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Akron Beacon Journal (OH)

Breaking Language Barrier; Bilingual Clevelander Makes Hispanic Players Feel Right At Home In His

By Bob Dyer

August 31, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Akron Beacon Journal (OH). All rights reserved. 

He was 26.

She was 14.

He was a former New York City gang member.

She was the daughter of a Cleveland preacher.

He was coming out of drug rehab.

She was coming out of middle school.

Now there's a match made in heaven, eh?

Her parents didn't think so, either. They wouldn't give them permission to marry. So the couple ran off to Lorain, figuring that they would just have to live on the lam until she reached the legal age of 18.

Sounds like a road map to disaster. But -- surprise! -- this month, Eddie and Marisol Rivera are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

Eddie Rivera has made a habit of surprising people -- not the least of whom are his awestruck neighbors on West 126th Street in Cleveland.

Every so often, a fancy car will drive into this exceedingly modest neighborhood, pull into Rivera's narrow driveway, park next to his tiny but well-kept house... and out will pop a millionaire.

An Omar Vizquel will come by for dinner. Or a Manny Ramirez. Or a Bartolo Colon.

Who is this guy? Truth be told, just another baseball fan. His foot in the door is his ability to converse easily in English and in Spanish.

The Indians have long employed a large percentage of Hispanic players, some of whom speak very little English. When they first roll into Northeast Ohio, they can feel a bit like outcasts.

Eddie gives them a taste of home -- whether it's his native Puerto Rico or Vizquel's Venezuela or Colon's Dominican Republic or Einar Diaz's Panama or Jolbert Cabrera's Columbia or Ricardo Rincon's Mexico.

In 1995, Rivera started hanging around the entrance to the players' parking lot at Jacobs Field, trying to collect autographs. He managed to strike up friendships with several Latin players and started doing odd jobs for them, such as washing their cars.

Sometimes he would serve as a go-between for promoters who wanted to arrange player appearances at card shows. He would deliver a player in exchange for a couple hundred bucks.

Even players who never would dream of having a ``posse,'' such as Vizquel, are drawn to the guy. ``He makes me laugh,'' the Indians' shortstop said. ``He's a funny guy.''

Hang with Rivera for a while and the phrase ``over the top'' will come to mind. He dances like a hormone-crazed teen-ager, speaks loudly -- sometimes switching from Spanish to English and back again in a single sentence -- and longs to be the focal point of any gathering.

Not all of his relations with players are blissful. He had a bitter falling out with Colon shortly before the pitcher was traded to the Montreal Expos, the details of which Rivera declines to discuss. More often, though, he makes lasting bonds.

Former Indians pitcher Julian Tavarez, now a St. Louis Cardinal, is the godfather of one of Eddie and Marisol's four kids, Mike. Tavarez once flew the Riveras down for a visit to his home in the Dominican.

Rivera brings the players spicy food, details their cars, sometimes escorts them through swarms of autograph seekers who aren't as lucky as he.

At age 51, after working in recent years for car dealers, he is otherwise unemployed, drawing disability for diabetes and arthritis. But the people who knew him as a teen figured that he never would make it past the age of 21.

``I hurt a lot of people,'' he said of his days in the South Bronx, where he was a member of a gang called the Reapers. He rubs a hand across the dark skin on his shaved head. ``I did it all. I got hurt myself, too.''

Eventually, he came in contact with a minister from a Spanish Pentecostal church who got his attention.

``He'd always tell me, `Somebody's going to kill you if you don't change your life around. You're gonna die here sooner or later,' '' he said.

Rivera's ticket out, ironically, was drugs. At the age of 21, he was shipped to a drug rehabilitation facility in Youngstown. It was major culture shock.

``When you go from a ghetto in New York City to a place like Youngstown, it's like coming to a cemetery!'' Rivera said.

``When you're in the ghetto, you hear noise. You hear the trains, you hear shots every day, you see people running, you see people left, right, south, west, east, north. You see people all over the place. Then you come here and you don't see nobody.

``Once in a while, I'd hear a siren at the fire department and I was happy.''

The silence helped drive him to become a born-again Christian, which led to the church where he met his future wife.

Although he longs for warmer weather, he is perfectly comfortable in Northeast Ohio, which is home to far more Hispanics than you might think.

The city of Cleveland boasts nearly 35,000 Hispanics, more than 7 percent of the total population. In Lorain, where the Riveras first lived, Hispanics account for one in five residents -- 14,500 people.

The only cultural problem, Rivera insists, is that ``a lot of people are jealous of us because we can speak both languages.''

In either language, Rivera isn't bashful with his opinions of players past and present, Hispanic or otherwise.

Of Marty Cordova: ``He was a jerk. I did a (card) show for him, and he didn't want to pay me.''

Of Ellis Burks: ``He's (an honorary) Puerto Rican black boy. He is out of this world. He's tremendous, cool, a nice guy. He was always with the Spanish people. He loves to eat the Spanish pita, the rice and beans.''

Of Jose Mesa: ``He's not a very friendly person. He sticks to himself most of the time. He's a house guy. He plays the game and then goes back home.''

Other players seem to inhabit their own odd universes. Does the name Manny Ramirez come to mind? It should. You've probably read stories about him missing a game because he couldn't find the ballpark, or wearing clothes he pilfered from other players' lockers, or sticking five-figure checks in his glove box, leaving them uncashed for months.

Well, Ramirez, not long ago on the cover of Sports Illustrated as he plays for the Boston Red Sox, provided Rivera with a classic Manny Moment.

Seems the Riveras invited him to dinner, and he accepted with enthusiasm. They bought tons of food and began cooking up a storm.

Ramirez was due at 6 o'clock. When he hadn't arrived by 7, Eddie called his cell.

``I'll be there in 20 minutes,'' Manny said.

By 8 o'clock, still no Manny. ``I got hung up,'' he said when Eddie called again. ``I'll be there in 20 minutes.''

At 8:30, still no Manny. ``Ten minutes,'' he promised by phone.

Half an hour later, Eddie called again. ``I can't come,'' Manny said. ``My aunt just died.''

Eddie roars with laughter as he tells the story. He is sitting on the front porch on a Sunday evening, surrounded by people of all descriptions. Salsa music blares inside the house.

Look to either side and you see dozens of other porches strung in a straight line. When something is going on, everybody knows it.

On this evening, Vizquel is in the back yard shooting hoops on a netless rim with a little Hispanic boy. He is still trying to digest a mountain of food served earlier by Marisol.

So many people were invited to dinner that they had to eat in shifts -- when one group left the dining room table, another took over. But there's always more food. And there seems to be infinite goodwill, too.

``I just want to make it with my family, try to survive, live a good life,'' Eddie said.

It's certainly a better life than it was.

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