THE SUNDAY PROFILE : Wins & Losses : Rene Cardenas brought baseball to millions with his pioneering broadcasts in Spanish. Now, shaken by tough times, he clings to his claim to the Hall of Fame
Bill DeLury, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ longtime traveling secretary, is rarely caught unpre pared. Which is one big reason why an otherwise forgettable summer afternoon in Cincinnati has become part of club lore.
On that day, DeLury, the man who makes the Dodgers run on time, discovered that his watch wasn’t. So he turned to Rene Cardenas, one of the club’s two Spanish-language radio broadcasters, and asked him to see that the team bus left the hotel at precisely 4:30.
“So when his watch hit 4:30,” DeLury recalls, “Rene made a big show of it. He started shouting, ‘ Vamonos. Let’s go!’ ”
Years have passed and DeLury’s watch once again runs with Swiss precision, but the Dodger bus never leaves a hotel until Cardenas says so.
Over nearly 40 years, he has led players not only to the ballpark but into millions of homes that had been ignored by team owners.
When the Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn in 1958, Cardenas became the first radio announcer to broadcast major league baseball in Spanish for a domestic audience. Today, 11 teams regularly offer such broadcasts.
In 1966, while directing Spanish-language broadcasts for the Houston Astros, Cardenas organized, produced and described games for baseball’s first international radio network. The innovative programming, which reached 13 countries in Central and South America, was designed largely to introduce the fledgling Astros to the region’s developing talent.
“We have scouts in these areas who now should have an easier time communicating with the Latin players about the Astros,” Judge Roy Hofheinz, then-owner of the Astros, said at the time. Today, many major league clubs--as well as a handful of Japanese league teams--operate year-round training bases in Latin America, trading goodwill for the chance to sign top prospects, just as Cardenas’ broadcasts did years ago.
This pioneering work has earned Cardenas respect, a nomination to the baseball Hall of Fame--but little else of note. Along the way from his native Nicaragua to Los Angeles and back again, he has lost jobs, a house, a car and a small fortune.
" . . . cuando ande de compras, traiga a casa tocino Farmer John , el rancherito.”
It’s two hours before game time and Cardenas is hard at work recording commercial spots for such longtime Dodger sponsors as Farmer John. He has already spent three hours translating the latest ads from English to Spanish and poring over local newspapers in search of tidbits for that night’s broadcast.
“Even though I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, I still have to prepare,” he says. “I have to be ready to set up the game and explain the matchups.”
The research, the commercials, the game itself. Add it all up, then figure in the short commute from Cardenas’ tidy Glendale apartment, and it’s a solid eight hours--a grind for a 65-year-old man recovering from colon cancer.
This wasn’t the plan, of course. Twenty years ago, Cardenas settled into semi-retirement in Nicaragua, a country his grandfather once ruled as president. Although most of its leaders have been easy to forget, Dr. Adan Cardenas is still revered for one act: In the late 19th Century, he introduced baseball to Nicaragua.
Rene’s Uncle Adolfo played on the first national team, but Rene--a small, frail boy--felt more comfortable describing the action. Before he left high school, he was not only writing for La Prensa, Nicaragua’s leading newspaper, but also broadcasting games for Radio Mundial, the capital city’s top-ranked station.
“He had a very original style,” recalls Edgard Tijerino, sports editor of the Nicaraguan newspaper Barricada and host of “Doble Play,” the nation’s most popular radio sports talk show. “It was a way of broadcasting that nobody here in Nicaragua had. The people of my generation remember him with fondness and still value the work he did.”
But no amount of goodwill could protect Cardenas from the political upheaval that would soon envelop the country. By the spring of 1979, a once hapless band of peasants and idealistic students had grown into the powerful Sandinista National Liberation Front, and their revolution, percolating since the 1930s, was poised to take control. The rebels’ final push to victory would take them right past the front door of Cardenas’ three-quarter-acre hacienda.
“They were fighting around my house every night. We used to go under the bed every single night for months,” Cardenas recalls. “We were in a war without being soldiers.”
Jilma Cardenas begged her husband to get the couple out of the country, so he turned the house over to their two maids and a gardener and steered his late-model Ford Gran Torino through gunfire to the U.S. Embassy. From there, safe passage to Panama was arranged. His house, life savings and many priceless mementos from his broadcasting career were seized.
“The Sandinistas took things that people had,” says Cardenas, who had become a U.S. citizen in 1963 and is one of hundreds with property claims pending before the new Nicaraguan government. “I wasn’t a politician. I never entered politics. I never knew people in politics. I never mixed with them or anything like that.
"[But] people knew that I was an American. And all Americans were suspect.”
He has not been back to Nicaragua.
“As long as they keep my house, I am angry with Nicaragua,” Cardenas says.
“The bank account is nothing. But my furniture, my books,” he says, his voice rising in fresh anger. “I lost my clothing, my most intimate remembrances. Major league pictures and little trophies.”
