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Cabrera Has a Smile on His Game Face

October 03, 2005|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Texas — A few hours before the Angels took the field against the Oakland Athletics with a chance to clinch the American League West title last Tuesday, Darin Erstad was already a picture of intensity and focus.

There was no idle chit-chat with teammates as the Angel first baseman methodically strapped on his knee brace, pulled up his uniform pants and taped his wrists; no sign of emotion as he checked the pine tar on his bats and pounded his mitt. Batting practice hadn't begun, and Erstad was approaching full game-face mode.

A few lockers down, shortstop Orlando Cabrera, oversized headphones engulfing his smallish, round head, was grooving to a Jay-Z tune, trying to engage teammates with his rap moves as they walked by.

Erstad, whose personality leans more toward the business suit than the Hawaiian shirt, looked on in amusement. And awe.

"He's a unique individual," Erstad said of Cabrera. "He's one of those guys who could look like he's asleep five minutes before a game, and the first play he dives in the hole and makes a great play. As soon as he steps on the field, it's game on. I'm jealous of that because it usually takes me a lot longer to get going."

Cabrera is wired differently than your typical ballplayer. The more tense the situation, the more loose Cabrera seems to get. The higher the stakes, the less pressure he feels. The brighter the spotlight, the more Cabrera seeks it out.

The defensive whiz gobbled up his first helping of October baseball as he does most grounders, helping the Boston Red Sox win their first World Series title in 86 years in 2004, and Cabrera won't shy away from seconds when the Angels begin division series play against the New York Yankees on Tuesday.

"Is there any reason to be tense? I'm from Colombia, man, I've got to keep my cool," Cabrera, 30, said. "You're living the dream of a pro baseball player, there are 22 other teams who are not in the playoffs, so why panic? Have fun. They tell you, when you get to the playoffs, it's going to be so much fun. Be yourself. Don't change."

Cabrera plays the game with a noticeable verve, an obvious zest. You can see it in the way he leaps to avoid a sliding baserunner while throwing to first for a double play, the way he charges a slow roller over the middle, the way he darts into the hole for a one-hop smash.

It's the same way off the field. While some old-school baseball types frown on fraternization, Cabrera spends almost all of his time between batting-practice swings chatting and chuckling with opponents, catching up with old friends.

In the Angel clubhouse, it's rare for a player to walk by Cabrera and not get a hearty slap on the shoulder or a fist bump from the shortstop. Whether it's speaking with reporters or goofing around with teammates, Cabrera wears this perpetual devilish grin, like a kid looking for mischief; he loves to lighten the mood.

"He's always got that instigator look about him," bench coach Joe Maddon said. "He's in the moment all the time. He enjoys living, and he happens to be a baseball player. I like a lot about who he is."

Much like last September and October in Boston, Cabrera's approach played well down the stretch this season. The tighter the AL West race got during those uneasy summer months, when the Angels seemed to wilt under the burden of expectations and the A's overachieved, the more fun Cabrera had. And the better he played.

"Certain guys are built that way, but it doesn't manifest itself like it does with Orlando," Maddon said.

"Some guys love [playing in big games], and they're not as demonstrative about it. He loves it, and you know it. He wants to be in the middle of something that's important."

It was a strategic move by Manager Mike Scioscia in late July that brought the true Cabrera to the fore.

Whether it was the pressure he felt to live up to the four-year, $32-million contract he signed with the Angels last winter or the burden he felt replacing fan favorite David Eckstein, Cabrera seemed out of sorts during his first few months in Anaheim.

While his defense never faltered, Cabrera's average hovered around .240 for most of the first half, and he wasn't producing many runs from the sixth, seventh and eighth spots in the lineup.

But Scioscia, believing Cabrera's situational hitting skills would be better suited for the top of the order, moved him to the second spot July 29. Cabrera's mood brightened immediately, and his game soared.

Cabrera was batting .247 with four home runs, 25 runs batted in and 31 runs in 81 games before the lineup switch; he hit .272 with four homers, 32 RBIs and 39 runs in 60 games since.

His patience helped leadoff batter Chone Figgins develop into the major leagues' leading base-stealer, and he has been so good at the situational game that several times Cabrera has attempted to advance a runner from second to third with a grounder to the right side and has wound up with hits and RBIs.

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