Aybar makes a push for starting job

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

BANI, Dominican Republic -- It’s just minutes before the scheduled start of a crucial Dominican winter league baseball game and no one can find Erick Aybar.

He’s not in Licey’s painfully cramped, humid clubhouse suffering with his teammates. He’s not in the Tigers’ dugout. And because the field is slowly being washed away by a tropical storm, he’s not there either.

Eventually a guard finds him in one of the stadium’s air-conditioned luxury suites, watching cable TV and making cellphone calls with some friends, all of which illustrates three things about Licey’s starting shortstop: He’s smart enough to stay out of the rain and humid clubhouses, he doesn’t get nervous before big games and he knows how to improvise.


And while those probably weren’t the exacttraits the Angels zeroed in on when they discussed Aybar’s future during the off-season, they obviously liked what they did see. Because when the team opens spring training this week in Tempe, Ariz., they’ll do so with the 24-year-old Dominican, who started only six games at shortstop last season, leading the fight to replace Gold Glove winner Orlando Cabrera at one of baseball’s most demanding positions.

“We’re very excited about Erick’s potential,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “He has the package to be a very dynamic presence at shortstop.”

And Aybar insists he’s up to the challenge.

“I’ve been working for this,” he said, sitting between two friends on a sofa in his family’s home in Bani, a provincial capital about an hour’s drive west of Santo Domingo. “I’m ready. I’m 100% ready.”

For decades Bani was known locally as “the city of poets” but it may be time to rethink that name because the southwest part of the Dominican Republic, with Bani at its center, has become the country’s new cradle of baseball. The town of 61,000 has sent 18 sons to the big leagues, among them former American League most valuable player Miguel Tejada, three-time National League All-Star Mario Soto and World Series champions Juan Uribe and Timo Perez.

Another former MVP, Angels teammate Vladimir Guerrero, was born in nearby Nizao. And more than 100 Banians have played minor league baseball since 1996.

Aybar isn’t the first baseball player in the family; his father, Narciso, was playing second base for amateur teams in the Bani area some 30 years ago.

In fact, Erick isn’t even the first member of the family to start in the infield for a major league team in Southern California. Troubled older brother Willy, now with Tampa Bay, played 70 games at second base and third base for the Dodgers in 2005 and 2006. Erick played his first full big league season last summer, a fact noted in the entryway to the Aybar’s Bani home, where the brothers have hung a huge poster of themselves in uniform above a message thanking Narciso, a brick layer, and mother Francia, who sold food out of her kitchen, for their support.

“Their father worked hard to let them play,” Francia said. “Me too.”

But the boys worked hard as well, dropping out of school early to help support the family by baking bread to sell, then spending the afternoons playing baseball with other neighborhood kids on a vacant lot with more rocks than grass.

“He was always at either practice or in the house,” Francia said of Erick, who was following his father and brother to the ballpark by the time he was old enough to carry his own bat. “He was born with this, with baseball. From the time he was small, all he liked was baseball.”

Willy and Erick grew up sharing the same bed in a house across town, on the banks of the Bani River. During the dry season, dirt would blow into the house, covering the floor and walls with a thin film of dust. And in the rainy season, the river would sometimes overflow, sending the family scurrying for higher ground at a nearby schoolhouse.

This winter the switch-hitting Aybars were together again for a short time, playing side by side on the Licey infield, with shortstop Erick batting .237 with 30 runs and 15 steals (in 19 tries) in 59 games and third baseman Willy hitting .294 in 51 games.

“You feel better knowing that he’s playing again,” Erick had said of his brother, 10 months his senior.

But the reunion came to an abrupt end last month when Willy, who sat out last season because of a substance-abuse problem and injuries, was jailed for five days in Bani on a domestic violence charge his wife, Yessenia, later withdrew.

So with winter ball behind him, Erick Aybar will turn his attention to a bigger challenge -- filling the huge void left by the departure of Cabrera, whom the Angels traded to the Chicago White Sox in November.

“We wouldn’t have moved Orlando Cabrera if we didn’t feel like we had people who could come in and give us the presence we need to win at shortstop,” Scioscia said.

But the job won’t be handed to Aybar, said new General Manager Tony Reagins, the former player development chief who made the decision to deal Cabrera. In addition to Aybar, the Angels plan to give veteran Maicer Izturis and former first-round draft pick Brandon Wood long looks.

Privately, however, the Angels say there’s some concern over Izturis’ durability and Wood’s inexperience, doubts that figure to help Aybar.

“We know what we’re getting with Erick,” said Reagins, who accompanied Scioscia, team owner Arte Moreno and advisor Preston Gomez on a winter trip to the Dominican to see Aybar and other Angels. “He has a knack for baseball. He’s a leader on the diamond. A very confident player. I think opportunity is what he needs.”

The preliminary returns haven’t been encouraging, though, with Aybar making 17 errors in winter play. And after a fast start, he seemed to become lost at the plate, overswinging and striking out 10 times in his last eight Dominican League playoff games, missing bunt signs and eventually losing his starting spot to the New York Mets’ Anderson Hernandez for the Caribbean Series, which Licey won.

Aybar, who hit only .239 in parts of two seasons with the Angels, piling up nearly as many strikeouts (40) as hits (56), shrugs off those numbers and insists he isn’t about to let this chance pass.

“When the opportunity comes, if you don’t work hard you aren’t going to be able to take advantage of it,” he said.