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Treasure From the Island

Betemit, born in the Dominican to play baseball, now figures to be at third base for the Dodgers for years

September 16, 2006|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Amid the pebbly diamonds where he would hit fungoes until his arms ached, on the screened front porch where he'd flip baseballs into a bat's arc well after darkness arrived in the Los Mina neighborhood of Santo Domingo, Fausto Betemit would gaze at the boy and imagine the path for which he was ordained.

Fausto believed this child -- stringy yet strong, loving yet fierce, dependable yet so very young -- would be different from the men who leaned on the warped tables in the pool halls downtown, rehashing their tired tales of baseball valor and the riches they so narrowly missed.

"He was a blessing from God," Fausto said, sitting last month behind home plate at Dodger Stadium. "He wasn't like the other kids, the ones we'd have to make practice. He was born with a glove and a bat in his heart."

In the days before Wilson Betemit would become a professional player at, the family claims, 14 years old, when the bus that would take him from home in the Dominican Republic was only days away and they wondered what they would do without each other, Fausto would remind him again.

"You're going to make it because you're blessed," he'd say. "Look at your body. Look at what you can do. You are blessed. You are going to make it."

A decade later, Wilson would smile at the memory of those hours, those words, and say, "For me, baseball is my life. It has given me everything."

Fausto Betemit is a roundish, cheery fellow and a former second baseman who, at 42, can't shake a relentless nickname that honors the breadth of his rear end. His future as a player, he said, was prematurely ended by the bumper of a passing car, and the hip and ribs wrecked by the event.

Wilson referred lovingly to Fausto as both an uncle and a father figure, having been delivered to Fausto's home when he was 2 months old; Fausto said he is Wilson's biological father, and with a smile and a shrug Wilson grants him that nugget of ownership. The precise details seem irrelevant to both.

For 21 years Fausto has owned and operated Las Estrellas de Betemit, a baseball training facility whose fields are located across the street from the house in which Wilson was raised.

Three hundred boys, ages 4 to 18, are currently enrolled, Fausto said. There, they learn baseball on fields many American children would not stoop to walk their dogs.

"It's the ugliest field you've ever seen," he said. "There are rocks and holes everywhere. I'd like you to see the conditions they grow up in. But if you make the plays there" -- he waves his arm across the major league infield before him -- "this is nothing."

Cradled by his grandmother, Ana Julia, Wilson attended Fausto's games almost since birth. At 4, he began to accompany Fausto to the baseball fields across the street, and soon he was mixing in with the other players, learning the elementary skills that would, two decades later, land him in a pennant race in Los Angeles.

In six weeks, Wilson has hit .252 with eight home runs and 18 RBIs for the Dodgers, though he is two for his last 21 and has one home run in September. A switch-hitter, he starts at third base against all right-handed pitchers, and some left-handers. He came to the Dodgers in a July 28 trade with the Atlanta Braves, costing General Manager Ned Colletti reliever Danys Baez and young infielder Willy Aybar.

For Wilson, the trade severed a relationship that began 10 years before, but freed him from a talent logjam on the left side of the Braves' infield.

"This is good for me," Wilson said. "They give me the opportunity to play. I see my name every day in the lineup. It's different."

Hardened in the neighborhood baseball academy as well as tournaments in the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean countries, the teenage Wilson carried a strong arm and easy power, despite spreading only 135 pounds over a 6-foot-1 frame.

Such was his athletic ability and fondness for the game, he'd take his position at shortstop with a dash, a spring and a back flip, as he had seen Ozzie Smith execute on his family's black-and-white television with the dial knobs.

The Braves gave him $40,000 and signed him July 28, 1996, by most of today's records the day Wilson turned 16, and the earliest a Major League Baseball organization is permitted to sign an undrafted free agent. Four years later, MLB determined Wilson's birthday to be Nov. 2, 1981. The Braves were fined and sanctioned, but Wilson remained in the organization.

In his first hours as a Braves prospect, Wilson met Rafael Furcal, a quick, dynamic second baseman from Loma de Cabrera, a small, poor town near the Haitian border. They shared a room while playing for the Braves' summer league team in San Pedro de Macoris, and again the next year in the U.S. Gulf Coast League. They'd pool what few dollars they had for rice and milk, talk about home and play ball. They remain close friends, and Furcal was among the first Betemit called upon learning of the trade.

"He was a young, skinny guy who could hit and throw," Furcal said. "He's a great kid."

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