George Diaz: After Cuellar’s death, an outpouring of goodwill

Former Oriole’s burial costs

April 12, 2010

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 Millán. 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.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego and e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com.

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