Cabrera is latest S. Pedro bonus

ORIOLES FOCUS

Baseball

A Look Inside

May 23, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Like a magician pulling a card from his sleeve, the Orioles seemed to pull Daniel Cabrera from the ether two weeks ago to bolster their tattered starting pitching staff.

Cabrera made the jump from Double-A Bowie and became the first Oriole to win his first two major league starts since Rocky Coppinger did it in 1996. Cabrera takes the mound today against the Anaheim Angels, cradling a tiny 1.42 ERA in his giant fingers.

Every team wishes it could be this easy. But go back and trace Cabrera's roots and there's an important story there.

This 6-foot-7 right-hander didn't come from nowhere. The Orioles found him standing tall above the sugar cane in the Dominican Republic. He grew up in San Pedro de Macoris, the same city where Carlos Bernhardt, the team's director of Latin American scouting, has pieced together his baseball academy on a shoestring budget for all these years.

Cabrera, five days shy of his 23rd birthday, has emerged as the most significant product of that academy since Armando Benitez, and he's a reminder of what's possible if the Orioles stay committed to mining Dominican talent.

Bernhardt's facilities pale in comparison to the sparkling Dominican academies that have sprung up in recent years, with teams such as the Angels, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds jumping on the bandwagon.

Cabrera spent last winter working every third day with Bernhardt on his pitching mechanics and mental focus, and the Orioles noticed the difference the first time Cabrera took the mound at spring training.

"Carlos told me if I keep pitching like that, I could pitch in the big leagues this year," said Cabrera, who had not pitched above Single-A before this season.

The field where Bernhardt instilled this wisdom is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Pedro. Barbed wire tops the walls, to keep intruders out, but somebody still managed to break in and steal all of the Orioles' equipment last year.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos is well aware of the problem. When the Chicago Cubs vacated the municipal stadium, in the center of San Pedro, Bernhardt saw a temporary refuge, and Angelos quickly footed the $24,000 bill to rent that field for this coming year.

"It's the best field in the middle of the city," Bernhardt said. "I'm so thankful to Mr. Angelos. I called him and he said yes right away."

For five years, the Orioles have had blueprints to build a $2 million facility -- complete with housing for 60 players -- on the outskirts of San Pedro, and Cabrera's emergence underscores the importance of moving forward with that plan.

Think about it: A year ago, the Orioles signed 2002 first-round pick Adam Loewen to a $4 million contract. For half that price, they can position themselves to become a force in the Dominican talent rush.

Cabrera signed with the Orioles at age 17 for $10,000. And he's not the only Dominican product on the team's horizon. At Delmarva, Fredy Deza is 3-5 with a 2.23 ERA. At Bowie, Sendy Rleal is 2-0 with a 3.72 ERA. And Eddie Rodriguez is 1-0 with 4.74 ERA.

Like Cabrera, each of them throws his fastball 93 mph or harder. Of course, it takes more than a terrific fastball to reach the big leagues, but Cabrera thinks all of them have a chance to do what he's done.

Or, he said smiling, "maybe better than me."

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