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Room for Improvement

Ortiz has battled nerves, gopher balls, but Pac Bell Park's vast outfield could work in his favor in Game 3 tonight.

October 22, 2002|Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- The country was new, the language was new, the food was new. Airplane travel was fairly new as well, to a minor league pitcher from the Dominican Republic. So, four years ago, one Angel pitching prospect asked his parents to look out for another.

Ramon Ortiz was headed from Texas to California, so that doctors could inspect an injured elbow. The parents of Matt Wise were booked on the same flight, returning home after watching their son pitch.

Command of a fastball is one thing, command of the English language quite another. So, Wise told his parents, please make sure Ortiz boards the correct flight.

"Sure enough, they couldn't find him," Wise said. "He was in line to get on a plane to Baltimore."

The whole world will be checking in on him tonight, when he starts Game 3 of the World Series against the San Francisco Giants. He is thrilled to represent the Angels and happy to tell you so, in his second language.

"I'm very excited," he said. "It will be a special day for me and my team."

The Angels are keeping their fingers crossed that Ortiz can contain his excitement. In his playoff debut, he was "absolutely too amped up," in the words of Angel Manager Mike Scioscia, and he did not survive the third inning against the Yankees. In the league championship series, he took a deep breath and carried a shutout into the sixth inning against the Twins.

In the World Series, he has come to Pacific Bell Park, the major league ballpark perhaps best suited to his game. No major league pitcher gave up more home runs than Ortiz this season, but in no ballpark were fewer homers hit than in this one.

"You can make a mistake here," San Francisco first baseman J.T. Snow said, "and get away with it."

Home runs notwithstanding, Ortiz enjoyed a fine season. He went 15-9 with a 3.77 earned-run average, ranking among league leaders in strikeouts and innings pitched. He held opponents to a .230 batting average, bettered only by Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and 23-game winner Barry Zito of the Oakland A's.

And, in his second full season in the major leagues, he can answer his manager in two languages.

"I'm speaking less and less Spanish to him," Scioscia said. "At first, I would talk to him in Spanish and he would respond in English. Now he's very comfortable speaking English."

In the clubhouse, and in a restaurant, and at the store.

"He understands the culture," Wise said. "He got himself a driver's license. I think it's made him more comfortable. And any time you're more comfortable, it helps with your performance."

In 1997, the Angels assigned Ortiz to Class-A Cedar Rapids, sending the Dominican kid into the heart of Iowa. He lived with an English-speaking host family, gratefully but sadly.

"The little girl and little boy would talk to me, and I didn't understand," he said. "It was very hard."

He ate almost daily at McDonald's, because he knew that he could order a "hamburguesa." At other restaurants, he said, he would wait to see someone else order a meal that looked good, then he would point to it and say, "same thing."

If he had ordered a combo meal, the person taking his order would inevitably ask what he wanted to drink. He would repeat himself, not knowing any better.

"They would say, orange juice? Coke? What?" Ortiz said. "I didn't understand. I said, same thing."

Slowly, and painfully so at times, he expanded his English vocabulary. He took language classes. He bought a Spanish-English dictionary and tried his best to learn a word a day.

"I watch a lot of movies," he said. "And I watch 'SportsCenter' a lot. I learn a lot. They talk all about baseball."

He eats out a lot too, with a wide vocabulary and major league meal money too.

"No more McDonald's," he said. "Now I can go anywhere and get steak or whatever I want. The last three years, nothing like that. For three years, I didn't eat a steak. It was only McDonald's or Mexican food -- you know, burritos, and rice and beans.

"Now I like everything -- T-bone steak, pasta, chicken, Caesar salad. I had never eaten a Caesar salad."

In March, after the Angels renewed his contract, Ortiz knew his English well enough to ask coach and translator Bobby Ramos to step aside. All by himself, Ortiz conducted an interview in which he called his contract offer "very cheap" and wondered aloud whether the Angels were "not liking me for the future."

Said Ramos: "I was happy that he took charge. He was not afraid. He really wanted to try to talk directly to you and tell you his feelings.

"He's made strides all around, not only on the field but off the field. He's more confident. He knows he belongs here. He's not afraid of making mistakes. He knows he's here to stay. People correct him if he says something wrong."

The Angels subsequently signed him to a four-year contract. In the playoffs, during news conferences before the national media, Ramos or coach Alfredo Griffin serves as a translator.

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