His Rise Has Been as Fast as His Fastball

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Times Staff Writer

Graciano Ravelo’s baseball school is a long, long way from the pristine diamonds of Edison Field and PacBell Park.

It is a patch of yellow dirt enclosed by a rusty chain-link fence. Towering concrete apartments squeeze from all sides. Busted cars, drunks and dog waste fill the cracked asphalt parking lot.

But it was here, in a corner of hope carved from a polluted city’s urban heart, that the Angels’ 20-year-old wunderkind, Francisco Rodriguez, learned to pitch in a way that has propelled him all the way to the World Series.


Here, he threw and threw and threw with such fervor that it stunned those who watched the 7-year-old practice.

Here, they first knew that Rodriguez was different.

“Everyone can be a winner, but not everyone can be a champion,” said Ravelo, Rodriguez’s first coach and the man who founded the school 27 years ago. “Francisco Rodriguez is a champion.”

A little more than a month since leaving the minor leagues, Rodriguez’s rise from one of this city’s toughest neighborhoods has already become un cuento de Cenicienta -- a Latin American Cinderella story.

Youngsters recite his accomplishments by rote: Tied Nolan Ryan’s franchise record of eight consecutive strikeouts; first major league pitcher ever to win his first game in postseason play; first player ever to win five postseason games before age 21; youngest player to win a World Series game.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if this is real,” Rodriguez said. “Am I really in the playoffs? Am I really pitching almost every day? I pinch myself and it hurts, so, yes, this is real.”

And now an entire country is watching to see whether the right-handed reliever can maintain his stunning start.


Rodriguez made his World Series debut on Sunday, entering with the San Francisco Giants ahead, 9-8, and having already pounded Angel pitching for 11 hits. He left three innings later, with the Angels up, 11-9. They would survive the final inning without him, holding on for a 11-10 victory that tied the best-of-seven-games series, 1-1, going into Game 3 tonight in San Francisco.

The first three batters Rodriguez faced were out on seven pitches -- two three-pitch strikeouts and a ground ball hit by slugger Barry Bonds. His first 12 pitches were strikes. In all, Rodriguez faced nine batters, and none reached base. He struck out four.

Afterward, usually reserved teammates and coaches were effusive in their praise.

“Explosive,” fellow Angel relief pitcher Ben Weber said of his fastball.

“Fearless,” Angel pitching coach Bud Black said of his aggressiveness.

“Incredible,” Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said of his performance.

“Unbelievable,” added Angel outfielder Tim Salmon, whose two-run home run made Rodriguez the winning pitcher.

Back home, they use another word.

“He’s the best,” said Anthony Martinez, a 10-year-old who was fielding balls at the school on a recent weekday.

Rodriguez was known in amateur baseball circles but was hardly a celebrity in Venezuela before all this. He never played professionally here, leaving the country when he was 16 to begin playing in the minor leagues in the States.

“When he comes on television, we all say, shhh, shhh, there he is,” said Clarisol Gonzalez, 35, a childhood friend. “We are all praying to God for him.”


Unlike many Latin American countries, where soccer reigns supreme, baseball in Venezuela is second only to Catholicism as a national religion. It is a tradition that stems from the nation’s historical links to the Caribbean, where American influence and investment have long made baseball the sport of choice.

There are eight top-level professional clubs in a country of 24 million -- a ratio that if applied to the U.S. would result in 80 major league teams. The local version of Little League starts accepting players at age 4. Fans queue for hours before games -- both amateur and professional.

And so Rodriguez’s success is more than just an inspiration for kids wanting to make it to the big leagues. It’s also a welcome diversion for a nation suffering from profound political and economic crisis.

President Hugo Chavez, briefly ousted in a coup earlier this year, is struggling to maintain order in a divided country. The economy has faltered badly. Unemployment has soared.

“Baseball forms a part of our soul,” said Felix Esculpi, 52, who coached Rodriguez years ago. “It’s part of our character -- young, old, adults and children.”

