Monday, April 21, 2008
Updated: April 29, 12:18 PM ET
NOW IT'S PERSONAL
By Jorge Arangure Jr.
[Ed's note: To read more about how this story was even discovered by the author, please go here .]
In the tunnels of Detroit's Comerica Park, a clubhouse attendant, much like a carrier pigeon, delivers a message that will echo in a country thousands of miles away. It's a simple request for a meeting between two shortstops, intended to avoid a full-fledged controversy — a polémica, as they say in Colombia. The attendant enters the Tigers' clubhouse and finds Edgar Rentería. "Edgar," the clubbie says, "Orlando Cabrera says he would like to speak to you." But Rentería does not wish to speak to Cabrera, his counterpart on the White Sox, his fellow Colombian. The day before, Rentería explained why to a reporter: "I won't accept dealing with him. I think he's disrespected so many baseball people in Colombia who have been working to improve the sport. And that's not something I can accept, even with an apology from him."
Apologizing wasn't what Cabrera had in mind before the third game of the season's first series between the AL Central rivals. (Both players are with new teams and playing in the same division for the first time in 10 years.) Cabrera was looking to make peace, or at least ask for clarification. But one thing is clear: The two best baseball players in the history of their country are not on speaking terms.
The reasons are rooted in Colombia, a soccer-loving South American nation where baseball struggles to take hold along a coastal stretch of highway. On this main road, Highway 90, high-rise condos sprout one after another, poor indigenous country folk sell fried foods and local cheeses from shabby huts, and soldiers man roadblocks searching for rebels and bombs. The highway connects Cartagena, the majestic tourist city where the 33-year-old Cabrera grew up, and Barranquilla,its industrial rival 72 miles to the northeast, which produced the 32-year-old Rentería.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that the two stars should never have done business together. "Really, there has never been a relationship with Orlando," says Rentería, an 11-year major league veteran. "We've never been friends." But last year Team Rentería, a family business that runs the four-team Colombian winter league and a youth baseball academy in Barranquilla, was looking for investors. Edinson Rentería, Edgar's older brother and the league's president, offered to sell the Cartagena franchise to Cabrera, who'd already opened a competing academy in his hometown. Cabrera put in $25,000 to buy the Indios but sold them back to the Renterías at the end of the season, in January, when, he says, his interest waned. Despite many disagreements with Edinson over such issues as TV-rights fees and ticket sales, Cabrera believed the separation was amicable. In fact, it was not.
"He wanted to buy one team so he could wreck everything that's been done with the league," Edgar says. "I think he did it out of malice. You should ask him what he has against the Renterías. For several years, people have told me that he's jealous of me. People have always known me more in Colombia than him, and I think that bothers him."
As Cabrera listens to a recording of these comments, his jaw drops in disbelief. This is Colombia's baseball ambassador, the tactful Rentería? Cabrera seems more surprised than angry. "These are ignorant comments from an ignorant person," he says. "I've always respected Edgar as one of the smartest people on the field, who, because of his intelligence, has excelled beyond his abilities. For him to make comments like that is disappointing."
To understand how the relationship between the two shortstops got to this point, you need to start with a simple scouting report. When Jolbert Cabrera Sr. was scouting for the Marlins back in 1992, he tried to sell his bosses on his second son, a 5'9" middle infielder named Orlando. (His first son, Jolbert Jr., was already in the Expos organization and would later spend seven years in the majors, mostly as a bench player.) But the Marlins weren't interested in Orlando. Too slight, they said. Who else do you have?
There is this one boy, Jolbert Sr. replied, a soccer player from Barranquilla who also has tremendous baseball skills. He's the perfect size, more than six feet tall. He's 17, and raw, but he could be great.
The boy's name? Edgar Rentería.
The old scout's sales pitch would ultimately bring wealth and fame to the Renterías, who lived only a few blocks from Barranquilla's baseball stadium. Edinson and Edgar were two of eight children; when they were very young, their father, Francisco, died suddenly, leaving their mother, Visitación, to raise the family alone. Edinson, who is eight years older than Edgar, earned money working as a street vendor alongside some of his brothers. But he was also a talented ballplayer, and he would eventually spend nine years in the minors as an infielder for the Astros and Marlins, sending his meager paychecks home to help provide for his brothers and sisters. "I always was in awe of him and of what he did for us," Edgar says.
Edgar reached the majors in 1996 and became a national hero in Colombia the following year when he singled in the World Series-winning run for the Marlins in the 11th inning of Game 7. "When people think of me, they think of that hit," he says. "It opened the door for me."
Cabrera, playing in the Arizona Fall League at the time, watched Rentería's epic hit on TV, cheering when the ball glanced off Indians pitcher Charles Nagy's glove. It was a great moment for Cabrera, who had attended Rentería's pro debut in Florida and even used an Edgar Rentería model glove. "How could I be jealous of Edgar when I've grown up my entire life being known as Jolbert's little brother?" Cabrera says.
