SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – They won’t drive Bud Selig’s TV ratings and they won’t fill the ballparks of the World Baseball Classic, but they round out the rosters in places where big leaguers can’t be found or won’t be bothered.
In a small, concrete ballpark on the north side of town here, where the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico qualified for round two of the WBC next week in Miami on a long, lively Saturday, two pivotal moments turned on two men who’ve done their hardball time.
They’ll be forgotten soon enough. The stories will move on to other places. But Rafael Alvarez, a Venezuelan posing for a week as a Spaniard, and Luis Figueroa of Puerto Rico stood in against lifetimes of near misses and against wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time careers. They took their shots. It’s why they were here. Why, in fact, they’ve been everywhere.
Alvarez, at 36, is not quite 6-foot, but is thick through the shoulders and forearms. Since signing with the Minnesota Twins nearly 20 years ago, he’s taken nearly 6,000 minor-league at-bats, and almost half of those in independent leagues. Alvarez has played 19 seasons in the winter league of Venezuela, often near his home in Valencia, in recent seasons becoming a feared late-inning pinch-hitter. He has never had a big-league at-bat.
And yet on Saturday afternoon, wearing Spain’s uniform against the mighty Dominicans, his time had come. He came to the plate with the bases loaded, two out in the ninth inning, Spain behind by three. The pitcher was Fernando Rodney, whose ERA in 76 appearances for the Tampa Bay Rays of the American major leagues was 0.60.
“I watch him on TV all the time,” Alvarez would say.
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One swing, one swing of all those thousands, and the mix-and-match team from Spain would beat the great Dominican Republic. The crowd, sparse for the afternoon game, was decidedly pro Dominican. Rafael Alvarez’s people were there, too. They waved his borrowed flag. And he raised his bat, sure he could beat Rodney, beat them all.
“That would have been,” Alvarez said, “one of the great moments of my life.”
By the time Luis Figueroa had showered and dressed at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, he felt old and tired. He’d played, it seemed like, millions of games here. Perhaps he had, too. Figueroa is 39 years old. He’d built his life on 6,809 professional at-bats, 16 of them in the major leagues. Those were his springs, summers and falls. The winters were in Puerto Rico, a league that has lost its footing, but not for Figueroa. He has played 16 of those winters here, won two batting titles, and is 10 hits from 600. He has played in 11 Caribbean World Series. All those years, so close to the big leagues so many times, and 16 lousy at-bats in them.
“Hopefully,” he said in that nearly empty stadium, “somebody in the U.S. is still watching me, to give me an opportunity.”
On the bench for the Puerto Rican team, Figueroa was summoned to pinch-hit with two out and two on base in the eighth inning against Venezuela. Puerto Rico led by two runs. It was close, perhaps too close when Miguel Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval and Carlos Gonzalez would hit again. Francisco Rodriguez, the once-great K-Rod, warmed on the mound.
This was his shot. The little guy they call “Wicho,” a nickname his father gave him when he was just a boy, stood in. He was sure he could beat K-Rod and finish the Venezuelans.
“The moment,” he said, “is very, very special for me.”
Maybe six hours apart, Alvarez and Figueroa shared the same left-side batter’s box. Their countries have known them for years; winter heroes who’d go off every spring and chase whatever was out there, then come home again every winter having almost made it. They would not be David Ortiz or Carlos Beltran. They would not be stars. They’d be just good enough, or just not.
Flags waved, feet stomped, his people pulled against him. Rodney threw the split-change Alvarez had seen so many times on TV. On a 2-and-2 pitch, Alvarez, looking fastball, flinched slightly, thought about swinging, but could not. The umpire raised his arm. Rodney slung his arrow into the sky. Alvarez turned away.
He’s thinking maybe this is it, that it’s time to return for good to his family in Valencia. The World Baseball Classic, maybe it would be that last, unexpected shot. In two games he hadn’t gotten a hit.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s too many thoughts in my head. Sometimes I think it’s time to go, to let it go. Maybe it’s time to give an opportunity to another guy.”
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He pulled a backpack over his shoulder and turned to leave.
“At least I survived,” Alvarez said. “This game is not too easy to survive.”
Doesn’t Wicho Figueroa know it. His mom and dad were in the ballpark Saturday night. So were his wife and three children. They’d all lived this, too.
So he stood out there, the place going berserk, those flags and feet for him and no one else. The Venezuelans were on the ropes. Rodriguez was a bit wild and Figueroa let him be. After four pitches, the count was 3-and-1. Rodriguez came with the fastball.
“At my age, not everybody gets this opportunity,” Figueroa would say. “I do my best. I’m prepared.”
Figueroa hit that fastball into the right-field corner. By the time he’d reached second base, two runs had scored. Puerto Rico was going to win. The people chanted his name – “Wicho! Wicho!” – and they cheered again when he waved to them.
“This is the best moment in my career,” he said. “In Puerto Rico. All the fans. They were yelling my nickname.”
A teammate, Angel Pagan, stopped to give him a hug. So did Carlos Beltran.
This is what the WBC had done for him. This is where it took him. It had given him his chance, when all the other chances for all those years had gone to somebody else. When the fastball came, he swung. He smiled. It just might have to do.
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