Orioles, Ubaldo Jimenez hope they're perfect dance partners

After signing largest free-agent contract for a pitcher in club history, 30-year-old right-hander who likes 'to dance a lot,' looks to continue his dominance from the second half of the 2013 season

April 01, 2014|By Dan Connolly | The Baltimore Sun

Ubaldo Jimenez’s baseball career is well-documented. His ups and downs in the major leagues have been thoroughly dissected.

A wunderkind who once was among baseball’s best young pitchers, Jimenez’s career trajectory plummeted dramatically in the past few seasons before he resuscitated it with a tremendous second half last year.

And that led the Orioles to give the 30-year-old right-hander a four-year, $50 million deal, the most lucrative contract the club has ever handed out to a free-agent pitcher.

Perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding this 2014 team is which Jimenez the club signed — the one who befuddles hitters with a funky delivery and offerings that dip and dash around the plate, or the one who can’t seem to figure out his mechanics and throw strikes.

That’s obviously an important part of Jimenez’s story. But here’s what you really need to know about the man who will make his Orioles debut Wednesday night on the Camden Yards mound against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox.

Jimenez loves to dance.

“I do,” Jimenez said, breaking into a huge smile. “I like to dance a lot. Latin dances, hip hop, everything, merengue, you name it.”

During spring training, he had a picture of himself dancing and showed it to infielder Alexi Casilla, who has known Jimenez since they were boys playing Little League against each other in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic.

“I just laughed. I mean, I don’t imagine Ubaldo like that, dancing,” Casilla said. “I know his personality, so that’s funny.”

Since he arrived in Sarasota, Fla., in February, Jimenez has fit perfectly into the Orioles’ tight clubhouse. He’s polite and friendly, but also fairly quiet, certainly unassuming and unquestionably serious about his craft.

Fellow starter Chris Tillman said he didn’t see Jimenez without a smile on his face for an entire month. And Jimenez said he already feels like he’s one of the guys.

So does that mean that he considered entering the club’s annual spring training talent show to put on a dancing exhibition?

“No, no way,” he said, chuckling again. “But I do like to dance a lot. And I like to read books. I’ll read anything, about life, history. I like to read. That’s pretty much all I do. I like to spend a lot of time with my family. I like to have fun. I like to smile.”

Starting next week, his parents will fly in from the Dominican Republic and stay with the 6-foot-5, 210-pound pitcher in Baltimore throughout most of the season. They’ve been doing that since 2007. He gets home-cooked meals and all the benefits of living with his mother and father. All while being a multimillionaire and star athlete.

“In Latin countries, you don’t leave your parents’ house until you get married,” Jimenez said. “It’s not like here, when you get to be 18, and you can live anywhere you want. In Latin countries, you could be 40 years old, but if you aren’t married, you stay with your parents.”

It’s his way of giving back while also keeping himself grounded. His mother was a nurse, and his father, a disciplined military man, worked two jobs each day after he left the service — driving a bus for an insurance company and working as a security guard. His parents wanted the best for Jimenez and his sister — who is studying to be a doctor in the Dominican Republic — and the couple often worked six days a week to make it happen.

“They did everything for me when I was growing up, for me and my sister,” Jimenez said. “And now I have a chance to do that for them.”

His strong sense of family and simple, quiet lifestyle was not lost on the Orioles when they decided to give him an unprecedented contract.

“He is a quality human being. I had a lot of people talk about it,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “Very respectful, but, at the same time, competitive.”

Fair or not, Jimenez is considered the missing piece for a team that believes it can make a deep run into the postseason this year.

Despite winning 85 games last season, the Orioles rotation had the fourth-worst ERA in the American League. The club needed a significant upgrade — and yet that didn’t seem likely since the organization had never given a free-agent pitcher a deal of more than three years.

Widely considered one of the five best available starters this offseason, Jimenez initially appeared to be well out of the Orioles’ price range. But the market suddenly stalled for more than a month while Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka chose a team. Once it kickstarted again, there seemed to be a limited pool of suitors remaining for Jimenez, partially because he was tied to draft-pick compensation and clubs didn’t want to lose a first-round selection.

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