Baseball was actually Orlando's second love, but Jolbert Sr. forbade him from pursuing basketball beyond high school and never once watched him play hoops. In his father's mind, Orlando would either make it in baseball or go to college in Colombia. But to Orlando, it seemed that everyone thought Jolbert Jr., who is two years older, deserved to get to the majors first. Jolbert Jr. says his dad bribed Venezuelan officials so that he could cross the border for a tryout with the Expos. The two Jolberts giggled as they drove to the field. "Orlando didn't really have those types of moments with Dad," says Jolbert Jr., who's still playing Triple-A ball for the Reds.
Orlando finally signed a pro contract in 1993, with the Expos, for a measly $7,000 bonus. When he was promoted to the majors four years later, he called home and was greeted by his mother, Josefina, who immediately asked, "Why wasn't Jolbert called up instead of you?"
After nearly seven years in Montreal, Orlando was shipped to the Red Sox in 2004 as part of the four-team trade that landed Nomar Garciaparra with the Cubs. Cabrera quickly established himself as a leader and played an important role in helping Boston end its 86-year championship drought. One afternoon in the middle of the playoff chase, Manny Ramírez asked for the day off because of a headache. Cabrera approached him and said, "There's no way you're coming out of the lineup. I've never been in the playoffs." Ramírez acquiesced, and Cabrera walked into Terry Francona's office and told him, "Manny is going to play."
After the Sox won the World Series, Cartagena celebrated its native son. Civic leaders sent a fire truck to pick Cabrera up at the airport and take him directly to a ceremony at City Hall. But not long after that, Red Sox management decided that the free agent was no longer in their plans. There were rumors that Cabrera partied too much, according to a source close to the organization. (Orlando's second wife, Katie, whom he met the following year, while with the Angels, says her husband leads a much tamer life these days.) The Red Sox also coveted a guy on the team they had just swept in the World Series, a guy who carried no off-the-field baggage. His name? Edgar Rentería.
Of course, Rentería didn't handle the pressures of playing in Boston as well as Cabrera had, and after making a career-high 30 errors in 2005, he was sent to Atlanta. But for all of Cabrera's success, he will never surpass Rentería on the very short list of Colombian major leaguers. Rentería is a five-time All-Star; Cabrera always gets those three days off.
A few years ago, Cabrera flew home to Colombia to take care of some personal business during the break. At the airport, he was harassed by a customs agent who demanded to know why he'd come all that way for such a short stay. Cabrera explained that he was a professional ballplayer. "I've never heard of you," the guard said. "The only Colombian baseball player I know is Edgar Rentería."
Cabrera readily admits he doesn't trust many people. Jolbert Sr., who died in 2000, forfeited his son's trust through his drinking and blatant womanizing — even keeping a second family on the side. When Orlando is home in Colombia during the off-season, he hurries through checkpoints because he fears being kidnapped, and he and Katie keep a pistol in their car for protection.
Mistrust may be Cabrera's most Colombian quality. Living in the shadow of a government that wars with its own people — a country that has been mired in a decades-long conflict with guerrilla forces, not to mention drug cartels and run-of-the-mill kidnappers, murderers and thieves — will do that. Even though the crime rate has dropped significantly, the beloved Rentería still has
machine-gun-toting guards protecting his home.
People from industrial Barranquilla tend to mistrust those from touristy Cartagena, so maybe it was inevitable that Cabrera and Rentería would have a falling out. It was a surprise that Cabrera bought the Cartagena team in the first place. While the crowds in Barranquilla and Cartagena were big and enthusiastic, and his Indios made it to the finals (Cabrera played shortstop; Rentería, who did not play or coach, is more of a figurehead at this point), Cabrera and Edinson Rentería had numerous squabbles over issues large and small. At this point, the most significant one is the $35,000 Cabrera says the league owes him for his cut of advertising, ticket sales and TV rights, among other things. The elder Rentería claims it is Cabrera who owes the league money. "He's a liar, and I will sue him if he continues to make disparaging remarks about us," Edinson says. "If he has something personal against us, if he wants to cause damage to our project, he's mistaken, because we won't allow it. We don't need him to have baseball in Colombia. People in Colombia know what type of person he is and what type of people we are."
Cabrera says it was Edinson's mismanagement of the league that caused him to walk away, and he's stunned by the personal attacks. "That's what happens when you deal with people who can't separate business issues from personal issues," Cabrera says. "My intent in what I've said publicly has been good for the league. It's promoted the league to move forward, to be recognized."
This dispute won't soon be resolved. The Tigers and White Sox have 12 more games this season — another dozen opportunities for uncomfortable moments on the field. During their first meeting of the year, when Cabrera reached second base in the fifth inning, he tried to engage Rentería in conversation, saying, "Man, it's cold out here, huh?"
Rentería, planted at shortstop, stared straight ahead. He did not say a word.