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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Wins & Losses : Rene Cardenas brought baseball to millions with his pioneering broadcasts in Spanish. Now, shaken by tough times, he clings to his claim to the Hall of Fame

June 18, 1995|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill DeLury, the Los Angeles Dodgers' longtime traveling secretary, is rarely caught unpre pared. Which is one big reason why an otherwise forgettable summer afternoon in Cincinnati has become part of club lore.

On that day, DeLury, the man who makes the Dodgers run on time, discovered that his watch wasn't. So he turned to Rene Cardenas, one of the club's two Spanish-language radio broadcasters, and asked him to see that the team bus left the hotel at precisely 4:30.

"So when his watch hit 4:30," DeLury recalls, "Rene made a big show of it. He started shouting, ' Vamonos. Let's go!' "

Years have passed and DeLury's watch once again runs with Swiss precision, but the Dodger bus never leaves a hotel until Cardenas says so.

Over nearly 40 years, he has led players not only to the ballpark but into millions of homes that had been ignored by team owners.

When the Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn in 1958, Cardenas became the first radio announcer to broadcast major league baseball in Spanish for a domestic audience. Today, 11 teams regularly offer such broadcasts.

In 1966, while directing Spanish-language broadcasts for the Houston Astros, Cardenas organized, produced and described games for baseball's first international radio network. The innovative programming, which reached 13 countries in Central and South America, was designed largely to introduce the fledgling Astros to the region's developing talent.

"We have scouts in these areas who now should have an easier time communicating with the Latin players about the Astros," Judge Roy Hofheinz, then-owner of the Astros, said at the time. Today, many major league clubs--as well as a handful of Japanese league teams--operate year-round training bases in Latin America, trading goodwill for the chance to sign top prospects, just as Cardenas' broadcasts did years ago.

This pioneering work has earned Cardenas respect, a nomination to the baseball Hall of Fame--but little else of note. Along the way from his native Nicaragua to Los Angeles and back again, he has lost jobs, a house, a car and a small fortune.

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" . . . cuando ande de compras, traiga a casa tocino Farmer John , el rancherito."

It's two hours before game time and Cardenas is hard at work recording commercial spots for such longtime Dodger sponsors as Farmer John. He has already spent three hours translating the latest ads from English to Spanish and poring over local newspapers in search of tidbits for that night's broadcast.

"Even though I've been doing this for a lot of years, I still have to prepare," he says. "I have to be ready to set up the game and explain the matchups."

The research, the commercials, the game itself. Add it all up, then figure in the short commute from Cardenas' tidy Glendale apartment, and it's a solid eight hours--a grind for a 65-year-old man recovering from colon cancer.

This wasn't the plan, of course. Twenty years ago, Cardenas settled into semi-retirement in Nicaragua, a country his grandfather once ruled as president. Although most of its leaders have been easy to forget, Dr. Adan Cardenas is still revered for one act: In the late 19th Century, he introduced baseball to Nicaragua.

Rene's Uncle Adolfo played on the first national team, but Rene--a small, frail boy--felt more comfortable describing the action. Before he left high school, he was not only writing for La Prensa, Nicaragua's leading newspaper, but also broadcasting games for Radio Mundial, the capital city's top-ranked station.

"He had a very original style," recalls Edgard Tijerino, sports editor of the Nicaraguan newspaper Barricada and host of "Doble Play," the nation's most popular radio sports talk show. "It was a way of broadcasting that nobody here in Nicaragua had. The people of my generation remember him with fondness and still value the work he did."

But no amount of goodwill could protect Cardenas from the political upheaval that would soon envelop the country. By the spring of 1979, a once hapless band of peasants and idealistic students had grown into the powerful Sandinista National Liberation Front, and their revolution, percolating since the 1930s, was poised to take control. The rebels' final push to victory would take them right past the front door of Cardenas' three-quarter-acre hacienda.

"They were fighting around my house every night. We used to go under the bed every single night for months," Cardenas recalls. "We were in a war without being soldiers."

Jilma Cardenas begged her husband to get the couple out of the country, so he turned the house over to their two maids and a gardener and steered his late-model Ford Gran Torino through gunfire to the U.S. Embassy. From there, safe passage to Panama was arranged. His house, life savings and many priceless mementos from his broadcasting career were seized.

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