Second in a two-part series on The Future of Nicaraguan Baseball
JINOTEPE, Carazo –Living his dream of playing in the Major Leagues has not changed the way Everth Cabrera, 23, approaches the game of baseball.
Following his strong rookie season last year as the shortstop for the San Diego Padres and the recent honor of being named Nicaragua’s Professional Athlete of the Year for 2009, Cabrera says he will report to spring training next month in Arizona with the same fire and modesty that helped him win an unexpected spot in the starting lineup last year.
“I will go to spring training the same as I did last year,” Cabrera told The Nica Times in an interview last week, after working out in the baseball stadium in this town about 40 km southwest of Managua. “I am going into spring training with even more hunger than last year, because in this sport no one can be sure how far they will go or when it will end. The Big Leagues is the best baseball in the world – I have to go into it with the same hunger, I can’t change.”
Cabrera last year became the 10th Nicaraguan player to make the Major Leagues. He is currently one of three Nicaraguan players in Major League Baseball (the other two are free-agent pitcher Vicente Padilla, and Houston Astros pitcher Wilton López, who got called up at the end of last season to become the 11th Nicaraguan to make the Big Leagues).
After being signed as an amateur free agent in 2004 by the Colorado Rockies, Cabrera was plucked out of the Rockies’ Class A farm system as an unprotected player and signed by the Padres in the 2009 Rule 5 Draft, a mid-winter meeting of all general managers. Two months later, he reported to his first Major League spring training camp as a complete unknown to the Padres’ coaching staff, his teammates, the fans and the San Diego sportswriters.
But for Cabrera, who grew up in a very modest single-parent household in Nandaime, Rivas, on the southern Pacific, baseball – and life in general – has always been full of challenges. So he responded the way he always does: with grit, determination and a healthy mix of confidence and humility.
“They knew that I had a lot of skill, but also that I had a lot of defects,” Cabrera says of his rookie league coaches.
Cabrera’s work ethic and desire to learn and improve immediately impressed Padres Manager Bud Black and the rest of the coaching staff at spring training. Plus, his cat-like reflexes with the glove and cannon-for-an arm at shortstop quickly raised eyebrows.
But it was Cabrera’s phenomenal speed on the base paths that had his coaches figuring out how to pencil him into the lineup. After leading all of minor league baseball with 73 stolen bases in 2008, Cabrera quickly proved he can run on Major League catchers, too.
“When we played against Saint Louis, I remember the manager came up to me and said, ‘Look, they have Yadier Molina, the best catcher in baseball right now.’ And I thought in my head, I don’t care. But I couldn’t tell the manager that, so I said ‘I am going to steal on this guy,’” Cabrera said.
Molina, however, lived up to his reputation and threw out Cabrera as he tried to swipe second. The speedy Nicaraguan says he got nailed on a perfect throw – anything less, he said, and he would have made it.
“It’s not that I disrespect any catcher, but I don’t care who is behind the plate,” Cabrera said. “I would like to be the best base stealer in baseball, and I am working on that.”
After leading the Padres with nine stolen bases in last year’s spring training Cactus League, Cabrera won the job as backup shortstop and set his sights on winning the National League’s Rookie of the Year award. But that goal was quickly iced during the second week of the season, when Cabrera got hit by a pitch April 20 and broke his hand, sidelining him for two months.
“The worst moment for me was when I got hurt,” Cabrera said. “When the season started, my goal was to win Rookie of the Year. I had the hunger to win it. And when I got hurt, I thought, now I am not going to reach my goal because I am going to miss two months and it’s going to go to someone else who plays the whole season. That was a very frustrating moment for me.”
But Cabrera made the best of a tough situation. During his 60 days on the disabled list, he suited up for every game and sat in the dugout with his team, watching the games and learning from the other players.
In doing so, he won points with his coaches and teammates, who recognized him as a serious young man, a student of the game and a committed team player.
“Thank God I have won the respect of many ball players; many of the players on the team respect me: (First baseman) Adrian Gonzalez – and I respect him, he’s a good person, (second baseman) David Eckstein.
