Cabrera's Latin tall tale grows into O's reality

Once too long for bed, 6-7 Dominican finds fit

May 29, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

DETROIT - The old gang gathered at the billiard hall to watch Daniel Cabrera pitch for the Orioles a couple weeks back, and every time he recorded an out, the whole place erupted with chants of La Bomba, Cabrera! La Bomba, Cabrera! To his friends and family members in San Pedro de Macoris, the Dominican Republic, Cabrera is simply, The Bomb.

But to Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' director of Latin American scouting, Cabrera will always go by another nickname: Cama Largo. Long Bed.

It refers back to the dilemma that arose when the tall, lanky kid first arrived at the team's academy in San Pedro at age 17.

Cabrera was already 6 feet 7 when the Orioles first found him and signed him for $10,000, but he weighed something like 160 pounds.

"You should see the pictures," said Cabrera, who is 2-1 with a 4.32 ERA heading into tonight's start against the Detroit Tigers.

He lived in a blighted neighborhood with dirt roads in San Pedro, about 10 minutes from the academy's boarding house.

With space for only about 25 players in the small yellow house, the Orioles normally don't allow residents of San Pedro to live there, figuring they can just stay at home and meet the team at the field each day.

But Bernhardt knew Cabrera's family didn't have much, so he received special permission from Don Buford, then the team's farm director, to let Cabrera stay with the team.

Problem was, in this house where the players sleep in bunk beds, six to a room, there wasn't enough room for Cabrera's legs, let alone the rest of his body.

"I was like, [darn], we don't have a bed for this kid," Bernhardt said. "Half of his body was hanging out. We had to find him a longer bed."

To see Cabrera now, with his tall frame, long fingers and blazing fastball, he seems the culmination of every scout's dream. He celebrated his 23rd birthday yesterday and looked like the prospect who couldn't miss.

But his sudden rise into the Orioles' starting rotation actually followed a steppingstone path around all sorts of adversity.

From the modest beginnings, Cabrera arrived at the Orioles' academy with a 79-mph fastball. But starting in 1999, he spent two years pitching in the Dominican Summer League, living at the boarding house, eating three square meals a day, and learning from Bernhardt, who taught him baseball and English.

"Carlos is everything in the Dominican," Cabrera said. "He's the dad for everybody. I was like 160 pounds. He gave me a chance to work out and get stronger."

These days, Cabrera weighs 230 pounds and throws his fastball 94 mph. He has emerged as the Orioles' most significant product from their Dominican academy since former closer Armando Benitez, but it was a long process.

Having prepared for the American minor league lifestyle at the academy, Cabrera rose through the Orioles' rookie-level Gulf Coast affiliate in 2001 and Bluefield in 2002. Fearful of losing him, the Orioles protected him on their 40-man roster and sent him to Single-A Delmarva last year.

Just when he was expected to take off, he started the season 0-7 with a 4.93 ERA and didn't get his first win until July 12.

"[Pitching coach] Larry McCall said, `Don't worry where you start, worry where you finish,' " Cabrera said. And he wound up winning five of his final seven decisions.

Then Cabrera went back to San Pedro, where he spent the winter working with Bernhardt every third day. Bernhardt helped Cabrera with his changeup and mound presence, and Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan said the team noticed an immediate difference when Cabrera arrived at spring training.

The plan was to send Cabrera to Single-A Frederick, but he looked so good, they decided to let him try Double-A Bowie. There, Cabrera figured to get overshadowed by three of the team's other top pitching prospects - John Maine, Denny Bautista and David Crouthers.

But Cabrera started dominating the Eastern League, posting 35 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings. With the rest of their young starting rotation in tatters, the Orioles decided to press their luck.

On May 13, Cabrera tossed six scoreless innings against the Chicago White Sox in a 1-0 victory. Five days later, with his three brothers and several cousins gathered around the TV in San Pedro, he went 6 2/3 innings as the Orioles beat the Seattle Mariners, 7-2.

La Bomba, Cabrera! La Bomba, Cabrera! He became the first Orioles pitcher to win his first two major league starts since Rocky Coppinger in 1996. The Anaheim Angels brought him back to earth when they roughed him up for six runs over four innings Sunday in an 8-3 Orioles loss, but manager Lee Mazzilli said he had no plans of removing Cabrera from the rotation.

For now, it looks like Cabrera will be collecting a big league salary for a while.

"He comes from a great family," said Cabrera's agent, Mike Powers. "He had two thoughts the day they called him up to Chicago: Can I fly my dad here from Cleveland? And can I get a house for my mom?"

Cabrera's father, who works as a carpenter in Cleveland, was in Chicago to see his son's major league debut. And Cabrera is setting aside money from each paycheck to build his mom a new house.

"I need my mother to live comfortably," Cabrera said. "That's everything in my life."

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