Family ties

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Erick Aybar was raised along the Bani River in the Dominican Republic, about an hour's drive from the capital, Santo Domingo.

He was raised in a small, crowded house whose relative comforts depended on the moods of the river and the climate.

He was raised on baseball, by a father, Chicho, who played second base on the local team, in a community whose values insisted on it, through programs in which the rewards were as narrow as a decent pair of shoes and as boundless as unfathomable wealth.

And he was raised beside two sisters and a brother. Erick was born 10 months after his brother Willy. They shared a dinner table and a bed and chores. They chased each other out of the house and into the neighborhood, into the baseball being played on the streets and on the dusty tract that passed as a baseball field.

They ran long enough and hard enough to distinguish themselves among the other skinny street kids, fell in with a prominent broker of young Dominican boys to American professional baseball, and in time Erick followed Willy from the riverbank all the way to the major leagues.

Erick stood this weekend in the Los Angeles Angels' clubhouse, amid a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is 23 and getting at-bats and middle-infield innings at a time when the Angels have lost Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick to hand injuries. He is finding his way, batting .262 in 34 games, surviving the early exposure to big-league pitching and standards.

Not that long ago, Willy would have been in the other clubhouse. But last July, he was traded by the Dodgers to the Atlanta Braves for third baseman Wilson Betemit, a player the brothers knew from the winter leagues in the Dominican. Even then, Willy would have been on the telephone, as he was through their years in the minor leagues, sharing triumph and frustration, secrets learned, news from home.

"It kind of makes me sad," Erick said through a translator. "He is my brother."

Willy left the Braves last month. Just didn't show up one day, and then the next. He was suspended. His agent told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Willy had a substance-abuse problem, that he had driven to Boston seeking a third Aybar brother, Francis. Major League Baseball officials sought to meet with Willy on one or two occasions, and Willy didn't show. Now, at 24 years old, he is in an undisclosed U.S. facility, in a rehabilitation program recovering from alcohol abuse and perhaps more, and Willy and Erick haven't talked much.

"There is limited access right now where he is," Erick said. "Willy talks to my mom every day. When I want to talk to him, it's always too early for him to get a call, or too late. But I know he's doing fine."

His mother, Francia, was in Anaheim last night to watch the game. Erick played a late inning at shortstop. His brother in personal crisis, Erick has pushed forward, playing a loose and confident game, laughing with veteran Latin teammates who reflect upon his matted, tangled hair and call him "Dough-head."

If it has been difficult to maintain the baseball routine while his brother is in pain, to play on without his brother's daily voice, Erick seemingly has left that disruption in the parking lot every afternoon.

"Even though I don't have all the details of what he's going through, there are issues he's dealing with," Erick said. "And through those issues, I'm not going to take them to the ballpark with me."

Few current Dodgers players know Willy well. Willy's closest friend in the organization was Joel Guzman, who was traded last summer to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Catcher Russell Martin called him "a good teammate" but knew him only as such. Dodgers officials know him as a decent, mostly quiet young man who has great offensive potential but lacks defensive skills.

First base coach Mariano Duncan coached Willy in several minor-league seasons. He said he once talked Willy out of quitting baseball over his frustration with learning to switch-hit, and that he'd had a girlfriend who adored Willy's twin daughters.

"He's a good kid, an easygoing kid," Duncan said. "It's so sad for me to hear this. I never saw anything bad about that kid. I never saw that side of Willy Aybar."

Duncan turned his head, looking for Erick across the field, unable to locate him. Duncan first met Erick while working at the Angels' baseball academy in the Dominican Republic six years ago. Two years later, then having taken a job with the Dodgers, he met Willy. He said he tried to reach Willy by phone in recent weeks. His messages were unanswered. It pains him that Willy never asked for help.

"He didn't say anything to anybody," Duncan said sadly. "I just wish him the best, that everything's going good and that he can go back to baseball."

Kendrick could come off the disabled list as early as next week, meaning Erick will give up his regular time at second base and return to a utility role. But it still will be baseball. His brother, he seems sure, is cared for. The older Angels – Orlando Cabrera, Vladimir Guerrero, Hector Carrasco – mentor Erick as they once were mentored.

They like Erick's spirit, his determination.

Erick shrugged.

"I always threw myself out there to give everything I had," he said. "That's the way it was when I was a little boy in the neighborhood, in the Dominican Republic. We didn't want to lose. … Even now, when I go home, I pick up a ball and a bat and go out in the streets to play. That's never going to change."

It'll be right again, he's sure. Willy will call. He'll come home. They'll play ball together. It'll be right again.