FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Billy Percibal is back in the Orioles' spring training camp this year, complete with a smile on his face, a healthy arm and a future.
It's no small wonder, given the desperate circumstances he was facing just a year ago.
Once considered perhaps the club's top pitching prospect, Percibal, a 23-year-old raised in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic, experienced elbow pain last March and wound up undergoing surgery to replace a damaged tendon. He didn't pitch all season.
At the same time, his first child, a boy named Angel, was born in the Dominican Republic with fluid on his brain, a grave condition.
"My son was very sick and my [baseball] career was in real doubt," Percibal said yesterday in the Orioles' clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. "It was the worst possible situation. I just held my head in my hands."
A year later, he is back on the mound again and pitching without pain, a good bet to open the season in the starting rotation at Double-A Bowie.
"I won't say it's a miracle, but for him to be throwing this well again just nine months after his surgery is incredible," Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone said.
And Angel? Thanks to an emergency operation last year in Miami, arranged by the Orioles and Percibal's agent, Percibal's son is fine.
"I just talked to him on the phone last night," Percibal said. "He is 13 months old today. A great boy. He asks my wife, 'Where's daddy?' She tells him, 'Daddy has gone to the United States to play baseball for us.' "
Is this a story with a happy ending? Angel's recovery makes it one regardless of what happens to Percibal's career, but Percibal's star is rising again, too.
"If he stays healthy," said Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' scout in the Dominican Republic, "he will pitch in the majors next season. And that would be a very happy ending, considering what he went through."
To fully understand what was at stake, you must understand that Percibal comes from the depths of Third World poverty. He grew up in a shack near San Pedro de Macoris, sleeping on the floor, working in the sugar cane fields and eating only rice and beans. His father was killed in a railroad accident.
Bernhardt, one of the unsung heroes of the Orioles' organization, discovered him five years ago throwing a tattered ball on a makeshift field; a scrawny, hungry slip of a kid with a live arm, a natural swagger and a fastball that zipped.
Baseball became his ticket for escaping the cycle of poverty that had clutched his family for so long.
"You must understand, they have nothing," Bernhardt said. "Billy is their only chance. It is such amazing pressure."
Percibal acknowledged as much yesterday.
"I have to pitch well," he said, "because everyone back home Percibal needs the money."
Bernhardt tried to use that as a positive motivation when Percibal was languishing with self-pity after his surgery last year.
"I told him, 'You need a new motivation now,' " Bernhardt said. "I told him, 'Every pitch you throw, you must now throw for your son.' "
After Percibal continued to mope about his bad luck, Bernhardt finally just scolded him.
"The exact same thing had happened to me years ago," Bernhardt said. "I was 18 years ago, one of the Yankees' top prospects and I blew out my arm and never pitched again. I told Billy, 'You're lucky, you can still pitch. So don't go around feeling sorry for yourself.' "
Percibal's mood began to improve when he embarked on a rehabilitation program in November. He discovered that his reconstructed elbow was so strong he could throw a ball from home plate over the outfield fence.
Four months later, the Orioles are extremely encouraged about Percibal's condition.
"He's throwing loose and easy, with plenty of velocity on his fastball and sharpness on his breaking ball," Malone said. "He's way ahead of schedule."
The Orioles would love to see Percibal return to his pre-surgery form, which was so dominating that the club saw fit to put him on its 40-man roster last year. He was 7-6 with a 3.23 ERA at Single-A High Desert in 1995, then was promoted to Bowie in August of that year and threw 14 scoreless innings before elbow pain ended his season.
"Everything was going great, and then everything was going terrible," Percibal said yesterday. "When my elbow began to hurt, and then my son was born with a problem, I began to wonder how I would make it."
He did. And Bernhardt watched with obvious pride as Percibal crossed the clubhouse and bantered with teammates yesterday, his world patched back together again.
"What he went through last year would be hard for anyone to endure, a college student, an adult, anyone; much less a young man from such a background as his," Bernhardt said. "It was a lot to take on. But Billy is a special one. He is smart. He keeps his head together. I think he is going to make it."
Pub Date: 3/04/97