The catcher, Nick Hundley, and (left fielder) Chase Headley. There are a lot of people on the team – the Latinos and the coaches – who are always helping me. I think everyone respects me. I am very serious with my work and life. I do what I have to do and I don’t bother anyone.”
Cabrera said people from other teams also offer words of friendly advice. “Even coaches from other teams tell me I have a lot of skill and that I need to keep on practicing,” he said.
Perhaps the most meaningful encounter Cabrera had during his time on the DL was with the player he most tried to emulate growing up, Dodgers shortstop and former Rookie of the Year Rafael Furcal. (To put Cabrera’s youth in perspective, his childhood baseball hero is still only 32 years old.)
“When I got hurt, I was very down,” Cabrera remembers. “Furcal saw my sadness and saw that I had injured my hand and he told me he had been operated on three times and had never let that set him back, because he trusts in God and continues to move forward.
And he has helped me. Every time we play against (the Los Angeles Dodgers) I feel a lot of confidence with him and I have talked to him a lot. And that’s an incredible thing because he was my favorite player … He is my favorite player. And it doesn’t seem real because I have been watching him since his first year in the Majors.”
After his injury, Cabrera showed his resilience and bounced back to play in 101 games for the Padres last year, eventually winning the regular job as shortstop. He batted .255 for the season, and finished in the top ten in the National League for stolen bases (25) and triples (8). He got several highlight-reel clips for his dazzling defense, and received one vote for National League Rookie of the Year.
Home Field Disadvantage
After playing on some of the best baseball fields in the world last season, the rocky old sandlots that Cabrera grew up playing on in Nicaragua are not looking so green these days.
Though he admits the bumpy field conditions helped him hone his lightning-fast reflexes as a shortstop, the unkempt ballparks are mostly a disadvantage to Nicaragua’s baseball development, he said.
Field conditions also were said to be one of the reasons the Padres wouldn’t let Cabrera play winter ball in Nicaragua this offseason. “Now that I am in the Big Leagues, I have to be more careful; here I can only field slow groundballs and I can’t run fast because I don’t want to twist my ankle in a hole or turn my knee,” Cabrera said.
He added, “I think the government has to support sports much more than it does; it practically hasn’t done anything. If you see the fields here, the conditions that we have here in Nicaragua are not good. And you can’t have a professional league here because the fields are not professional; the conditions put all the players at risk. There are lots of prospects who come here and they leave because of the fields and the conditions here.”
Cabrera said if the government invested more in baseball Nicaraguan, not only would the quality of play improve, but so too would fans’ enthusiasm for the sport.
“If they built a new stadium, then people would enjoy going to the games more and the players would play better,” he said. “If I am playing on a good field, I play more aggressively and I play 100 percent. But if I play on a bad field, I have to play more carefully.”
Plus, he said, playing on a choppy infield may be good practice for making dazzling highlights, but it doesn’t help players develop good fundamentals.
“Because a groundball moves so much here, when you go to a good field in the Big Leagues sometimes it’s harder because you expect the ball to jump and bounce but then it goes straight through your legs,” said Cabrera.
Perhaps that explains why Cabrera made so many super-human plays at shortstop last year, yet still finished the season with 23 errors, mostly on routine plays.
Eye on the Prize
Heading into the 2010 season, Cabrera, who earns $400,000 a season, says he’s focused on improving his skills, endurance and numbers. His wants to win the leadoff batting spot and swipe at least 35 bases.
Cabrera said he recently sought advice from the leading base-stealer of all time, Hall of Famer Ricky Henderson. He says he asked Henderson if it’s more important to be fast or smart on the bases. Henderson said “both.”
“I asked him, ‘What helped you steal so many bases?’ And he said he always believed that he was going to steal the base safely, and it never mattered to him who was catching.”
Though Cabrera will unlikely ever be as cocky or flamboyant as Henderson was, he’s already starting to show some self-confidence as a ball player.
“I was nervous at first, but I thought, if I’m here, it’s because I’m a Big Leaguer too, and I can play with them,” Cabrera said. “I ask God to give me health, and I’ll take care of the rest.”