There have only been three Ismaels to appear in a Major League Baseball game. The most successful member of these only carried Ismael as a middle name: David Ismael Concepcion. The least successful, Ismael Villegas, appeared in one game for the Atlanta Braves. He allowed 4 runs in 2.2 innings against the Montreal Expos, serving up home runs to Orlando Cabrera and Rondell White. That leaves Ismael Valdez.
For the sake of this article, we’ll just call him Ismael. He was a complicated man: a quiet, occasionally bespectacled middle of the rotation guy. His stuff was so underwhelming that in the 1999 video game Ken Griffey Jr’s Slugfest, his specialty pitch was the eephus-like Super Change. In mid-nineties Los Angeles, he was mostly known for being megastar Hideo Nomo’s best friend on the team – this was such a big honor that my friends and I simply called him that: “Nomo’s Friend.”
I remember one postgame autographic-seeking mission in which a buddy and I were able to finagle the location of Hideo Nomo’s super secret parking spot (he needed one in those days, believe it or not, to avoid the paparazzi masses). After making our way through at least a dozen of Chavez Ravine’s tiered mini-lots, we came across a quiet, mostly empty area. Out came Nomo and Ismael. They signed for a few moments and got into their respective cars: Nomo boarded a quiet sedan with his translator. Ismael raced off in a bright yellow sports car that I think was a Ferrari.
The irony of those years is that Ismael was just as good as the sensationalized Nomo. Between 1995 and 1999, he won 58 games, averaged 200 innings per season, and put up a 3.38 era and a K/BB ratio around 2.5. But he did it all in the shadow of flashier young Dodgers; next to guys like Nomo, Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi, and Chan Ho Park, Ismael did not offer much excitement. He was not fun to watch. He was not a good interview. He was simply a professional. Those five unexciting years were the extent of Ismael’s effectiveness as a major league pitcher.
Before the 2000 season, he was traded along with Eric Young to the Chicago Cubs for a package centered on pitcher Terry Adams. In June, he headed back to Los Angeles in another trade. Ismael was atrocious in both cities and everywhere else he pitched for the rest of his career. He bounced around for a few years, never quite catching on in Texas, Anaheim, San Diego, Seattle or Florida. His most notable achievement in those years was the quiet correction of his surname from Valdes to Valdez.
When the Marlins granted the now accurately-named Ismael Valdez free agency after the 2005 season, it seemed he would ride off into the sunset. Perhaps he would pitch for a few years in Japan or his native Mexico, or simply sit on the twenty-odd million dollars he made as a major league pitcher. And that’s how it would have gone, too. He would have remained a fondly remembered journeyman, an underappreciated member of the internationally flavored Dodgers of the 1990s.
Certainly nobody expected his name to pop up in the 2007 Mitchell Report. But there it was, Ismael Valdez. Wikipedia says he was believed to have purchased Human Growth Hormone on the internet, perhaps in a desperate attempt to stave off the end of his career; to keep his fastball from dipping below the mid-80s in velocity. There he was, accusing an Angels trainer of injecting his sore shoulder with testosterone in 2001. Call him Valdez.