Dodgers catcher Rod Barajas makes a throw to first to put out Phillies outfielder… (Harry How / Getty Images )
Reporting from Phoenix — As a kid growing up in Norwalk, Rod Barajas used to look up to the heavens when winding up to pitch, just like his hero did.
"I'm Fernando Valenzuela," Barajas would say.
His mother would tease him whenever she heard him say that.
"No, you're not," she replied. "You're Pedro Guerrero."
Barajas, 6 or 7 years old at the time, would get upset.
"I loved Pedro Guerrero too, but I was Fernando," he said.
Barajas laughed as he told the story recently in the Dodgers' clubhouse at Camelback Ranch. He motioned to the locker stall behind him, where a No. 28 jersey hung.
"It's funny because now I have Pedro Guerrero's number," he said. "My mom was right."
A son of Mexican immigrants who was swept up by Fernandomania as a child, Barajas, 35, is living his dream. He is expected to catch a majority of the games for a team that plays 18.2 miles from the house in which was raised.
His parents still live in that house, and his two brothers and sister remain in the area, as do countless other relatives.
"Everyone in my family knew this was my dream," he said.
He is eager to relive that fantasy without the uncertainty of last season, when he was acquired by the Dodgers on a waiver claim in August.
Barajas knew his dream could be short-lived. Only a month remained in the regular season and he would be a free agent at the end of the season.
His family knew too.
"They're all Dodger fans, so every game, it was tickets, it was talking to people after the game," Barajas said.
He will have the luxury of spreading those demands over a six-month season this year.
But his return to the Dodgers almost didn't happen.
"I thought going into the off-season I would have an opportunity to come back," Barajas said. "About a month into it, I didn't know if I was."
The reason: The Dodgers and Russell Martin were at an impasse in their negotiations. Martin was still under club control, but the Dodgers didn't want him back if they had to give him a raise.
When it became to clear to the Dodgers that they would part ways with Martin, they made a move to re-sign Barajas.
By then, Barajas was on the verge of a deal with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Barajas had waited too long to sign the previous winter and ended up with an incentive-laden deal.
"I really wanted to come back," Barajas said. "But when you think about your career, what happened last year, I didn't want to be put back in that situation."
The Dodgers' call came late, but not too late. He re-signed for one year at $3.25 million.
Barajas doesn't figure to be the threat on offense Martin was, even though Martin's production declined significantly over the last couple of seasons.
Barajas hit .297 with five home runs and 13 runs batted in in 25 games with the Dodgers last season, but he's a .239 career hitter who was batting .225 for the New York Mets when the Dodgers acquired him.
But Barajas' strength is what some observers said was Martin's weakness — calling games from behind the plate. Manager Don Mattingly liked Barajas' defense last year.
"Not once did he ask about his at-bats when he came into the dugout," Mattingly said. "He went straight to the pitcher. It told me where his mind-set was then."
The pitchers took to his personality.
"He's chatty and easygoing," Ted Lilly said.
Barajas even connected with Hiroki Kuroda, telling him through an interpreter that his wife was half Japanese and likes umeboshi — pickled sour plum from Japan.
"There aren't many foreigners who like umeboshi," Kuroda said.
Kuroda said he likes pitching to Barajas because of his wide frame. The Dodgers list him at 6 feet 2, 250 pounds, and although the size of the strike zone is the same with any catcher, Kuroda said that throwing to a larger-bodied receiver creates the illusion of a larger target and calms him down.
But Barajas said he realizes he has some work to do defensively. He threw out only 15% of potential base stealers last season, including two of 13 with the Dodgers. In each of his eight previous seasons, Barajas threw out 33% to 40% of potential base stealers.
"I think that's been a big emphasis in camp," Barajas said. "I wasn't getting guys out. That's the bottom line. I'm going to continue to work on it."
If he does that, he said, just maybe he could do something else he dreamed of doing as a kid in the sandlot.
"I really wanted to be a part of something special," Barajas said, "something that's going to be talked about in L.A. for a while."