Rodriguez’s rise began in one of this city’s poor neighborhoods, the Kennedy Section, a chaotic mishmash of brick houses that cling to the side of a hill. The community was born from President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, a 1960s-era program aimed at improving living conditions in Latin America.


Neighbors recall how Rodriguez and his friends would play baseball in the central courtyard of their apartment complex. A bottle cap was the ball, a broomstick the bat.

“After you’ve played with that, a baseball seems huge,” said Kenny Pinto, 21, one of Rodriguez’s best friends growing up.

Rodriguez’s parents split soon after he was born, and he was raised by his grandparents, Isabel and Francisco Rodriguez. Both of them worked, so Rodriguez was often left in the care of his three uncles, with whom he shared a room in the two-bedroom apartment.

“We were poor, yes,” Rodriguez said. “I would wear the same shoes for two years or three. But we always had food and we always had love.”

Rodriguez handles most inquiries in English and can be charming in talking about his hometown and family. He has a 20-month-old daughter, Adriana, by his fiancee, Andrea. He also has 13 “siblings” -- including his uncles, whom he refers to as his brothers. His father has six other children. His mother has four. Rodriguez talks with his grandmother, whom he calls mom, three or four times a week. His grandfather, for whom he is named, died about three years ago.

“I’m sure he’s looking down from heaven and is real proud of what I’m doing,” Rodriguez said.


His uncles still live with Rodriguez’s grandmother. The family laughs often, easy and fast, when they talk about Rodriguez, who as a boy hung around begging to play with his uncles -- 15 years older -- until they relented.

The older boys were baseball fanatics. They played for youth league and university teams, and religiously attended games played by the local pro team, the Venezuelan Lions, whenever they were home.

During his uncles’ games, Rodriguez would play on the sidelines with his own bat and ball, imitating the action. “I loved watching my uncles,” Rodriguez said. “And I wanted to play this game all the time.”

His enthusiasm was apparent. One day, a stranger came up to his grandmother. “You should enroll that boy in a baseball school,” he said.

And so, Rodriguez was entrusted to the care of Ravelo, who accepted him into his school even though his family couldn’t afford the $7 monthly fee.

Ravelo is a big man, with big eyes staring out from behind his glasses. He has grown old in the service of baseball. Now 68, he has spent 48 years in professional baseball, first as a player, then a coach, then a scout.


He founded his school in 1975, with a simple idea: Use baseball to teach kids to become better people.

You could hardly imagine a less-welcoming place to play ball. The field is bare dirt, about 150 feet to a side. A dented Quonset hut hugs the left-field fence, where older boys practice batting to make sure the balls don’t fly into the nearby streets. Twenty-story skyscrapers press on every side. Horns blare. Smoke belches from traffic.

But almost from the start, Rodriguez seemed to thrive. Ravelo remembers a skinny kid, a little bigger than others his age. But two things caught his attention: Rodriguez’ discipline, riding the train an hour each way three times a week to practice. And his attitude.

“He was always aggressive. He wasn’t afraid of anything. And he always had a positive mental attitude,” Ravelo said.

Rodriguez was one of thousands of kids Ravelo has coached through the years. Only one other has made it to the majors: Miguel Garcia -- who also pitched for the Angels, for one game, in 1987. Several others now play in the minors.

There was never much doubt about Rodriguez’ ability. He was chosen to pitch for nearly every one of Venezuela’s national teams as he moved up from one youth division to the next.


But Rodriguez was the best Ravelo had ever seen.

“I always believed he was going to be great,” Ravelo said.

Early on, Rodriguez demonstrated the preternatural cool that has marked his postseason play.

Rodriguez’s grandmother remembers watching him pitch a game outside of Venezuela when he was 10. The opposing pitcher was a bigger boy who looked to her like he was almost old enough to shave.

