Joe Espada and Carlos Mendoza were once an infield tandem turning double-plays for the Pensacola Pelicans nearly 20 years ago in the twilight of their playing careers.
From those Independent League days, riding buses from Pensacola to road games in El Paso, Texas and Lincoln, Nebraska and other far-away points, these two former teammates on Monday became Major League Baseball managers on the same day.
In another incredible link to this community, Espada was introduced as the Houston Astros manager and the New York Mets officially announced the hiring of Mendoza as their manager.
“I think the odds of having two guys -- one a shortstop (Espada), the other a second baseman (Mendoza) – play for an Independent League team and both now go on to be both Major League managers is just one of those made-for-movie stories,” said Quint Studer, who owned the Pelicans and then transitioned into ownership in 2012 of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos as an MLB affiliate in the Double-A Southern League.
A fairytale has come true.
“It’s incredible to see happen,” Studer said. “I have stayed in touch with both of them over the years. They have always responded to me. They are always extremely polite. After it came out (last week) that Carlos was going to be hired by the Mets, I sent a text message to Joe saying, ‘You’re next.’
“They were consummate professionals when they played here and within the community. They stayed close to Pensacola. I think they have very fond memories of playing in Pensacola.”
The two were Pelicans’ teammates in 2004 and 2005. Espada, 48, a native of Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico, played a combined 135 games across two seasons for the Pelicans, collecting 173 hits and 78 RBI. He played his collegiate baseball at the University of Mobile, an NAIA program, where he set a school record with a .442 batting average his final season.
Mendoza, 43, a native of Bolivar, Venezuela, played parts of three seasons (2004-2006) in Pensacola, appearing in 245 games. He had exactly 103 hits in both 2004 and 2005 for the Pelicans.
“Both of ‘em went about their business in such a professional way,” Studer said. “Sometimes in Independent Baseball, particularly with guys that have played in affiliated ball and got so close to the big leagues, you get guys who are disappointed, because they thought they needed to be in affiliated baseball.”
Both were brought to Pensacola by Talmadge Nunnari, the Pelicans former general manager, then the team’s manager after Espada and Mendoza retired.
“I think Talmadge deserves the credit,” Studer said. “He was the one who went out and found these guys. And signed them. To convince two guys, who had been pretty successful in affiliated baseball to come to Pensacola, that was special.
“Those two guys were totally professional. You would have thought we were the major leagues the way they handled themselves.”
That kind of attitude and approach were attributes that made both former players so successful as coaches.
Espada has been the Astros bench coach since 2018. When Dusty Baker retired following the team’s loss to the Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series, the Astros players urged that Espada become their new manager.
“I’m humbled by this,” said Espada, addressing a news conference Monday in Houston “This is a dream come true. I just can’t express my feelings about how happy I am to get to stay here and manage this team."
Mendoza joined the New York Yankees minor league staff in 2009, then was elevated as the Yankees infield coach after the 2017 season, before becoming the Yankees bench coach in an MLB role he’s handled since 2019. He becomes only the second Venezuela native as an MLB manager. Ozzie Guillen was the first in 2004 with the Chicago White Sox.
“I couldn’t be more excited to manage this tremendous franchise,” Mendoza said Monday in his address after the Mets’ announcement. “I want Mets fans to know that I will pour every ounce of energy into this job and we share a common goal of bringing a championship to Queens.
“I’m proud to represent Venezuela and the Mets.”
Both men had interviewed for other MLB managerial openings in recent years. In Espada’s case, he was grateful that his father got to see it happen Monday.
During the 2023 season, he took a leave of absence to be with his father, who became seriously ill from heart complications.
“I almost lost him when I was there,” said Espada, speaking at the news conference. “And I asked God that day to let him stay with me for a while longer, because I wanted to share some good news in the future.”
