Together Again, Against All Odds
by Mike Berardino
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.--The odds must be astronomical.
Two kids from the Dominican Republic, born 15 months apart, grow up across the street from each other in Pueblo Nuevo, a modest neighborhood in their hometown of Las Matas de Farfan.
Their fathers are farmers, their mothers are close friends. They meet around kindergarten age and grow up playing ball together, dreaming together and, incredibly enough, making it to the major leagues.
That would have been accomplishment enough for Juan Encarnacion and Odalis Perez, but this winter their odds-defying story got even better. At the Winter Meetings, the Dodgers sent a low-level prospect to the Marlins for Encarnacion, deemed an expensive luxury in a crowded outfield.
Just like that, they were back together again, the slugging outfielder and the lefthanded pitcher.
"It's like a dream come true," Perez says from his locker at Dodgertown. "We're good friends. We're like brothers."
On the December day in 1992 when a 16-year-old Encarnacion worked out for a Tigers scout, it was Perez who played catch with him. The scout, impressed with Perez' arm, gave him four baseballs and told him he'd sign a pro contract himself in a couple of years.
He did, although it was with the Braves, not the Tigers.
"We used to play on the patio together," Perez says. "We'd play some children's games. We played baseball games in the street."
He pauses, gazes across the lavish clubhouse and points out a cardboard box for a visitor.
"See that carton case?" Perez says. "We used to make our gloves out of that."
On the day of their annual charity softball game in their hometown, Encarnacion was traded to the Dodgers. An overflow crowd of 15,000 turned out to watch the two friends on the same field.
Encarnacion played right. Perez, goofing around, played center.
"Having Odalis around again, it feels like a real family in here," Encarnacion says. "I've been close with him not just for one year but for a long, long time. I have nothing to complain about."
Certainly not the two-year, $8 million contract he signed with the Dodgers soon after he was traded. With star right fielder Shawn Green apparently moving to first base this year, Encarnacion won't even have to mess with the transition to left.
Their mothers, Eufracia Santiago (Encarnacion) and Viterba Amador (Perez), have no complaints either. Their little boys are back together again.
The Dodgers have always been popular in the Dominican, but in Las Matas de Farfan, they have really taken off. Alberto Castillo, Ramon Santiago and Valerio de los Santos are from the same town of 250,000, but none has accomplished what Encarnacion and Perez have in their careers.
Happy as he is in his new surroundings, Encarnacion still doesn't seem quite over the indignity of his postseason benching last fall in favor of Miguel Cabrera.
It was the right thing to do at the time. Mike Lowell needed to get back into the lineup, Cabrera was too hot to sit and Encarnacion was slumping worse than any other Marlin besides shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
Encarnacion wound up as the odd man out.
"Nobody is going to be happy in that situation," he says. "The good thing about what happened is we were winning. Whatever way to win is the way to do it."
Bad Taste Remains
Still, he will never like the way it was handled. No soothing words from manager Jack McKeon or anyone else in an official capacity. Just a stunning defensive replacement on a double switch in the middle of Game Three in the National League Championship Series.
Cast aside after a 94-RBI season in which he wasn't charged with a single error.
"I was playing the whole time," Encarnacion says. "For whatever reason, I stopped playing. They should have said something about it. I'm a human being. You should at least give an explanation or whatever."
He would start just three of the final 10 games--all in New York, where the DH was used. He delivered a key sacrifice fly in the clinching Game Six, but when it came time for the Marlins' victory parades three days later, Encarnacion was back home in the Dominican.
"I would have liked to have done that a lot," Encarnacion says of the parades. "I didn't go but not because I didn't want to go. I didn't go because of my family."
Nor was Encarnacion at the White House in January when the Marlins were honored. Fellow departee Pudge Rodriguez went, but Encarnacion opted to remain home so as not to interrupt his stringent workout routine.
"The schedule was kind of heavy for me," he says.
He shrugs. Maybe these excuses ring hollow. Maybe he was too embarrassed by getting benched for a rookie, no matter how talented, to show his face around his teammates any longer.
"That time is over," he says. "That season is already past. I've got to get ready for a new season. I've got to start over again."
With his fourth team in as many seasons. At least he will have an old friend in his corner.