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The State (Columbia, SC)
They're Playing For Their Families' Survival'
Latino Bombers Players Live Dream, Despite Sleeping 9 To A Room And Saving Every Penny
By RON MORRIS
August 31, 2003
A trio of Latin American members of the Capital City Bombers were among the last stragglers out of Capital City Stadium about 11 p.m. Wednesday.
Peppering their Spanish conversation with talk about the night's win, the three baseball players turned right out of the stadium parking lot and began their three-block walk up Dreyfus Road, across Assembly Street, onto Whaley Street, under the railroad trestle and up a hill through the weeds.
The players were headed to the Whaley's Mill apartments to join their family of the past five months.
Nine Bombers bunked in beds and on mattresses in room 421 there this summer, dividing the $800-a-month rent equally in their best effort to manage their meager finances. Including a utility bill, cable fee and groceries, each player's monthly cost of living did not reach $150.
Most of the rest of the money they earned playing minor league baseball this season, which ends Monday in Hickory, N.C., was sent home.
This Labor Day weekend, as Americans grumble about a sluggish economy and job market, what the nine Bombers did this summer -- pinching pennies to support family members who live in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico -- is a reminder that America remains the great land of opportunity to many.
Here, even a player in one of baseball's lowest minor leagues makes enough to pay for dreams in the Third World.
Typical of the players is Andres Rodriguez, a lanky, 6-foot-4-inch first baseman who bears a tattoo of an angry-looking dog on his left arm.
Of the $1,200 a month Rodriguez is paid by the New York Mets to play in their farm system, $400 is wired home to help his wife, Karina, support their 1-year-old son, Andres Jr. Karina earns $150 monthly as a secretary in San Cristobal of the Dominican Republic.
Because the ballplayers do not have transportation, Pete Ehmke, director of group sales for the Bombers, drives Rodriguez and the rest of the Latin American ballplayers to the Western Union office on Knox Abbott Road every two weeks on payday.
That's where Rodriguez wires another $400 to his dad, whose monthly salary as an air traffic controller in the Dominican Republic tops out at $250.
Life for Latin American ballplayers, even at the lowest levels of the minor leagues in such outposts as Columbia, is mostly about playing a game they love in a country that pays handsomely by their standards.
Beneath the surface of living a dream, however, the players recognize they must help support their families back home.
Nearly half -- 47 percent -- of Venezuelan families live below the poverty level, compared with 25 percent in the Dominican Republic and 13 percent in the United States, which includes Puerto Rico.
"They're playing for their families' survival back home," says Donovan Mitchell, the Bombers' hitting instructor this summer. "It's amazing how far a few hundred dollars will go in the Dominican (Republic).
"They find a way, whereas we're a little spoiled over here. We get three people in an apartment, and we can't make it. They're a support group for each other. It's a group of guys who understand what the other guy is going through."
The support group this season was based in the Whaley's Mill apartment. There, those few who could speak some broken English didn't.
Latino music boomed from the CD player in the upstairs bedroom, the "luxury suite" where only two players were housed.
Two others slept on mattresses in the loft, two did the same in the tiny living room, and three squeezed into the downstairs bedroom -- a mattress between two beds.
Yunior Cabrera was among the first to rise each morning so he could begin preparing lunch. By 10 a.m., he typically had a massive pot of beans, rice, chicken or pork cooking in the cramped kitchen so his roommates could awaken about noon and eat their biggest meal of the day. The players headed to the stadium about 2:30 p.m. and didn't eat again until after that night's game.
Cabrera did the grocery shopping. He spent anywhere from $100 to $120 on food during weeks in which the Bombers were playing home games.
Cabrera knows a thing or two about cooking. That's what he does during the offseason in Librada's restaurant in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. Librada is Cabrera's mom.
He learned long ago to cook and serve the native sancocho, which consists of corn, pork and a Dominican beef called yuka. His three sisters and eight remaining brothers also assist their mother at the restaurant when they aren't helping their father, Valerio, who directs one of the many amateur baseball leagues in San Pedro de Macoris.
