Lion of winter, Regan wins over angry den Latin love affair

November 11, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

Caracas, Venezuela -- Blend the electricity of a Duke University basketball crowd with the pugnacity of New York Rangers fans. Now turn up the volume and sustain it for nine innings. Mix in blasting caps hurled from the stands onto the grass in foul territory, children running onto the outfield for autographs between innings, beers flying. Welcome to a Venezuelan League baseball game featuring the nation's No. 1 sports rivalry: Magallanes vs. Caracas.

On his way to first base, Alvaro Espinoza flings his batting helmet in the direction of Caracas pitcher Mike Zimmerman, payback for being hit by a pitch in his previous at-bat. Caracas Lions manager Phil Regan springs out of the dugout, gets in the face of an umpire, and unleashes a head-gyrating, spit-flying, finger-pointing tirade, in Spanish. He returns to the dugout to a standing ovation.

Later, the final out is made and Caracas, the home team, has defeated Magallanes, 3-2. The stands transform into a dance floor. Kids jump onto the field and swarm Regan as he makes his way toward the dugout. After Regan showers, autograph seekers encircle him, one troop giving way to the next.

Clearly, Regan, named last month to replace Johnny Oates as Orioles manager, is a man revered by the baseball fans of Caracas, Venezuela's largest city. But it wasn't always so. There was a time, not so long ago, Regan was vilified by the same people who now lionize him.

Step inside the Caracas Lions' locker room.

The laundered uniform hangs undisturbed, a bastion of freshness amid the must. A steel cross, red rosary beads and an oversized baseball card with the inscription "Baudilio Diaz, Estrella Venezolana, 1954-1990" rim the locker.

Indeed, former major-league catcher Bo Diaz not only was a Venezuelan star, but also a national hero, a source of great pride for a country that counts oil and baseball talent among its most cherished resources. The oil still flows, but Diaz was taken away from Venezuela in tragic fashion.

On Nov. 23, 1990, Diaz was on the roof of his house when the satellite dish he was adjusting fell on him and broke his neck. He was dead at 37. A nation asked, "Why so young? Why?" To many, the answer was simple. Phil Regan, that's why.

Two days before his death, Diaz had stormed off the field and quit the team after a pre-game argument with Regan. Regan found himself accused of contributing to the death of a national hero.

"It was a Wednesday, and Bo wasn't in the lineup," Regan recalled. "I told him to go down to the bullpen and warm up a pitcher. He wouldn't respond, kept walking. I told him if he was going to be on this team, he was going to have to work as hard as everyone else. He went crazy, took his uniform off and quit.

"That Friday at about 4, when he would have been out at the ballpark, he died," Regan said. "A lot of people told me if I hadn't kicked him off the team, which I didn't, he would still be alive."

"Those were tough times," said Caracas infielder and team leader Jesus Alfaro, 36. "Everybody tried to blame Phil for what happened to Bo. I was mad, too. Then I realized it was not Phil's fault. It was nobody's fault. When God wants to bring you up, he's going to bring you up. Everybody realized Phil was one of the guys who was hurt most inside. I saw Phil Regan cry.

"That was not easy for Phil to finish that season, but he did. And he kept coming back. We're going to miss him. Phil means a lot to us, every one of us. That man knows a lot of baseball. He taught us how to play this game right. You want to play hard for him."

Regan's players have been playing hard for him in Caracas for six seasons now. He has been charged with maintaining order amid the confusion. Before that, Regan spent four seasons in the Dominican Republic, building a resume that would land him the Orioles managing job.

Basic training

How will his experience in Latin America translate into the major leagues?

Quite well, says Orioles and Magallanes left-hander Jim Poole.

"The pressure from the media, the fans and ownership down here easily compares to what he'll face in the major leagues," Poole said. "Here, it's almost like you feel a physical endangerment if you don't do well."

Media pressure?

After Diaz's death, headlines blamed Regan. He was asked to explain himself with live television cameras rolling.

"I said sometimes you have to learn to discipline your children, too, but that doesn't mean you don't love them," Regan said.

Fan pressure?

Even as popular as Regan has become, he hears many nasty remarks shouted from fans seated directly behind the dugout when his team does not perform well.

Ownership pressure?

Lions owner Oscar Prietto sometimes meets Regan for breakfast and can be found in the clubhouse and dugout daily, even during games.

A dentist who specializes in treating handicapped children, Prietto serves as the Lions' owner/general manager/traveling secretary/maintenance man.

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