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Angels closer Ernesto Frieri chased a dream born of the '97 World Series all the way to the majors

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – "Ernie," he said, and held out his hand.

The fingers were long and thin, a little on the delicate side. The handshake was firm and confident.

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Ernesto Frieri reacts after striking out Josh Hamilton to close out his fourth save. (US Presswire)

He can throw a baseball very hard, and there's a story behind that. The baseball moves a lot, sometimes unpredictably, and there's a story behind that, too.

He has a charming, optimistic view of the world and his place in it, which perhaps is the best story of all, how Ernesto Frieri, the right-handed pitcher who's helping to save the Los Angeles Angels' season, came to discover baseball and so the rest of his life.

Three months past his 12th birthday, Ernesto was a soccer player, like many of the boys in Sincerin, a village 20 miles southeast of Cartagena, Colombia. The men there fish and farm. The boys help the men, tend to their studies, and play soccer.

Ernesto lived with his grandmother, Zoila. He didn't much know his father, who wouldn't come around often, and when he did made promises that went unfulfilled. His mother, Ena, lived mostly in Spain, where there was work. Ernesto was an only child. His job, then, was to grind the corn for Zoila's tamales, which she sold from a street-corner cart.

Between soccer games and chores one evening in the fall of 1997, Ernesto was drawn to a baseball game on television. It was Game 7 of the World Series, the Florida Marlins against the Cleveland Indians. The Marlins had a shortstop named Edgar Renteria who was from Barranquilla, a two-hour drive north along the coast from Sincerin. Renteria already had two hits against the Indians when he came to the plate with two out and the bases loaded in the 11th inning. He singled again.

A grin spread across Ernesto's face. A Colombian was the hero of the World Series, in a magical game played by magical men. He was overcome.

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"Wow, that's amazing," he recalled thinking. "I want to play baseball and be like Edgar Renteria and be able to be a player in the big leagues."

The very next day, he went to the field rutted by soccer games, but threw a baseball instead. His right arm, from the churning of corn, was strong. Every day, almost, he threw. Within two years, the San Diego Padres asked him to come to their academy and learn to be a pitcher. Three years after that, at 17, he signed with the Padres and in the fall of 2009 – 12 years after Renteria became a hero in a small house that smelled a little like corn – Frieri debuted for the Padres in the big leagues.

Along the way, someone – he can't remember whom, exactly – studied Frieri's hands. He'd seen those hands before – the willowy fingers, the way they flexed with ease and elasticity.

"Those," the man said, "are the hands Pedro Martinez has. That's where the movement on your pitches comes from. It's like Pedro's movement."

He is not Pedro Martinez, of course. But, in 119 big-league appearances, Frieri's ERA is 2.05. Since May 3, when he was traded to the Angels by the Padres for minor-league right-hander Donn Roach and infielder Alexi Amarista, Frieri, now 26, has allowed a single hit – a single – and no runs in 14 1/3 innings. He has struck out 30 of the 57 batters he has faced. And he has walked 11.

The Angels are 18-11 since Frieri arrived. He has pitched in 13 of the 18 wins. Along with lefty Scott Downs, he has calmed the back end of the Angels' once-trembling bullpen. Pitching primarily with a hard four-seam fastball that teammates swear is invisible, along with a swooping two-seamer that runs in on right-handed batters, Frieri has been steady enough to, at times, hold down the ninth inning. In the course of a few days, with runners on base and a win on the line, Frieri struck out Robinson Cano and Josh Hamilton to end games.

[Big League Stew: Josh Hamilton, Matt Kemp lead early All-Star voting]

"Big Ernie," they call him now, and he laughs at such a thing. Actually, he laughs at many things. He has come too far not to. He lives 10 minutes from the ballpark with his wife, Caroline, and their 10-month-old daughter, Alana. Ernesto and Caroline met in Colombia, when he was 15 and she 14. All these years – and those miles – later, he possesses the soul of the kid who fell in love with Edgar Renteria, and the arm of the kid who made Grandma Zoila's day simpler, and the fingers of the great Pedro.

What, he asks, could be better?

After two rainy winters in Sincerin, his grandmother's house, the one he grew up in, fell down. Ernesto built her a new one – bigger, better.

"Now," he said with pride, "she has a really nice house, a huge house, with air conditioning. The water, it won't get over there."

And his mother, she is coming to Anaheim to visit him soon. She has never seen him pitch in the major leagues. Grandma Zoila, who is 78, will stay at home and wait for Ernesto's return in the fall.

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Frieri first broke in with the Padres in 2009. (Getty Images)

"My grandma and my mom, they teach me the humility," Frieri said. "Humility is number one. They always say be honest with everybody. Enjoy what you do. And that's what you do. I'm not a doctor. I'm not a psychology guy. I'm a major-league player. This is the best thing I can do in life. The best thing that I can do. So, whenever I'm doing it, I enjoy it. And whenever I'm doing it, I trust in myself. I worked really hard. Before I step on the mound, I know that I worked really hard to be there."

So, when he is on the mound, and some Cano or Hamilton is wondering where the ball went, Ernesto Frieri celebrates something more. He celebrates the journey, and those who came with him, who shared the story.

"It's hard to not get excited," he said. "I know that everybody back at home is watching me. All my family, all my friends, all the people from Colombia. They know me. They know I'm doing my best over here."

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