Cuellar part of famed Orioles rotation

Updated: April 3, 2010, 2:21 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Mike Cuellar, a crafty left-hander from Cuba whose darting screwball made him a World Series champion and Cy Young Award winner with the Baltimore Orioles, died Friday. He was 72.

The Orioles confirmed Cuellar's death, but did not release other details. According to The Baltimore Sun, Cuellar died of stomach cancer at Orlando Regional Medical Center in Florida.

Mike Cuellar
AP PhotoMike Cuellar helped the Orioles to three straight World Series appearances, including the championship in 1970.

Cuellar made his major league debut in 1959 and bounced around Cincinnati, St. Louis and Houston for almost a decade before a trade sent him to Baltimore. Wearing the black-and-orange bird logo, he blossomed as part of one of the most imposing pitching staffs in baseball history -- in 1971, he was among the Orioles' four 20-game winners.

A four-time All-Star, Cuellar was 185-130 overall with a 3.14 ERA. He was voted into the Orioles' Hall of Fame.

"He sure was an ace," Hall of Fame teammate Brooks Robinson told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday night. "He had a way of making good hitters look bad, making them take funny swings."

Cuellar joined the Orioles in 1969, and that year became the first Baltimore pitcher to win the AL Cy Young Award, sharing the honor with Detroit's Denny McLain.

Cuellar went 23-11 with five shutouts that season, including a game in which he held Minnesota hitless until Cesar Tovar's soft, leadoff single in the ninth inning.

Cuellar helped pitch Baltimore to three straight World Series appearances from 1969 to 1971. He finished off that run by teaming with Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Pat Dobson to become the only staff other than the 1920 Chicago White Sox with a quartet of 20-game winners.

Though often overshadowed in the rotation by Palmer, a future Hall of Famer, and McNally, another great lefty, Cuellar pitched more than his share of big games.

Mike was a monstrous part of the great teams we had from 1969 to 1971. He was an artist on the mound and a player [whose acquisition] put us over the top.

-- Former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, as told to The Baltimore Sun

"I think when he got to Baltimore, he wanted to be like those other guys," Robinson said. "He wanted to win as many games as Palmer and McNally. He wanted the ball."

Cuellar is the third of the quartet to pass away. McNally died in 2002, and Dobson died in 2006. Palmer, 64, is currently an Orioles broadcast analyst.

Cuellar started the first AL Championship Series game ever, in 1969 against Minnesota. He then outdueled Tom Seaver in Game 1 of the World Series -- it was the Orioles' only win while getting upset by the New York Mets.

In 1970, Cuellar won a career-high 24 games and again excelled in the postseason, this time with both his arm and his bat. A career .115 hitter, Cuellar highlighted Game 1 of the ALCS with a grand slam.

He then closed out the World Series by beating Cincinnati in Game 5 at old Memorial Stadium. After giving up three runs in the first inning, he shut out the Reds on two hits the rest of the way. Cuellar raised both arms after the final out and skipped toward third base for an embrace with Robinson -- the picture is among the most popular in Orioles lore.

"I can still see it, his arms up in the air," Robinson said.

Cuellar pitched a gem in his final World Series appearance, but lost Game 7 in 1971 to Pittsburgh 2-1.

"Mike was a monstrous part of the great teams we had from 1969 to 1971," Earl Weaver, the Orioles manager during that time, told The Baltimore Sun. "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 finished 143-88 with the Orioles and ended his career in 1977 with the Angels.

Robinson said he first saw Cuellar while playing against him in Cuba in the winter leagues.

"He and I were the same age. I used to kid him all the time that he'd already been pitching in Cuba for five years. That used to get him going," Robinson said.

Cuellar had been living in Orlando, Fla., in recent times and last year was a volunteer pitching instructor for the Orioles at spring training.

"If there was ever a guy who epitomized what the Orioles are all about, it's Mike Cuellar,'' current manager Dave Trembley said, according to The Sun. "All he ever wanted to do was help the Orioles."

Last May, he returned to Baltimore for an Orioles reunion weekend and threw out the first pitch at Camden Yards before a game against the New York Yankees.

His ceremonial duties done, he sat in the stands with family members and friends in the back row of the lower deck, enjoying the evening and hardly recognized by nearby fans.

"He was a humble man," Robinson said. "He didn't brag about himself."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.