His half brother was taken as well, although it was years before Cardenas learned for certain that Chester Escobar, who had worked closely with the Somoza dictatorship, was executed because of his government ties.
Tonight will be a good night. Cardenas knocks off his commercial spots, then records the pregame show. With half an hour to kill before game time, he retires to the press box restaurant. He orders a small salad and a cup of decaf, but finishes neither.
“When I’m full, I’m lazy and I sound that way on the radio,” Cardenas says. “I want my voice to be full of excitement.”
Sometimes, though, Cardenas can become too excited, which drives engineer and producer Mike Nota to distraction.
“Normally, Rene’s voice is very soft, but we can’t turn up [the volume] too high because if something happens on the field, he starts to shout and his voice sounds distorted,” Nota says.
That’s only one of the traits that separates Cardenas from Jaime Jarrin, the Dodgers’ No. 1 Spanish-language announcer. While Cardenas tends to play off the action on the field, Jarrin often reads from team media guides and patiently explains the game to his listeners. “We have an audience that comes from all over Latin America. And they came from Latin America without knowing baseball,” says Jarrin, who came to Los Angeles from Ecuador in 1955.
Cardenas and Jarrin share a microphone and a cramped radio booth for nearly eight months each year, but they no longer share a deep friendship.
“It’s an ego thing,” says a longtime friend of both men. “I have gotten out of them that there’s a little war going on.”
The conflict apparently stems from Jarrin’s status as the No. 1 announcer, a position he earned through 37 years of consecutive service. In keeping with a longtime Dodger tradition, that gives Jarrin, 60, the right to call seven innings, leaving Cardenas to do the pregame show and the fourth and fifth innings.
Jarrin, an award-winning news reporter and a two-time nominee to the broadcast wing of the baseball Hall of Fame, has also called the last several World Series for CBS radio and has a multiyear contract with the Dodgers. Cardenas watches the World Series on TV and hopes for a new contract every year.
Yet both announcers downplay any differences. “I don’t know why there is an impression there is a friction between us. I don’t feel nothing against him at all. I think I am a good friend of his,” Jarrin says.
Later, however, Jarrin suggests that “in the last two, three years, [Rene’s] become a little colder. I don’t know why. If you asked me to pick a reason, I would say it’s because he doesn’t want to admit that he’s No. 2 in the booth. But that’s not my fault.”
For his part, Cardenas characterizes his relationship with Jarrin as “excellent. And it’s been that way for many, many, many years.”
Ask him about the division of labor in the booth and the civility fades.
“I don’t understand why it’s the way it is,” he says.
Moments after the last out, Cardenas is on an elevator headed for the Dodger clubhouse. The short trip becomes a long one as he pauses to greet each stadium worker he encounters. The locker room is quiet when he finally arrives, a result of tonight’s loss. But it is soon forgotten.
After talking quietly in Spanish with outfielders Raul Mondesi and Henry Rodriguez and backup catcher Carlos Hernandez, Cardenas banters with a couple of sportswriters in English then almost knocks over one coach while bounding after another, Bill Russell, a former Dodger shortstop who has become a close friend.
Cloaked as a social call, the clubhouse visit is actually an intelligence-gathering mission. With the beginnings of the next day’s broadcast already forming in his mind, Cardenas climbs into a silver 1988 Thunderbird--a car that is going on its 100,000th mile--and heads up the Glendale Freeway toward home.
His wife is waiting at the front door with their Pomeranian, Fito III, leashed and ready for a walk. Jilma’s voice has amounted to little more than a whisper since she permanently damaged her vocal cords while cheering for the home team in the 1950 world amateur baseball championships in Managua. “I’ve been going to baseball games since I was small,” she says.
The couple met when Rene, whose first marriage ended in divorce, was the master of ceremonies for an L.A. beauty contest.
“ ‘That’s going to be my wife,’ ” he said when introduced to Jilma. “She didn’t win the contest, but I won her,” he says.
They were married in 1957, and a year later Rene would begin another long-lasting love affair, joining the Dodgers as a play-by-play announcer.
Ellis (Buck) Canel--the only Latin American enshrined in the broadcasters’ wing of the Hall of Fame--had long described the World Series via short-wave radio to listeners throughout the Americas, but the Dodgers and Cardenas were the first to target a domestic Spanish-speaking audience. The move is still paying dividends.
“I think everybody’s finding it’s a very important thing in trying to market the club. People feel comfortable listening [to the games] in their own language,” says Brent Shyer, director of broadcasting and publications for the Dodgers. “It creates interest. And then people want to come out and experience the stadium for themselves.”
On some nights, as many as 30 million people tune in to the Dodgers’ Spanish-language radio network, which includes more than 40 stations throughout the Southwest, Mexico and Central America. (KWKW-AM/1330 is the Los Angeles flagship.)
