Grove of Dreams

The life and times of orange picker-turned-big leaguer Jesse Flores

In the off-season, Flores and other former big leaguers visited Mexico to conduct baseball clinics, opening the country to Major League Baseball. But Flores never talked much about himself to others. “I didn’t know how big of a player he was until I was older,” says Al Molina, who grew up in La Habra. His father, Pedro, played alongside Flores on Los Juveniles, sparking a lifelong friendship that resulted in Flores becoming Al’s padrino—his godfather.

“That’s the funny part—Jesse wasn’t that type of person,” Molina continues. “I knew bits and pieces of his background—that he had made the majors for several years, something my father said was really difficult in those days. Jesse would talk about his family, our family, but he never brought attention to his career. About the most he would talk about baseball were the players he signed. As you go out and get older, you find more facts about how well-respected he really was.”

Molina accompanied Flores to many local games while his padrino scouted players. One in particular sticks in Molina’s mind. He can’t remember the date or teams involved, only that it happened at Blair Field in Long Beach. The two were following a prospective draft choice, who had just committed an out.

“The player blew up,” Molina recalls. “He took off his helmet and threw it and broke it. After the game, Jess went up to him and said, ‘You got to learn how to keep your cool. Don’t lose your focus.’ He was good at having good advice for younger people.”

Flores saw more than 60 of his players enter the big leagues, an extraordinary figure in the days before computer analysis and corporate funding for ballclubs. Some of the better ones didn’t stay with the Twins, such as Reggie Smith, who starred for the Los Angeles Dodgers during their heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Lyman Bostock, a wondrous hitter who became one of baseball’s first free agents but tragically died while playing for the then-California Angels in 1978.

But Flores’ most famous discovery by far is Bert Blyleven. Blyleven was a lanky sophomore pitching at Santiago High in Garden Grove when the two first met in 1967. By then, baseball scouts were already excited about the teen’s stuff, including a curve that would eventually lead him to 287 victories and the cusp of Cooperstown. The first meeting between the two, however, happened only because Flores was there to scout another pitcher. The pitcher didn’t show, and Blyleven took his place.

After that first game, Flores went up to Blyleven and offered a couple of tips: don’t rush. Stay back on your delivery. Throw better strikes. And work on that curve.

“Jesse wasn’t much of a conversation-alist, and neither was I,” Blyleven recalled in a recent interview. He now lives in Fort Myers, Florida, and works as a Twins television commentator. “He saw some flaws and worked with me on them. Other scouts were there, but Jesse was kind of overseeing everything.”

The two quickly struck up a friendship. Like Flores, Blyleven had come to Orange County as an immigrant (from the Netherlands) and saw baseball as an opportunity to better his life. The two couldn’t talk much outside of weekend games—baseball-tampering rules prohi-bited such conversations—but Flores struck up a friendship with Blyleven’s father. Eventually, the two men made a bet: if Bert made the big leagues in less than two years, Blyleven’s dad owed Flores a steak dinner. The Twins drafted Blyleven in the third round of the 1969 draft. He pitched a year later. Flores enjoyed the steak.

The Twins put Blyleven in their instructional league shortly after the draft. Flores was the league’s pitching coach and helped Blyleven immensely—and not just on his baseball skills.

“I almost killed myself in instructional league one time,” Blyleven says with a laugh. “Players had to find their own place to live and cook for themselves. I had never lived away from my home, and my mother always cooked for me. So one time, I bought some meat and put it in the refrigerator. Ten days later, I finally tried to cook it. It kind of looked brown, but I still ate it.

“An hour later, I started sweating and felt sick,” Blyleven continues. “The only person I knew was Jesse, so I went to him and said I feel terrible. I told him about how I had kept the meat in the refrigerator. He asked how long I kept it in there, and I said 10 days. ‘Oh, my goodness!’ he said. ‘You must have food poisoning!’ He called the trainer, and they gave me stuff to get the meat out of me.”

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