in this story.
Cuellar, who died at 72, never made the Monopoly money that today's players rake in so easily. He earned $20,500 in 1969, the year he won 23 games and earned the Cy Young Award as the American League's best pitcher. By contrast, the average salary for the basement-dwelling Orioles this season is slightly over $3.1 million. "The bittersweet thing about our era is that we didn't make a whole lot of money," Palmer said. "But we had a chance to be part of history during a special time. Mike played with Brooks, Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, Mark Belanger. He played with some really good players who made him better, and in turn, he made them better."
Cuellar's family struggled to get by on his monthly pension of $3,100 after he retired to Central Florida, most recently living in Clermont. Cuellar's dying days were marked by a steady decline in health, starting with a brain aneurism and ending with cancer in the stomach.
That's when so many generous souls made sure there would be no pauper's funeral for Cuellar. More than enough money was raised to pick up the burial costs of $10,160.
The group of Cuban-Americans, including former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, CNL bank executive Cesar Calvet and attorney Marcos Marchena, raised $5,250 in a matter of days, with checks still trickling in Monday to Calvet's office. "Another $100 came in from a fan in Maryland," Calvet wrote in an e-mail Monday.
Brooks Robinson and his wife Connie were set to mail off a card and check to Cuellar's widow Myriam on Monday. Through the sadness, Robinson smiled at the memories.
"We were like a bunch of kids in that clubhouse," he said. "Every time I'd see him I'd say, 'oye, que pasa?'...There certainly is a bond between all of us. When I think of Mike Cuellar, I get a big smile on my face."
There are smiles shooting back at Cuellar everywhere: His golfing buddy and former All-Star infielder Felix MillÃƒÂ¡n. Cuban compatriot and former major league strikeout king Camilo Pascual, who drove up from Miami for the visitation. Sam McDowell, the former Cleveland Indians pitcher who now works with an organization designed to help retired players.
On his death bed, Mike Cuellar got what he deserved all these years: An abundance of riches, measured by the power of compassion and love.
The photo tells all.
Arms raised in a triumphant "V," body flushed with joy, Orioles pitcher Mike Cuellar leaps off the mound at Memorial Stadium, having stuffed the Cincinnati Reds, 9-3 in the deciding game of the 1970 World Series.
"I can still see the look on Mike's face," third baseman Brooks Robinson recalled Friday. "His mouth was wide open and he had a big, big smile."
Miguel Angel Cuellar died Friday of stomach cancer at the Orlando (Fla.) Regional Medical Center. He was 72.
Of his 185 big league victories, none meant more than that World Series win to Cuellar, the Cuban-born left-hander who revived his flagging career in Baltimore -- as well as the Orioles' fortunes.
He was a 32-year-old junk-ball pitcher thought to be past his prime when obtained in a trade from Houston Astros for outfielder Curt Blefary in 1968. Instead, Cuellar blossomed into a workhorse who helped anchor a storied rotation that carried the Orioles to three American League pennants, five playoff appearances and three World Series.
Four times, he won 20 or more games. Seven times, he pitched at least 248 innings. His first year in Baltimore, Cuellar went 23-11, pitched five shutouts and became the first Oriole hurler (and Latin American) to win the American League Cy Young Award, sharing it with Denny McLain of the Detroit Tigers.
"When Mike came, he solidified the whole pitching staff," center fielder Paul Blair said. "We had complete confidence in him, Dave McNally and Jim Palmer when they walked out on the mound.
"We knew that if we scored two or three runs -- four at the most -- we'd win the game. That's a great feeling for a team."
In Cuellar's first three seasons in Baltimore, the club won 318 games, reaching the Series each year. In 1969, the Orioles lost to the New York Mets in five games, Cuellar recording the only victory.
"Mike was a monstrous part of the great teams we had from 1969 to 1971," said Earl Weaver, the Hall of Fame manager. "He was an artist on the mound and a player [whose acquisition] put us over the top.
"Several times, down the stretch, he pitched with two days' rest, when we needed it."
Cuellar's best year was 1970, when he went 24-8 and led the league in both victories and complete games (21).
"He should have won the Cy that year, but not doing so never affected his performance," Palmer said. "Mike was, arguably, the best left-hander in the game from 1969 to 1974, but he never got his due.
"Like [Hall of Fame outfielder] Frank Robinson, he came here, embraced the Oriole Way and changed the destiny of our franchise."
The man best known for his screwball had his share of quirks. A notoriously slow starter, he pitched best as games, and the pennant race, heated up.
"I belong to hot weather," Cuellar liked to say. "Cold weather no good for baseball or me."
Teammates called him "Crazy Horse" for all of his superstitions. He always sat in the same spot on the bench. On days that he pitched, Cuellar refused to give autographs and wouldn't budge from the dugout until his catcher donned his shin guards every inning.
"Mike never stepped on a foul line," first baseman Boog Powell said. "If his stride was off and he got too close, he used a little 'chicken hop' to step over it."
Weaver said that Cuellar had a lucky cap, which he once forgot to take on a road trip to Milwaukee.
"We had to call the clubhouse man back in Baltimore to airmail that [bleeping] hat to us," Weaver said.
The Orioles took Cuellar's eccentricities in stride.
"Mike had a lot of things that he had to do," Blair said tactfully. "But whatever he did, it worked."
Cuellar's record with the Orioles: 143 victories and 88 losses. He ranks second on the team, all-time, in complete games (133) and third in shutouts (30).
His last victory for Baltimore, in 1976, was a three-hit, 2-0 win over the Texas Rangers and Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry. Cuellar was 39 at the time.
Players marveled at his screwball, the slow, sweeping curve and the crafty way that Cuellar set them up.
"To watch him pitch was amazing," Orioles reliever Dick Hall said. "It seemed like every time hitters took a pitch, it was right at the knees for a strike, and if they swung, it wasn't."
Cuellar's savvy frustrated the Orioles' opponents.
"His fastball couldn't black my eye, but he owns my hitters' minds," Detroit manager Billy Martin once said.
"Miguel was a magician out there," Powell said. "He made hitters look comical, like they could have swung three times before the ball got there. A couple of times, I almost had to call time-out because I was laughing my head off.
"I adored the way he pitched and loved playing behind him. It was fun, like when you were a kid. You felt like yelling, 'Hey, batta, batta, batta ..."
Cuellar's death means that of the four Orioles pitchers to win 20 or more games in 1971, only Palmer survives. McNally died in 2002 and Pat Dobson, in 2006.
Only one other team in history -- the 1920 Chicago White Sox -- produced four 20-game winners in one season.