In becoming the Mets manager, Mendoza succeeds Buck Showalter, a Century High graduate and former Pensacola resident, who made MLB history in 2022 by being named National League manager of the year with the Mets, his fourth such award and with four different teams.
No manager was ever named a manager of year four different times. Showalter, who stays connected to the Pensacola community, is part of this region’s legacy of former high school baseball talent going all the way to the sport’s highest level.
“Carlos brings a wealth of experience to the Mets that includes more than a decade managing and coaching in the minors as well as serving as bench coach the last four years with our cross-town rivals (Yankees), “ said Mets owners Steve and Alex Cohen in a joint statement Monday.
“Carlos is full of energy, passion and it was easy to see he’ll have a great rapport with both our veteran and young players.”
The two former Pelicans teammates were also in opposite dugouts when the Yankees and Astros met in the 2019 American League Championship Series. During that series in Houston, the two reunited with Pensacola realtor Wanda Lewis, who was the host family for Mendoza and Espada when they played in Pensacola.
Lewis was able to take photos of Mendoza and Espada on the field together while attending the ALCS playoff game in 2019 in Houston. That year, Lewis reflected on the time when the two players spent the summer at her home.
"I am so proud of both of these men," she said. "They worked all their lives to get to where they are today,” said Lewis, owner of Wanda Lewis Realty in Pensacola.
“They are both hard working, good guys,” she said. “Both of them are now married with families. We have always stayed in touch. They are like my sons.”
“It is amazing where they are today. When they were here, they were making about 15-hundred ($1,500) a month. I cooked for them and I remember I used to tell Quint that I cooked steaks that night (as pregame meal), so they will have some home runs.”
Studer remembers both players’ leadership qualities when they played for the Pelicans.
“Joe was the manager on the field,” Studer said. “Even though the ages (of players) were sort of the same (on team), certain people who have leadership abilities, people gravitate toward. And that was certainly Joe. He was the coach on the field.
“Carlos was just a real nice person, a real professional. Never complained. Both of ‘em went about their business in such a professional way.”
When Mendoza and Espada played for the Pelicans, they met with fans after every game on the field at UWF’s ballpark to sign autographs and exchange greetings.
“I wish we could still do that now,” said Studer, who along with his wife, Rishy, they made the games a family-friendly gathering spot and have continued on that quest with the Blue Wahoos, who just completed their 11th season and third one as a Miami Marlins affiliate.
“The (Pelicans) players would line up along the baseline after the game. I’ve said before, if there wasn’t any Pelicans, there would not have been the Blue Wahoos,” Studer said. “Rishy and I would have never gotten into baseball. We wouldn’t have started out going out buying a team. We didn’t know what we were doing.
“Rishy made the T-shirts the whole time. That is what attracted me to minor league baseball was that sense of neighborhood, that sense of family. And that’s what we don’t want to lose. We want to be as professional as possible without losing the neighborly touch. I think we have been very lucky with the Marlins.”
ABOUT JOE ESPADA
Born: August 30, 1975
Hometown: Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico
College: University of Mobile
Playing Career: 2nd round draft pick of Oakland A’s in 1996
Pensacola Connection: Played two seasons for the Pensacola Pelicans in 2004 and 2005. Totaled 135 games. Batted .336 in 2004 with 91 hits, 47 RBI and batted .333 in 2005 with 82 hits, 31 RBI.
Previous Role: Bench coach of Houston Astros since 2018.
ABOUT CARLOS MENDOZA
Born: November 27, 1979.
Hometown: Barquisimeto, Venezuela
Playing Career: Played 13 seasons in Minor League Baseball
Pensacola Connection: Played three seasons for the Pensacola Pelicans in 2004 through 2006. Totaled 245 games for Pelicans. Batted .346 for Pelicans in 68 games in 2006. Had 103 hits in each of the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Like Joe Espada, his seasons playing non-affiliated Independent League baseball were in Pensacola.
Previous Role: Bench coach of New York Yankees since 2019.