Pudge: 'He seems relaxed -- and happy'
Ugueth Urbina's painful recent past is resolved. His future is still unclear.
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The sun was still in hiding Tuesday when the door to the Detroit Tigers' clubhouse creaked open at 6 a.m.
Through that door marched a man the Tigers hadn't expected to see for another week -- let alone at dawn on the day their full squad worked out in spring training for the first time.
That man was reliever Ugueth Urbina. And never had a baseball clubhouse felt more like a sanctuary than it did on this sleepy spring training morning in February.
To the Tigers, he looked almost like an apparition. After all, they hadn't laid eyes on him since very late on the evening of Sept. 1, hours after he learned his mother had been kidnapped in Venezuela.
That night -- when the Tigers' plane landed in St. Petersburg, Fla., after a flight from Kansas City -- Urbina immediately sprinted toward a waiting minivan and literally raced a hurricane to Miami, barely making the last flight to Venezuela before the storm hit.
The hurricane, of course, would take 24 hours to pass. But for Urbina, the storm didn't lift until last Friday, the day his mother was found and freed by Venezuelan police.
The Tigers' pitchers were already in spring training at the time. No one expected Urbina to join them for days, maybe even weeks.
Instead, just four days later, he was waiting for them when they walked through the door.
"Incredible," said manager Alan Trammell.
"I'm very happy to see him," said his friend and catcher, Pudge Rodriguez. "You see him over there now, he seems relaxed -- and happy."
"Everybody in Venezuela has been waiting for this news," said his teammate and countryman, shortstop Carlos Guillen. "But no one thought it would take so long -- almost six months."
Six months. Five and a half, actually. We may never really know what swirled inside Urbina's head for all those painful days and months. He declined to meet with the media Tuesday. He is scheduled to talk Wednesday, but even the people around him aren't sure how much he will reveal.
"I'm anxious to hear what he wants to share with us," said Trammell. "But I don't know what that will be. He's always been a little bit more private. And he's earned that."
So on Urbina's first day, the manager gave him space. They have a lot to talk about -- on the field and off. But "today," Trammell said, "wasn't the day."
Throughout his career, Urbina has always been a guy singing a slightly different tune than the rest of the chorus. Teammates describe him as a man who keeps to himself; doesn't take part in what one described as "a whole lot of team activities"; remains alone in the clubhouse until the eighth inning of games he might be called on to close; almost never speaks to the press.
"He's not a bad guy," said one Tiger. "But he knows what he wants, and he does what he wants. He's a guy who wants to win. He's just got a different way to get there than everybody else."
So throughout those many months his mother was held captive in a jungle, virtually no one on his team heard from him. When they did speak, they learned little. So it was only fitting that his mother's story was such a mystery -- because mystery is a good word to describe Urbina himself.
Yet something about the power of baseball drew him to Lakeland on Tuesday. How do we explain that?
His flight from Venezuela landed in Miami late Monday night. Then he drove all night to be the first in the clubhouse. Sleep could wait. Baseball could not.
"For these guys, this is their environment," said Tigers third base coach Juan Samuel. "They're in here five, six, seven hours some days. And those are hours they won't have people calling them, asking for stuff. They know when they walk into this clubhouse, 'When I'm in here, I'm safe.'"
Safe is one of those classic baseball words, one we never think about much when it's uttered on a baseball field. But when you come from where Urbina does, safe can take on a whole different context.
"We worry, because in Venezuela, everyone knows how much money we make here," Guillen said. "They put it in the paper, how much money we're going to make. That's the target. That's what they're looking for -- the money. They know our family is there, and we play baseball here. To play this game, you have to keep your mind clear. That can be hard sometimes. We're here, but we still have family and friends there."
So what people in baseball are always suggesting to these men is that they simply move to the United States. It's a well-meaning suggestion, of course. But it's a suggestion grounded in a whole different culture, a very different way of life.
"It's like asking you to move from the United States to some other country," Samuel said. "It's your home. It's what's comfortable. It's where your family, your friends, everything is. I would say most Latin American players are still definitely more comfortable in their own country."
So they play baseball in one place, with their mind often on another place. It is difficult enough when life is normal. Imagine how difficult it would have been for Urbina to play this season had his mother still been in the hands of those kidnappers.
"It's hard to play if you're trying to put away those problems," Guillen said. "Sometimes you can't do it, even if you want to. ... Now he can come here with a different mind. To play your best, you have to concentrate. Now it's easier for him to do that."
According to Rodriguez, Urbina is in the process of moving his mother to America, where they both can feel safer. But the irony is that while Urbina now knows where his mother is and where she's going, he doesn't know where he is going.
He was signed to be a closer. But over the winter, motivated in part by the uncertainty of Urbina's situation, the Tigers went out and signed another closer -- Troy Percival -- to a two-year contract. So stay tuned for the outbreak of numerous Urbina trade rumors any minute now.
Or maybe not.
Two potential bidders -- the Cubs and Marlins -- haven't shown any recent interest. The Indians could have interest in a closer if Bob Wickman doesn't seem ready this spring -- but it's unlikely the Tigers would trade Urbina inside the division. Maybe the Mets could be a match with a Mike Cameron-for-Urbina package -- but if Urbina is going to be a setup man, he's more likely to want to be one just where he is now.
Except no one knows that for sure -- not yet, at least.
"All I asked [before signing] was whether they expected Ugie to be ready to come back and pitch," Percival said. "They said they thought so. And I said, 'Good.' "
Percival comes from a bullpen in Anaheim in which Francisco Rodriguez had already proved he could close and in which Scot Shields looked like somebody's closer of the future. So having a bullpen with "multiple closers" is a concept that works fine for Percival, he said.
The question is whether it's acceptable to Urbina -- who did, if you'll recall, blow just three of 24 save opportunities last year and held opposing hitters to a .194 batting average. It's also a contract year for him -- and that's a situation that has weighed on his mind in the past.
So is he willing to set up for Percival? That's a question Trammell and GM Dave Dombrowski will be asking him when the moment seems right. But for what it's worth, his catcher is already suggesting that Urbina wouldn't mind sticking around.
"He's got a good attitude," Rodriguez said. "And we really need this guy here. When I was in Florida (in 2003) and he came there, he started out as a setup man and he ended up being a closer. So anything can happen in baseball, and he knows that. We need him and Percival on this team. I hope it happens."
But will it? Like so much about Urbina these days, it's not an easy question to answer. And it may be a long time before we get that answer.
Which is just one more reason Urbina looms these days as one of spring training's most fascinating figures -- in any team's camp.
"When you shake his hand and say hello," Trammell said, "your mind is thinking ... 'How did you deal with those five months?'
"We'll never know," said the manager. "Well, hopefully we'll never know."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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