New Dodger Juan Uribe keeps things in the family
In times of crisis, some people turn to God. Some visit therapists.
Juan Uribe leaned on his late cousin. Or, as Uribe prefers to call him, his uncle.
Not long before Uribe, 31, parlayed his World Series heroics of last fall into a three-year, $21-million deal with the Dodgers, he was dangerously close to adding himself to the long list of baseball’s premature washouts.
Two springs ago, Uribe was in the San Francisco Giants’ camp on a minor league contract.
“The toughest time of my career,” he said.
But he said he didn’t put his head down; instead he thought of lessons he learned from his second cousin, Jose Uribe, who played shortstop with the Giants from 1985 to 1992. Jose was killed in a car accident in 2006.
Because of their age difference, Uribe has always referred to Jose as tio — Spanish for uncle.
“He’s the one who taught me how to carry myself,” Uribe said. “There are high points and low points in life. The low points are unavoidable. If you put your head down during the low points, you’ll stay with your head down. But if you lift your head up, you have a chance to reach a high point again.”
Uribe was the starting shortstop for the Chicago White Sox team that won the 2005 World Series, but he wasn’t on top for long.
His career and personal life nearly unraveled, almost at the same time. The 2006-07 off-season was particularly difficult, and not only because of Jose’s death. Juan was alleged to have been involved in a shooting in his native Dominican Republic and his name wasn’t cleared until mid-February 2007. (He declined to talk about the incident.)
He eventually lost his place as starting shortstop with the White Sox. Unable to land a major league deal as a free agent in the winter leading up to the 2009 season, he decided to rebuild his career where his cousin built his.
“I knew the player from the previous couple of seasons wasn’t me,” he said. “I loved baseball too much and didn’t want to even consider the possibility that my career was finished. I knew there was more inside of Juan Uribe.”
What started out as essentially a tryout turned into a two-year stint with the Giants that culminated with a World Series title.
Uribe had two solid seasons with the Giants as a shortstop, and a second and third baseman. He set career highs in batting average (.289) and on-base percentage (.329) in 2009, and in home runs (24) and runs batted in (85) last year.
More satisfying than the numbers were the calls he heard from the stands at AT&T Park: “Ooo-ree-bay.”
The last time that chant was heard in San Francisco, Jose was the Giants’ shortstop.
“For me, that was a great source of pride,” Uribe said. “It was incredible.”
He heard the chant over and over as the Giants beat the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs, then the Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers to win their first World Series title since moving from New York to San Francisco in 1958.
He became part of October folklore in San Francisco, knocking in the winning runs in Games 4 and 6 of the National League championship series and driving in five runs in the World Series.
Then, he left.
For the enemy.
How could this happen?
One reason was a relationship with another of his mentors, this one dating back a decade and a half.
A brother of Dodgers coach Manny Mota used to live next door to Uribe in the Dominican town of Palenque.
“I’ve probably known him since he was 15 years old,” Mota said. “He always had talent.”
Uribe said he was touched by how the Dodgers pursued him, calling his agent almost every day. But the phone calls he received directly from Mota meant something more.
“Mr. Mota used to drop by every now and then when I was a kid,” Uribe said. “He helped a lot of people. People don’t see that. He used to always bring us baseball equipment all the time — caps, balls, bats. He was always supporting our youth leagues. That was important for us. He gave us a chance to play sports and stay out of trouble. He gave us a chance to be somebody.”
The Giants offered Uribe a deal similar to the one offered by the Dodgers, but his mind was made up. He wanted to play in Los Angeles.
“They were really interested in having me here,” he said. “When a team wants you that much and tells you that you’ll be a key part of their team, it’s extremely moving.”
Uribe is penciled in to be the Dodgers’ everyday second baseman, but he is expected to play some shortstop or third base on days veterans Rafael Furcal or Casey Blake are off.
Uribe is large for a second baseman — the Dodgers list him at 5 feet 11, 230 pounds — but he looks more thick than he does fat.
“Weight doesn’t necessarily affect movement,” Uribe said. “If you’re in shape and work on your footwork, it should never be a problem.”
Manager Don Mattingly said he, too, doesn’t think Uribe’s size is an issue.
“To me, he’s like a Kirby body,” Mattingly said, referring to rotund-but-nimble Hall of Fame outfielder Kirby Puckett. “I’d see Kirby every spring and I’d go, ‘God, he’s big.’ [Uribe is] not the typical middle-of-the-field guy, but he’s good.”
Uribe has a career on-base percentage of only .300, but he figures to provide power from a position that doesn’t typically provide much.
If nothing else, the Dodgers have a pleasant clubhouse presence. Uribe is always smiling, constantly jabbering with teammates and frequently greeting reporters he’s never met.
“In all the years I’ve known him, he’s never changed,” Mota said. “He’s always treated people well. Even when he’s had success, he’s always remained humble.”
Perhaps that was the most important lesson Uribe learned from his elder cousin.
“He taught me how to handle myself in all facets of life, not just in sports,” Uribe said. “I have to be the same person off the field that I am on the field. To never change. To never think you’re better than anyone. To think that everyone is equal.”