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Rooting out cause of his problems

Furcal is in his farm-rich Dominican homeland to regrow his game after a disappointing season.

December 19, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic -- For more than a week rain had pounded the fertile farmland surrounding the Dominican Republic's second-largest city, knocking down power lines, causing rivers to overflow and turning unpaved streets into rushing torrents of mud.

"Oh, it was terrible," Rafael Furcal says with a shake of his head.

But it's all better now, he adds. And just to prove it, he hustles a visitor onto the balcony of his penthouse apartment for a view of clear blue sky that seems to stretch forever.

"You should see it at night," the Dodgers shortstop says. "It's beautiful."

As for his baseball future, well, that too seems to be rosy again because, just hours earlier, Furcal's personal black cloud had also lifted. Playing for the first time since hobbling off the field in Colorado three months ago with back and ankle problems, Furcal had four hits, two runs and stole a base in a Dominican winter league game in nearby San Francisco de Macoris.

OK, so it's not the World Series. But it's not a bad start.

"It felt good," Furcal says. "I feel much better."

That's something he could rarely say during the summer. A sore shoulder kept him on the sidelines through much of spring training, then he started the season on the disabled list with a severely sprained left ankle that never fully healed. As a result, Furcal struggled through his worst season in six years, playing only 138 games and finishing with a career-low .270 average, 25 stolen bases and 87 runs.

After matching a career high with 15 home runs and helping the team reach the playoffs in his first season in Los Angeles, Furcal managed only six last summer, when the Dodgers finished fourth in the National League West. And with their leadoff hitter hobbled, the Dodgers outscored only one NL team that finished with a winning record and out-homered three of 30 big-league teams.

"I don't think any lineup would be productive without the leadoff hitter being able to get on," Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said. "Obviously he's a key player for our club. We saw the difference he made."

Five mornings a week Furcal steers his silver Mercedes through Santiago's pothole-riddled streets to a downtown gym where a trainer from his winter league team, Aguilas de Cibao, gives him a massage, applies ice and heat and puts Furcal through a series of strength and flexibility exercises.

"I feel like I'm getting back to my game. Steal a base, bunting, running," he says. "It's tough when you've got a bad injury and you can't even stand up at home plate. I felt so disappointed with myself."

For the most part, however, he suffered in silence. Although the Dodgers' trainers and confidants such as infield coach Mariano Duncan knew he was in pain, few others, even teammates, knew how badly he was hurt.

His wife, Glenny, knew because Furcal's silence spoke volumes.

"When he feels hurt, he never says anything. He just stays quiet. But at the same time, I know that he was expecting more and he was getting frustrated," she says, sitting in the living room of the couple's sprawling two-story, 11th-floor penthouse.

"He wanted to do more [but] he was scared to say something because he felt like maybe people wouldn't believe that he was hurt," Glenny remembers of the long, quiet nights in their La Canada home. "It was really bad. He would come home sad. When Raffy can't play well, he gets frustrated."

So Furcal sought solace in his 1-year-old son Rafael Jr. and Glenny, a former New Yorker he met during his final spring training with the Braves.

"I didn't know anything about baseball. And I still don't," she says. "Sometimes I'll ask Raffy a question and he'll just laugh. I thought it was really boring."

But Furcal won her over with two simple gestures -- a surprise call on her birthday and a visit home to meet his parents.

"When I met his family and I saw the way that he was treating his mom, I said, 'Oh, wait a minute. This is a man who could really make a family,' " she recalls.

Which is why she was one of the few people who wasn't happy to see Furcal back in uniform this week. "We don't have enough time [together] in L.A. Now he's playing here, he's not going to spend time with his family," she says. "It's another job. I never told him anything, but I was sad.

"But if he needs it and he feels happy doing it, then I have to go ahead and be with him."

Furcal grew up near the Haitian border in Loma de Cabrera, a dusty village of less than 7,000 split by the Dajabon River -- a river most locals know as the rio masacre because its shallow waters have frequently flowed red with blood from massacres dating back more than 300 years, to when French and Spanish colonizers fought along its banks.

Furcal's father, Silvio, built a reputation as a standout left fielder in an era when major league scouts ignored the Dominican Republic. But he would make up for that by sending all three of his sons to the U.S. to play baseball.

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