One even, one odd

Play of reserved Izturis and 'silly' Freel entices club

The New Additions

December 11, 2008|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,dan.connolly@baltsun.com

They are the two newest faces in the Orioles' organization.

Cesar Izturis is a quiet, unassuming, slick-fielding shortstop who has agreed in principle to a two-year deal that will be finalized next week if he passes a team physical.

Ryan Freel is a hard-charging Cuban-American infielder-outfielder who was obtained Tuesday in the Ramon Hernandez trade with the Cincinnati Reds and likes talking and joking almost as much as he loves baseball.

Their personalities differ, but they share an important trait, according to MASN announcer Buck Martinez.

"They are baseball players, simple as that. They know how to play the game right," said Martinez, who managed both for the 2001 Toronto Blue Jays. "They are very different. Cesar is very quiet, but he is quietly intense. Ryan is outwardly intense. Ryan's playing at 78 [rpm] all the time, whereas Cesar is at 33 1/2 ."

Martinez remembers when Izturis was called up in 2001 and stopped his manager in the hotel lobby.

"He said, 'I just want to thank you for the opportunity to allow me to play in the major leagues.' That's how he is," Martinez said. "He is very intelligent. And he is a Gold Glove-caliber infielder."

Hernandez, who like Izturis is from Venezuela and played with the shortstop in winter leagues, said his old team is getting a quality person whose impact will be felt on the field, not inside the clubhouse.

"Very good guy, very quiet. He doesn't speak hardly at all," Hernandez said. "He might be the most quiet guy when he gets in that clubhouse. But he really can pick it."

Any offense Izturis, 28, provides will be a bonus. He's a .260 career hitter - he batted .263 with one homer and 24 RBIs in 414 at-bats with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008 - and has just 12 homers in eight big league seasons.

"I loved to watch him take ground balls in practice. He's as smooth as you're going to find," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He's the quickest I've seen making the shortstop pivot. He's highly intelligent with the bat and on the bases, and I think he's improving as a hitter from the left-hand side. I really like him as a player."

Freel, on the other hand, has no standout skill. He has a good glove, a strong arm, a solid bat with limited power and the ability to steal bases - swiping 110 from 2004 to 2006 with the Reds.

"He will steal bases with his mind and make good throws with his aggressiveness," Martinez said. "He is a Brian Roberts type of player. ... He's the kind of player [Orioles manager] Dave Trembley wants on the field. He never quits, he doesn't ever want his team to lose and will do everything for the team to win."

He is also, Martinez said, "quirky" with a "very dry, funny sense of humor."

Case in point: A couple years ago, Freel admitted that he had an imaginary friend named Farney, a "little midget in my head" whom he engages in conversations on the field. The media loved it.

"It was a joke, and it got kind of where ESPN ran with it and I thought it was getting out there a little too far and I was being called a schizophrenic," he said. "I'm not a schizophrenic or a multipersonality guy."

He's just fun-loving, he said, and it's a side of him Orioles fans and players will soon see.

"I like being silly. Maybe I didn't get enough attention as a kid, I don't know. I just like seeing guys laugh," said Freel, 32. "I like firing people up, and I love playing."

The biggest knock on Freel is that his all-out style makes him an injury risk. He played just 123 games in the past two years, including missing the final four months of 2008 with a torn hamstring tendon that required surgery.

"I've had some injuries, but I am healthy now," Freel said. "I am at my best, and I'll give everything I can."

While Izturis' career has been virtually a secret outside where he has played, Freel has made headlines, sometimes for things he's not proud of.

In 2005, Freel pleaded guilty to a count of driving under the influence, paid a fine and had his license suspended. In 2006, he was charged with misdemeanor disorderly intoxication, which was dropped after he agreed to complete community service. All that is behind him, he said.

"I have not had a sip of alcohol in [nearly] three years. I definitely learned from that," Freel said. "Me and drinking probably wasn't a good thing. Kicking that whole thing was probably the best thing to happen for me, my family and my career."

Freel grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and was raised by a single mother from Cuba who worked 18 hours a day as a schoolteacher and a one-woman cleaning service to support her two sons. Her work ethic and humility, he said, is always with him, and he'll bring that "blue-collar attitude" to Baltimore. His most recent skipper expects nothing less.

"I didn't really get to see the real Ryan Freel because he was hurt, but he plays hard," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "The fans are going to love him. He can play all over everywhere. He's a quality player."

Although Freel is targeted to be the Orioles' fourth outfielder and an occasional fill-in infielder, Baker said he has the ability to be an everyday second baseman if the need arose - for instance, if Roberts were traded.

That would mean Freel could team with Izturis for a unique double-play combination. The silent, slick shortstop and the gregarious, fun-loving second baseman.

They should get along well because Freel said it's his goal to be "best friends with all 24 guys and the manager. I'll be a little shy in the beginning until I get comfortable. Then they'll say, 'Where is this guy from?' And it will be in a good way."

Baltimore Sun reporters Peter Schmuck and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article from Las Vegas.

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