Cabrera wired nearly half of his $1,400-a-month salary home to his dad, who passed along enough money to keep food on the table for Cabrera's girlfriend, Lilianna, the mother of his 4-year-old son, Yunior, and his 5-month-old daughter, Lilian.
But life in baseball is getting short for Cabrera.
He is 25 and, after six seasons as a left-handed pitcher in the Mets' system, has not advanced past the low Class A level of the South Atlantic League. With three more rungs to climb on the minor-league ladder, the odds are long Cabrera ever will reach the major leagues.
Still, his days as a professional baseball player in the United States have been a joyride compared with his off-the-field experiences back home.
With the $4,000 the Mets gave him to sign in 1996, Cabrera helped his mother make several payments on the family home. He used the remainder to help a brother, imprisoned on drug charges.
The 2001 season, when Cabrera split time between Brooklyn, N.Y., and Kingsport, Tenn., was particularly difficult. Three of his brothers, ages 42, 38 and 25, died of heart attacks, and a 1-year-old niece died of heart failure.
Under the advice of the Mets, Cabrera undergoes monthly heart checks. All the while, he wears a smile around the apartment and ballpark clubhouse that gains him instant friends among even English-speaking strangers.
Miguel Pinango, a 20-year-old right-handed pitcher from St. Teresa in Venezuela, carries the same kind of smile as a calling card. To every greeting, Pinango responds, "tranquillo, hombre," or "chillin', friend."
Pinango made the Mets believe he is a major-league prospect this season, winning 13 games and losing only five during his fourth year in the organization. That kind of record will prolong his career at least another year, allowing Pinango to support his wife, Inesy, and 4-year-old daughter, Minesy, by sending half of his $1,100-a-month salary home.
CHANGING POSITIONS, FUDGING AGES
The Latin Americans will do almost anything to remain in minor-league baseball.
A case in point is Noel Devarez, 24, in his fifth season with the Mets' organization out of San Francisco de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. Devarez was signed as a catcher, converted to an outfielder and, two weeks ago, turned to pitching to save his career.
In his pitching debut, Devarez fell off the mound on his first warm-up attempt.
"La Bruja" -- the witch -- can only hope he has supernatural powers to remain in baseball longer than his brothers. One didn't last long in the Baltimore Orioles' organization; another was released by the Kansas City Royals.
To realize their dreams of staying in baseball, Latin American players often fudge about their ages.
After Sept. 11, 2001, however, visas have been checked more closely. As a result, hundreds of foreign players have aged overnight.
For example, one of the roommates -- Omar Anez, a right-handed pitcher from Valencia, Venezuela -- insists he is 22. The Mets list him as 24, meaning Anez is on the veteran side of his professional career.
Javier Ochoa, 24, was signed by the Houston Astros as a 16-year-old catcher out of Maracay, Venezuela. Ochoa has been released by the Astros, signed by the Mets, traded to the Cleveland Indians, released by the Indians, granted free agency and signed again by the Mets. Now, he is a right-handed pitcher, who was sent down Thursday to Brooklyn of the New York-Penn League.
"It makes you feel pretty bad," Ochoa says through the interpreter of his two releases. "It's a pretty bad feeling."
FOREIGN PLAYERS, CHEAP LABOR
Anderson Garcia from Azua in the Dominican Republic is not your typical Latin American baseball player.
His family of six sisters and six brothers is considered wealthy by Dominican Republic standards. His parents own and operate a 40-acre banana farm. Garcia is the only family member not working on the farm and living in its six-bedroom mansion.
Another who steps out of the norm among the group of Latin American players is Orlando Roman, a 24-year-old pitcher from Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. Roman says he often is asked to present his green card. That's not necessary because Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth.
Roman is the product of a middle-class family. His father is retired from the Army, and his mother is an elementary schoolteacher. His wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to Joan Sebestian three months ago. Roman will see his baby boy for the first time when he returns home Tuesday at the conclusion of the regular season.
Roman also is different from the other Latin American players in that he was selected by the Mets in the 31st round of the 1999 draft. Roman made himself eligible for the draft by attending Indian Hills (Iowa) Community College and was awarded an $84,000 bonus for signing with the Mets.
