Juan Alicea

New York Mets

Metscellaneous – Joey Wahler On The Mets: Happy 50th! Alicea Celebrates Half-Century As Mets Hispanic Trailblazer

April 25, 2019 - 2:39 pm
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By Joey Wahler

It’s been 50 years since the 1969 Miracle Mets, and 2019 also marks Juan Alicea’s silver anniversary as a key conduit between the club and New York’s Hispanic community.

In April of 1969, Alicea began working in Mets community relations, later combining that with being Spanish Broadcast Coordinator and radio analyst starting in 1982. He remains an analyst, teaming with Max Perez Jimenez and Nestor Rosario on 1050 AM ESPN Deportes. Alicea was mentored by legendary Spanish baseball journalist and broadcaster Juan Vene, who was then broadcasting major league games to Venezuela.

“So I sat with him for some games at Shea Stadium,” said Alicea, who turns 81 this June. “And he liked what I did, and I liked it. So why not? All I had to do was talk the Mets into getting into the Spanish radio business. And I would take care of the rest.”

Spanish broadcasts have since dramatically grown around the majors. “It gives the fans a choice, and you can give the club a bridge to stay connected,” Alicea said.

Building that bridge sums up Alicea’s Met career, in the community and the broadcast booth. The team had few Hispanic stars early on, so Alicea pitched Juan Marichal Night at Shea Stadium. Featuring the San Francisco Giants legend, that is.

“Some people in the organization asked me, ‘Why are we honoring Juan Marichal? He never played for the Mets,’” said Alicea, who had a plan. “Juan Marichal is coming to Shea Stadium. And we’re inviting all his fans to come and say hello. So we are renting the club to the Hispanic community for this one night. So that’s the flavor we gave it.”

Similarly seizing on Met opponents’ star power, Alicea planned nights honoring Marichal’s fellow Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez, plus stars Felipe Alou and Sammy Sosa. That helped fill Shea’s stands and draw Hispanics to the Mets.

“They came to have a party, to have a Latin party,” Alicea said. That relationship carried into the Big Apple’s Hispanic neighborhoods, fueled by those Latino heroes. “I took advantage of that, and whenever those clubs visited New York I made sure that they had some sort of touch with the community from our side,” Alicea said.

In the early and mid-1970’s, second baseman Felix Millan was one of the first Hispanic Met stars.  “He was a likable guy, and he stayed connected to the New York fan base,” Alicea said. While not Latino, Alicea says Met mainstays Ed Kranepool, Rusty Staub and Bud Harrelson were also very community oriented.

From Latin American Day to Merengue Night, Alicea spearheaded Shea’s first Hispanic-themed events at Met games, sprouting partnerships with sponsors like Goya. “When we did have a team that could compete, it was like a Salsa Night every night,” Alicea said.

Also serving as a scout under late talent evaluator Bubba Jonnard, Alicea’s keen eye led to the drafting of future Met mainstays Kranepool, Nino Espinosa and Lee Mazzilli. At James Monroe High School in the Bronx, Alicea scouted Kranepool, who joined the Mets in 1962 at age 17, starting his 17-year career as the team’s first baseman-outfielder.

“A big guy who could hit the long ball, and the homerun was important then as it is now,” Alicea recalled.

The Mets signed amateur free agent pitcher Arnulfo Espinosa in 1970, later known as Nino. From 1979-’81, the righty won 35 games for bottom feeding Met teams.

“I gave him the Nino name,” Alicea said. “Arnulfo Espinosa had pitched the weekend before in Brooklyn and looked pretty decent. So I got to see him for a little bit, part of a game. I arranged for a workout. And within a week we had him signed up. And (later) he was there with Craig Swan as our one-two pitchers on the staff.”

Lincoln High in Coney Island is where Alicea watched speedy, switch-hitting centerfielder Lee Mazzilli, who spent six productive years at Shea as a handsome, matinee idol. Mazzilli had a second Met stint as a valuable backup for their 1986 world champions.

“We didn’t know whether we had a shot at him in the draft,” Alicea said of Mazzilli, chosen 14th overall in 1973. “But I know that we knew he had talent to play in the major leagues.” Alicea says Mazzilli’s Sheepshead Bay roots contributed to his immense popularity.

“So it worked out for us and it was fun,” he said. “Everybody was happy with that one.”

Conceding to age, Alicea is reducing his broadcast schedule this year, celebrating a half-century benefitting the club.

“You join the organization with only one thought in mind,” he said. “That you want to make a contribution to make it better.”