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Rangers' Rodriguez Tours Homeland

March 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

VEGA BAJA -- Ivan Rodriguez stepped out of the white limousine parked in right field and walked toward the chunky dirt infield.

More than 100 friends, family, and fans were waiting to greet him. As they approached, the Texas Rangers' catcher turned to general manager Doug Melvin and smiled.

``This is where I'm from,'' Rodriguez said. ``Right here.''

Rodriguez returned to his roots Friday, touring the park where he fell in love with baseball after visiting his old elementary school and before breaking ground on a new baseball academy he's helping build.

Rodriguez also joined fellow Puerto Rican Carlos Delgado for a brief clinic for kids at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the site of the major league season opener on Sunday between Rodriguez's Rangers and Delgado's Toronto Blue Jays. The teams also will play an exhibition game Saturday.

The city of San Juan has spent about $600,000 upgrading the stadium to major league standards for this weekend. The playing field was restructured, outfield walls were padded and clubhouses were completely made over. Even as the players spoke, workers were tending to the bullpen mounds.

Back in Vega Baja, the town where Rodriguez grew up, the field known as Parcelas Amadeo lacks amenities. The most recent upgrade was probably the fresh coats of yellow paint and green trim around the concrete bleachers and dugouts.

The infield is a mess. The outfield is practically endless. It's at least 500 feet to the left-field fence and a good whack to the Fenway-high fence in right. There's a hill and a rec center way out in center field.

Scrunched into a square city block, the ``parque atletico'' is surrounded by small houses with little space between them. A white church is on a corner beyond straightaway center field. The streets are lined with lush green trees, with bananas and other fruits growing on many of them.

Rodriguez said the community has changed little since his youth.

``It looked the way it is now,'' he said. ``It's always been like that.''

Another thing that hasn't changed is the Little League coach. Julio Pabon has been doing it for so long that the field was dedicated in his honor in 1984.

Now 81, the fungo-bat-thin Pabon wore his Vega Baja uniform to greet his star pupil. Rodriguez smiled again when he saw the old man and pointed him out to Melvin.

Pabon coached Rodriguez at Parcelas Amadeo from around age 5 to 13. Juan Gonzalez, who is from a poorer part of Vega Baja, was in the same leagues while Bernie Williams was growing up in nearby Vega Alta.

Rodriguez played all positions, including pitcher. He began concentrating on catching when he was about 7. Pabon and Rodriguez's father, Jose, both take credit for the switch.

Pabon said it was because Ivan -- whom nobody here calls ``Pudge'' -- pitched so hard he scared the other kids. The elder Rodriguez said it was because he could tell his son was going to be built like a catcher.

``I did a lot of good things in Little League,'' Rodriguez said. ``I threw seven no-hitters, two in one day. That's pretty good. A lot of fans would come to see our team play because we were the best in the league.''

Rodriguez broke into the majors at 19 and stardom soon followed.

He's started eight straight All-Star games and won nine straight Gold Gloves, including one last season despite breaking his right thumb in July. He was the 1999 AL MVP and is the Rangers' career hit leader.

Now entering his 11th season, the 29-year-old Rodriguez has maintained a child's enthusiasm for the game. It's fun watching him play because you can tell he's having fun.

``I've loved to play this game since I was born,'' he said. ``Baseball is going to be in my blood for life.''

He enjoys it so much that he spent many offseasons playing in Puerto Rico's winter leagues, which the Rangers didn't exactly endorse. Yet they had to love his desire.

It's no surprise, then, that dedication was the theme of Rodriguez's speech at the clinic.

``He said if one day you go to practice and you're tired, you can't be tired,'' said 13-year-old Sugrin Almestica. ``You always have to practice.''

Rodriguez always did, even when he and his friends at school had to use a ball made of tape and theirs hands as bats. The concrete courtyard at the center of the two-story Jose G. Padilla school was their playing field.

In the afternoons, Rodriguez's mother allowed him and his older brother, Jose, to play baseball for about an hour.

``We'd always wait for her whistle,'' Rodriguez said. ``When we hear that, we've got to run back to the house. After three whistles, if we don't make it, she's going to go pick us up.''

Rodriguez's mother, Eva Torres, has been teaching at the Padilla school for 16 years. When he's home in the offseason, Ivan visits occasionally, sitting at her desk and watching her work.

The pair sat together behind the desk Friday and were surrounded by cameras. Asked when she realized her son was going to be a baseball star, Torres said, ``De siempre.'' In English, that means ``always.''

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