Foreign players are not eligible for the draft and thus rarely receive bonuses in excess of $10,000. That's a big reason foreign-born players accounted for 46 percent of minor leaguers this season. Latin American players, in particular, are cheap labor to the major league organizations and can just as easily fill out rosters in the minor leagues.
So the organization can sign eight Latin American players for about $80,000, while it pays anywhere from $30,000 to $2 million for each American player drafted and signed out of high school or college.
Once signed, all players are paid a salary range that fits the level of baseball. For instance, players in Columbia earn anywhere from $900 to $1,500 a month for the five-month season. Higher-level players fall into a higher salary scale.
HITTING THE OLD NAVY JACKPOT
Another way in which Roman is different from his Latin American teammates is that he speaks acceptable English. The language barrier is easily the biggest hurdle for the Spanish-speaking players, even though many major league organizations, including the Mets, provide mandatory daily English classes during spring training.
According to Kevin Morgan, director of minor league operations, the Mets have joined others in recently starting a culturalization program for players in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. The program helps acclimate the athletes to life in a foreign country. They learn to order food at a restaurant and communicate in English at the most basic level.
The Mets also attempt to assign at least one Spanish-speaking coach to the lower levels of their system. Blaine Beatty, the Bombers' pitching coach, can speak Spanish well enough to communicate with players in baseball terms.
The Bombers also offer much support through front-office assistant Luis Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico, and group sales director Ehmke, who will continue to take Spanish lessons throughout the offseason.
Spanish-speaking families in the Columbia area also often "adopt" players, frequently waiting outside the clubhouse after games to greet the Latin American players.
Others help, as well.
Bombers fans Bob and Fran Somogyi rarely miss a home game. They periodically provide the Latin American players with telephone calling cards. The Somogyis also store and distribute mattresses, linens, microwaves and kitchen utensils to the foreign players each season.
The Bombers' front-office personnel refer to Bob Somogyi as "Red," the character in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption" who was "a man who knows how to get things."
The Bombers also line up sponsors for postgame meals. When the team is commuting to a road game, players get $10 a day in meal money. When the team is on an extended road trip, that increases to $20 a day.
Then, there are the promotions that can benefit the players.
Infielders Andres and Edgar Rodriguez cashed in on the Old Navy contest, winning clothing for hitting a home run in a designated inning.
Andres hit the jackpot twice, earning shopping sprees of $375 and $575 at Old Navy. Edgar purchased $425 in clothing for his home run.
The Bombers' Ehmke drove Andres to Old Navy the first time, and the player purchased two shirts and a pair of shorts for himself. He also bought a pair of shorts for Ehmke. The remaining clothes went to his son and wife. The Bombers covered the cost of shipping the clothes to the Dominican Republic.
Edgar bought clothes for his father, mother, two brothers and three sisters. He will carry the items to the Dominican Republic when he returns this week.
'EVERYBODY'S DREAM OVER HERE'
Most of the nine Latin Americans will return home. Some will find work, whether it be in a manufacturing plant or on a farm.
Others will attempt to land a spot on a winter league baseball team.
A few will get a phone call from the Mets saying they have been released, effectively ending their baseball careers, as well as their families' dreams of escaping the poverty of their homeland.
Earlier this summer, that happened to Maikel DeLeon, a 23-year-old pitcher from Azua, Dominican Republic.
After he was released by the Mets, Ehmke and Gonzalez, the two Bombers' front-office personnel, drove DeLeon to the Columbia airport where he boarded a plane for Miami.
Instead of continuing on to the Dominican Republic, DeLeon boarded a bus for New York City, where he lives as an illegal alien.
Speaking through translator Gonzalez, Devarez, the catcher-turned-outfielder-turned-pitcher, says: "There is a fear of being released.
"If a player (from the Dominican Republic) is released, he doesn't know what to do next because baseball is his life. The fear is having to go back home because things are better here.
"This is everybody's dream over here."
Even if the dream means living nine to an apartment and pinching pennies.