Padres shortstop Cabrera climbed out of poverty
He tells them his story, again and again.
Before he was signed by the Colorado Rockies for $5,000, before the San Diego Padres made him a Rule 5 prospect, before he stuck for the 2009 season and broke his hand and then returned to play in 103 major league games, he was them, he says.
He was undersized and had a baseball glove held together with string and couldn’t take his eyes off Rafael Furcal(notes) and David Eckstein(notes) when the television would carry their games. He believed they were forever away.
He, like these children, had a mother who loved that he’d found a passion and privately wished he’d stay in school, maybe become a computer engineer. He, too, looked at his tiny house, at a bedroom he shared with her, at her long hours – as a nurse’s aide – and could only think about changing her life, their lives. She was being taken over by glaucoma, her vision disappearing from the edges, and when she needed surgery, it was he who shared her tunnel vision.
He, too, had turned from soccer to what they all called “the beautiful game,” had fallen in love with it, had played with fathers and brothers, and had stood in line at the crowded tryout when the baseball scouts came to town. But, he – and only he – had returned the next day, to stand in line and try out again.
“I try to inspire them,” he said, “and to take away their hopelessness.”
Cabrera, 17 when he signed six years ago, returns often to Nandaime. The house where he lived with his mother, Xiomara Membreno, his grandmother and a cousin remains, the small bedroom he built for his mother with his signing bonus still conspicuously new. In the neighborhood, he has become their Furcal, their Eckstein. This winter, he was named Nicaragua’s Athlete of the Year, having followed a path to the major leagues swept by only 10 other countrymen, among them Dennis Martinez, Vicente Padilla(notes), David Green and Marvin Benard.
At a grand ceremony, he sat at a large table with his family, the scout who signed him and city officials.
“It was crazy,” Cabrera said, smiling. “A lot of people love me. I’m very proud that people see me that way.”
Too small, too poor, too much of a long shot, he’d returned a big leaguer.
At 22, he’d never played above Single-A when the Padres took him with the third pick in the 2008 Rule 5 draft. He not only made the club, he was the opening day starter at shortstop. Seven years earlier, after a World Series game he watched on television, he’d heard the diminutive Eckstein say in an interview that his father had pushed him to be the best, inspiring Cabrera to be just like the overachieving shortstop. Now Cabrera was playing shortstop and Eckstein was his second baseman.
In mid-April, batting .308, showing excellent speed, soft hands and a big arm from the hole, Cabrera broke a bone in his hand. He missed two months and returned, Eckstein said, a better player.
“He believed he could be a big leaguer,” Eckstein said, “and he was going to go out and prove it. By then, he’d already learned what he had to be better at.”
Cabrera returned June 19 and played every inning of every game thereafter. He batted .255, .217 in September, when his workload had taken a toll on his average and, likely, his defense. He committed 23 errors, enough of them on late-season routine plays that the Padres believed Cabrera had simply fatigued.
This spring Padres coaches are reworking some of Cabrera’s technique on defense, particularly his footwork, in the hopes of retaining the spectacular elements of his game and keeping the routine plays routine.
“There is a way to do it properly and he’s learned that,” manager Bud Black said. “Everything he did before was just athletic ability, just playing the game. I think you’re going to see a smoother, cleaner-looking shortstop.”
Cabrera likely will bat leadoff for the undermanned Padres, restructuring under new ownership and management, without Jake Peavy(notes), soon likely without Adrian Gonzalez(notes). More changes could be coming.
But they appear to have found a future in Cabrera, who returned for his second camp a little thicker and stronger, and seemingly surer of himself. He’d never seen the game above the South Atlantic League, yet still, he admitted, “assumed” he’d make the club. He had to, of course. See, it wasn’t only his dream he was following. His mother, he said, was, “My inspiration.” The children on the streets he once ran, they needed one, too. They needed a story.
“My family is first,” he said. “But, I have an immense passion for the game. For my people, I try to help.”