Tom Archdeacon: Cabrera speaks language of leadership
By Tom Archdeacon
Thursday, April 05, 2007
DAYTON — In the baseball world, George Steinbrenner is "The Boss," but around the Dayton Dragons, Gerardo Cabrera admitted the title fits him, too. Maybe even more so than the Yankees' owner.
After all, Steinbrenner just has to write the checks and fire his managers.
The 23-year-old Cabrera not only is a returning outfielder for the Dragons — who open the season tonight at Fifth Third Field against West Michigan — he's the guy who interprets manager Donnie Scott's rapid-fire lingo from English to Spanish for his fellow players from the Dominican Republic, a group that's nearly one third of the team.
He's also the guy who helps those Spanish-speaking teammates order meals in local restaurants, find rides to the ballpark — none has a car — and interprets daily life in Dayton.
Take Wednesday morning when the players were stumped by the contraption they found in the breakfast room of the hotel where they're temporarily staying.
"It was a pancake maker," Cabrera said. "I explained what it was and how to work it. So yeah, I'm like the boss. ... If anyone has a doubt, they ask me."
If you're looking for a preseason MVP for the Dragons, my vote goes to Cabrera or pitcher Rafael Gonzalez, who was born and raised in the Bronx, but has Dominican roots, thanks to his dad.
Both Gonzalez and the Santo Domingo-raised Cabrera — who learned English when he came to Miami-Dade (Fla.) Community College on a baseball scholarship in 2003 — are bilingual and provide the linguistic glue that helps make these Dragons a team.
Eight of Dayton's 25 players have Dominican ties, seven were born and raised there. In the past 39 years, the small Caribbean island of 9 million has sent some 450 players to the major leagues and now accounts for 25 percent of minor-league rosters.
"It's in our blood," Gonzalez said.
And with players like Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada and on and on — that would be baseball's blue blood.
In the Dragons' first seven seasons, they featured Dominicans like Wily Mo Pena, Jose Acevedo, Edwin Encarnacion and Johnny Cueto.
"It's amazing what one little island produces," Scott said. "Why? I'd say because kids there play baseball all the time, and they're hungry to succeed. It's a way to escape poverty."
Cueto once said his first glove was a strip of leather tied together by shoe strings. His first ball was wadded up cloth. A palm frond was a bat.
It wasn't like that for American-raised Gonzalez, the Cincinnati Reds fourth-round pick in the 2004 draft. It was different for Cabrera, too — his dad is a civil engineer, his mom a secretary — yet he still had the same youthful passions as others back home.
He told of the popular street game known as vitilla: "We use a plastic water bottle cap as the ball and a broom stick as the bat. When we got better, we tried hitting kernels of corn."
To mine such passion, major-league teams have opened academies there to develop players and eventually sign the best as free agents — at much lower prices than American kids.
Although that can lead to broken dreams — many Dominican boys quit school to concentrate on baseball although less than five percent go from the academies to the pros — the risk outshines reality, where 60 percent of Dominicans live below the poverty level.
Once players make it here, there are basic English classes sponsored by the Reds and local host families who take in several of the Latino players.
Yet the most important bridges between the Dominican Republic and Dayton are guys like Gonzalez and Cabrera, who have the answers for those far-from-home questions.
Like Wednesday when one Dominican teammate after another asked them if it was cold enough for them to see their first snow.