“It didn’t affect him at all. He just pitched,” said Isabel Aguilar de Rodriguez, 51. “I’m the one who suffered.”

Ravelo remembers a junior league player hitting a homer off Rodriguez when Rodriguez was about 15. For the next at-bat, Rodriguez bore down, focused and struck him out with three consecutive 90 mph fastballs -- the fastest set he had thrown at that time.

Then there is the story about his signing.

Ravelo, who scouts in Venezuela for the Texas Rangers, said he tried to convince the team to sign Rodriguez when he was 15, a few months before the birthday that would make it legal to do so. The Rangers offered $150,000. Rodriguez decided instead to play one more tournament, the Pan-American Youth Championship in Mexico.

In the first game, he struck out 14 and allowed only one batter to reach base. Venezuela lost the tournament to Cuba, but Rodriguez had made his mark.


“That was the trampoline,” said Oswaldo Rodriguez, 36, his uncle. “The offers started pouring in.”

In a short time, Rodriguez was in the middle of a bidding war in which he won a $900,000 signing bonus -- the biggest the Angels have ever awarded a foreign player -- in 1998.

For three years, elbow and shoulder tendinitis delayed his progress. So, too, did a lack of concentration. His powerful arm aside, he was largely ineffective as a starting pitcher, including a 2001 season spent at Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, where he had five wins, seven losses and allowed an average of more than five earned runs a game.

Then, last winter, the Angels made a key decision. They would try him as a relief pitcher, hoping his concentration would improve if he pitched in shorter stints.

It worked. Between double-A Arkansas and triple-A Salt Lake City this year, Rodriguez struck out 120 in 83 innings.

He made his major league debut Sept. 18, pitching a scoreless eighth inning with two strikeouts in a 7-4 loss to Oakland. Pitching in parts of three more games in the next week, he tied Ryan’s franchise record of eight consecutive strikeouts.


“He has an easy, smooth but powerful delivery,” Angel pitching coach Black said after one of Rodriguez’s late regular-season performances. “The fastball comes out of his hand with so much life, and there’s such tremendous snap to his slider that it’s a wipeout pitch.”

After helping the Angels clinch their first playoff berth since 1986 -- when he was 4 years old -- he went on to help the team win its first playoff championship in history, against the legendary New York Yankees no less, then defeat the Minnesota Twins to win the American League championship.

And suddenly, Francisco Rodriguez is in the World Series. And a folk hero. And receiving standing ovations.

Even baseball’s best player -- a foe in this World Series -- is now reportedly an admirer. Rodriguez told his grandmother that Bonds, whose hitting prowess leaves even the most veteran pitchers quaking, approached him offering congratulations after Sunday’s game.

“You did a good job,” Rodriguez said Bonds told him. “You didn’t show any fear.”

To Rodriguez, it all seems so unreal. “Last year I was with my [family] back home watching the World Series,” he said Sunday. “It’s funny because I told my [grandmother], ‘Hey, one of these days I’m gonna be there.’ It’s kind of like a dream come true doing it the next year.”

Back home, the Rodriguez family has trouble absorbing it.

They have moved on from their old neighborhood to a comfortable high-rise in a leafy district in Venezuela’s wealthier east side -- a house paid for with Rodriguez’s bonus.


That’s where they were on Sunday, nervous and excited as Rodriguez entered such a close and important game. “I was dying of anguish,” Isabel said. “It was terrible for me, but we were also very happy about what happened. It was like we were crazy with happiness. I never believed something like this could happen to my [grand]son in the World Series, as young as he is.”

Isabel and the others would like to go to the States to watch Rodriguez play, but two years ago their visa applications were denied by the U.S. Embassy here.

So they settle for watching on their 21-inch color television in a living room adorned with Rodriguez’s trophies and ribbons.

Some day soon, Isabel hopes, she will be there in person to see him pitch.

“Oh, how I would like to see my boy, with all those people applauding him,” Isabel said. “That would be beautiful.”