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THE NATION

His Rise Has Been as Fast as His Fastball

Blazing speed and spirit take the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez, 20, from dirt lot in Venezuela to the Series.

October 22, 2002|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

CARACAS, Venezuela — Graciano Ravelo's baseball school is a long, long way from the pristine diamonds of Edison Field and PacBell Park.

It is a patch of yellow dirt enclosed by a rusty chain-link fence. Towering concrete apartments squeeze from all sides. Busted cars, drunks and dog waste fill the cracked asphalt parking lot.

But it was here, in a corner of hope carved from a polluted city's urban heart, that the Angels' 20-year-old wunderkind, Francisco Rodriguez, learned to pitch in a way that has propelled him all the way to the World Series.

Here, he threw and threw and threw with such fervor that it stunned those who watched the 7-year-old practice.

Here, they first knew that Rodriguez was different.

"Everyone can be a winner, but not everyone can be a champion," said Ravelo, Rodriguez's first coach and the man who founded the school 27 years ago. "Francisco Rodriguez is a champion."

A little more than a month since leaving the minor leagues, Rodriguez's rise from one of this city's toughest neighborhoods has already become un cuento de Cenicienta -- a Latin American Cinderella story.

Youngsters recite his accomplishments by rote: Tied Nolan Ryan's franchise record of eight consecutive strikeouts; first major league pitcher ever to win his first game in postseason play; first player ever to win five postseason games before age 21; youngest player to win a World Series game.

"Sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if this is real," Rodriguez said. "Am I really in the playoffs? Am I really pitching almost every day? I pinch myself and it hurts, so, yes, this is real."

And now an entire country is watching to see whether the right-handed reliever can maintain his stunning start.

Rodriguez made his World Series debut on Sunday, entering with the San Francisco Giants ahead, 9-8, and having already pounded Angel pitching for 11 hits. He left three innings later, with the Angels up, 11-9. They would survive the final inning without him, holding on for a 11-10 victory that tied the best-of-seven-games series, 1-1, going into Game 3 tonight in San Francisco.

The first three batters Rodriguez faced were out on seven pitches -- two three-pitch strikeouts and a ground ball hit by slugger Barry Bonds. His first 12 pitches were strikes. In all, Rodriguez faced nine batters, and none reached base. He struck out four.

Afterward, usually reserved teammates and coaches were effusive in their praise.

"Explosive," fellow Angel relief pitcher Ben Weber said of his fastball.

"Fearless," Angel pitching coach Bud Black said of his aggressiveness.

"Incredible," Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said of his performance.

"Unbelievable," added Angel outfielder Tim Salmon, whose two-run home run made Rodriguez the winning pitcher.

Back home, they use another word.

"He's the best," said Anthony Martinez, a 10-year-old who was fielding balls at the school on a recent weekday.

Rodriguez was known in amateur baseball circles but was hardly a celebrity in Venezuela before all this. He never played professionally here, leaving the country when he was 16 to begin playing in the minor leagues in the States.

"When he comes on television, we all say, shhh, shhh, there he is," said Clarisol Gonzalez, 35, a childhood friend. "We are all praying to God for him."

Unlike many Latin American countries, where soccer reigns supreme, baseball in Venezuela is second only to Catholicism as a national religion. It is a tradition that stems from the nation's historical links to the Caribbean, where American influence and investment have long made baseball the sport of choice.

There are eight top-level professional clubs in a country of 24 million -- a ratio that if applied to the U.S. would result in 80 major league teams. The local version of Little League starts accepting players at age 4. Fans queue for hours before games -- both amateur and professional.

And so Rodriguez's success is more than just an inspiration for kids wanting to make it to the big leagues. It's also a welcome diversion for a nation suffering from profound political and economic crisis.

President Hugo Chavez, briefly ousted in a coup earlier this year, is struggling to maintain order in a divided country. The economy has faltered badly. Unemployment has soared.

"Baseball forms a part of our soul," said Felix Esculpi, 52, who coached Rodriguez years ago. "It's part of our character -- young, old, adults and children."

Rodriguez's rise began in one of this city's poor neighborhoods, the Kennedy Section, a chaotic mishmash of brick houses that cling to the side of a hill. The community was born from President Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, a 1960s-era program aimed at improving living conditions in Latin America.

Neighbors recall how Rodriguez and his friends would play baseball in the central courtyard of their apartment complex. A bottle cap was the ball, a broomstick the bat.

"After you've played with that, a baseball seems huge," said Kenny Pinto, 21, one of Rodriguez's best friends growing up.

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