Building on that foundation, the Dodgers began offering selected games in Korean five years ago and will broadcast a sampling in Chinese this season. Last summer, when the Expos and their French radio crew were in town, the game unfolded in five languages.
While Cardenas can rightly take credit for making that possible, no one recalls for certain whose idea it was in 1958 to broadcast in Spanish. But there is one thing everyone involved in the initial experiment agrees on: Rene Cardenas was the only man seriously considered for the job.
“We listened to hundreds of tapes and there was no question that Rene was absolutely outstanding,” says Stan Evans, a former advertising executive who handled a chief Dodger sponsor. “In those days, I could have gotten Rene elected mayor of Los Angeles.”
It’s a good thing he didn’t try, because Cardenas would not have been around long enough to serve out his term. By 1962, he had moved to Houston, eventually becoming director of all Spanish-language broadcasts from the Astrodome.
But after 13 seasons, the Astros pulled the plug on Spanish-language broadcasts. Cardenas, suddenly unemployed, opted for an early retirement in Nicaragua.
“That was the worst move I ever made,” he says now. “At the time it looked like a good idea, but now, looking back, I say ‘Why did I go to Nicaragua?’ I should have stayed here, worked in radio, in television.
“I came back with nothing. No money, nothing. And I was suffering a trauma.”
After the next afternoon’s game, the Dodgers will be heading out of town, so tonight Jilma neatly packs Rene’s bags with 10 days’ worth of clean underwear and socks. He sticks in books and computer magazines between the clothing.
“I read a lot of poetry and philosophy,” he says. “Ruben Dario, Gustavo Adolfo Becquer of Spain. I read Don Quixote every year. The Iliad by Homer. I have so many hours doing nothing.”
For Cardenas, of course, the ultimate road trip would take him the steps of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Last fall, Carlos Alvarado, an old friend from Nicaragua and now a sportswriter for La Opinion, and Ulpiano Coss Villa, a Spanish-language radio announcer for the California Angels, joined Dodger President Peter O’Malley in supporting Cardenas’ nomination. But the Ford C. Frick broadcasting award, which purports to recognize “major contributions to baseball,” went instead to Bob Wolff, a veteran East Coast sportscaster.
“Rene deserves the Hall of Fame,” says Luis Mayoral, the director of Spanish broadcasting for the Texas Rangers and the man most responsible for Buck Canal’s induction 10 years ago. “Rene is great. He’s got a name in all the Hispanic communities in the U.S. Rene’s got a name in Latin America. He’s well-known among baseball fans.
“But Rene is so simple and down-to-earth. He’s so low-key and that might hurt him because maybe he doesn’t sell himself.”
While many who support Cardenas’ nomination point to his work in popularizing Spanish-language broadcasts, Mayoral, one of the most respected and outspoken Latinos in baseball, is more impressed by the announcer’s longevity. Cardenas has spent 33 seasons doing play-by-play in the major leagues, 14 with the Astros, one with the Texas Rangers and 18, split over two tours, with the Dodgers.
“If he was a so-so broadcaster, he wouldn’t have been around so long,” he says. “Being a broadcaster is a lot like being a player. You might be able to get by for a year or two, but if you’re mediocre, you’re not going to last.”
Cardenas hopes he can last long enough to see his final dream realized. His doctors, who removed a tumor from his colon during the players’ strike last fall, say his health is good. But with a foe like cancer, there are no guarantees.
“It was an honor just to be nominated,” Cardenas says of his consideration for a place in baseball’s shrine. “There are a lot of people who would like to be in. It’s a very exclusive club.
"[But] I’d love to be elected while I’m alive, not after I’m dead. That’s no fun.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Rene Cardenas Age: 65.
Native?: No. Born in Managua, Nicaragua; now lives in Glendale.
Family: Cardenas’ grandfather, Dr. Adan Cardenas, was president of Nicaragua from 1883-1887. Rene and his wife of 38 years, Jilma, have one child, Rene Jr., 37, a restaurant manager in Florida. Cardenas also has a daughter, Diana, 42, from a previous marriage.
Passions: Reading poetry, philosophy and a collection of computer magazines. He also enjoys working with personal computers and is an avid--if inactive--ham radio buff.
On his reluctance to translate English baseball terms into Spanish: “I hate to take away some of the English sounds which have already been accepted into Spanish. Strike is the flavor of the game. . . . If you try to translate all those things, it will not sound like baseball.”
On the recent players’ strike: “I feel that baseball has been hurt. . . . Since I consider baseball a sacred thing to me, I think we all should work to help baseball, not destroy it.”
On the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua: “I thought that this would pass. But when the United States retired, when it stopped helping the [Somoza] government, I knew the Communists were going to take over. And when I said Communists in 1979, they thought I was crazy. At the end, I wasn’t.”