GLENDALE, Ariz. – Heated would best describe the battle for veteran shortstop Rafael Furcal's(notes) services after the 2008 season. The Atlanta Braves announced he'd agreed to sign with them, only to have the Los Angeles Dodgers swoop in at the last minute. Furcal re-signed with the Dodgers, leaving the Braves steamed.
Now it can be revealed what helped tip Furcal back to the West Coast.
A shiny red fire truck.
It was included in the deal as a contract perk, something useful Furcal could donate to his tiny rural hometown in the Dominican Republic, where his family still lives and many people depend on his largess in time of need.
Furcal has never pitched, but in Loma de Cabrera, he will be Fireman of the Year.
"A lot of poor people get killed in my hometown because they don't have a fire truck," Furcal said. "We're doing something for this little town."
Furcal, an 11-year veteran who has earned more than $67 million, is already a one-man health-care plan for Loma de Cabrera, paying the bill of anyone needing hospitalization. He is the only player from the town of 6,000 near the border of Haiti to make it to the big leagues, although his two older brothers played in the minors and his father, Silvio, was an excellent outfielder on the island long before scouts began signing every Dominican kid with a measure of talent.
The Dodgers and Furcal put the fire truck idea on the back burner until Silvio died last June after getting kicked by a horse. Furcal took a bereavement leave and returned to Loma de Cabrera, where again he was reminded of the lack of a fire truck. Volunteer firefighters would drop a rolled-up hose and buckets of water into a pickup truck and speed to blazes threatening structures or the cassava and peanut fields. When Furcal returned to Los Angeles, he set the wheels in motion.
A couple years earlier, Furcal had visited the fire station nearest Dodger Stadium. He gave autographs and was thrilled to take a ride to a fire with the crew. Even though he has fulfilled the dream of anyone who plays ball by becoming a big leaguer, it had been his childhood dream to be a firefighter. Now he could use his stature as a player to help ensure safety in his hometown.
L.A. councilman Tom La Bonge helped organized the effort. The L.A. Fire Department donated the truck, which had been retired but still functioned, and the non-profit group called Los Bomberos – Spanish for The Firemen – restored and painted it. Furcal's No. 15 is printed on the side.
The Dodgers are paying for the transport of the truck to Loma de Cabrera, and will send along a fireman who will teach the locals how to drive and service it. Oh, and the fun part: how to operate the siren.
Furcal's hometown is dissected by a river that for hundreds of years locals have called "Rio Masacre" – Massacre River – because it flowed red with blood during battles by French and Spanish colonizers. Those days are long over. Now the worst that can happen is a brush fire or a house fire, or maybe responding to an earthquake.
"I'll sleep better knowing people will be safe," Furcal said. "I'm the only guy who made it. It's like a responsibility to me."
His love of firefighting was noticed by Dodgers public relations director Josh Rawitch, who mentioned it to general manager Ned Colletti during Furcal’s contract negotiations after the 2008 season. Colletti included the truck in discussions with Furcal's agent, Paul Kinzer. Furcal was torn between signing with the Braves &ndash the team that first signed him in 1996 and for whom he played his first six years in the majors – or returning to the Dodgers.
The fire truck was the ideal perk. It spoke to something close to his heart. And it convinced him the Dodgers cared about him as a person, and about his hometown. The Braves thought they had a deal and were livid when Furcal changed his mind and signed a three-year, $30 million contract with L.A.
Braves president John Schuerholz was fire-breathing mad, describing the conduct of Kinzer "despicable" and "disgusting" and vowing never to deal with him again. No word if the fire truck can stop by the Braves' Florida spring training site and douse those flames before reaching port and heading off to Loma de Cabrera.