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Slick with the Stick

April 04, 1994
April 04, 1994

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April 4, 1994

Baseball
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NCAA Tournament
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Baseball 1994
Point After

Slick with the Stick

Carlos Baerga's brilliant bat work and easy humor have helped the Cleveland Indians get out from behind the eight ball

Two balls, two strikes, two outs, bases jammed. It's the bottom of the eighth, and the visiting Cleveland Indians are up by a run. Tribe catcher Sandy Alomar is on the mound trying to calm down reliever Ted Power when second baseman Carlos Baerga bursts in. "I've got the play," he says excitedly.

This is an article from the April 4, 1994 issue Original Layout

"What?" asks Alomar.

"A pitchout."

"With two strikes?"

"The runner on second is leaning off the bag!" Baerga says.

"And two outs?"

"We can get him."

"And the bases loaded?"

"I'm telling you, we can get him!"

Baerga laughs. The catcher laughs. Even the reliever laughs. The tension broken, Power goes back to work and retires the batter on a fly ball.

"Carlos is always chattering, always hustling," says a former teammate. "You watch him and almost forget you're a Cleveland Indian."

In the four inglorious decades since the Indians last won the American League pennant, none of their second basemen has had a higher batting average (.321) or hit more homers (21) or had more RBIs (114) than Baerga did in 1993. Not Duane Kuiper, not Pedro Gonzalez, not even the near-mythic Ruthford Eduardo (Chico) Salmon. In fact, Baerga is the only major league second baseman other than Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby to hit .300 and have 200 hits, 20 homers and 100 RBIs in one season. And astonishingly, at 25, with only four seasons in the big leagues, Baerga has done it two years running.

In knocking in more runs last season than any American League second baseman since 1950, Baerga had five of those ribbies on June 17, when he became the seventh AL second baseman to hit three homers in a game. "Carlos is one powerful player," says Kuiper, whose one dinger in 12 seasons was more typical of modern-day second basemen. "But he's a bit of a freak at his position."

The freakiest interlude in Baerga's career came last April 8, in the seventh inning of a game against the New York Yankees at Cleveland Stadium. With one on, nobody out and southpaw Steve Howe on the mound, the switch-hitting Baerga—batting righthanded—pasted a 3-2 fastball into the leftfield bleachers. The Indians batted around, and when Baerga came up again in the seventh, righthander Steve Farr was pitching. Facing Farr from the left side, Baerga hit a 2-0 fastball over the fence in right. He thus became the first player to hit a homer from each side of the plate in the same inning. "It wasn't anything I'd planned." Baerga says ingenuously. "I was just lucky, I guess."

But luck doesn't account for the way he battled through an early-season slump and then a hand injury to jack up his batting average 59 points in 67 days, from a season low of .253 on May 19 to .312 by July 25. Among the league's hitting leaders last April, Baerga went into a tailspin and came out of it only after studying videotape of his swing. He discovered he was pulling his head off the ball, thereby pulling too many pitches. "When I'm hitting well," he said, "I hit a lot to the opposite field." After pulling his average up near .300 again, Baerga suffered another setback when the Seattle Mariners' David Fleming plunked him on the left hand with a fastball. "The worst thing that can happen to a hitter is to hurt your hand," says Baerga, who nevertheless did not miss a game because of the injury. "I couldn't move my wrist for a month. When you're hurt, you can do nothing about that. Sometimes the problem was in my hand, sometimes in my head. I broke the slump by telling myself, Swing through the pain, and you'll hit the ball."

Baerga takes his cuts with such gusto that in thrusting his front foot forward, he kicks up a cloud of dirt. "Uniforms should be clean only in the locker," he says. "When you swing at a pitch, you must swing with passion." As a fielder Baerga is no less passionate, buzzing around the infield like a bug in a bottle. His mouth moves as deftly as his hands—perhaps more deftly, considering the 17 errors he made in '93. "His mouth moves 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Indian centerfielder Kenny Lofton.

Beneath his Cleveland cap and the black smudge of a mustache that conceals his upper lip, Baerga has a kid's face. "My wife, Miriam, says I'm like a little boy because I can't sit still," he says, bouncing back and forth between the partitions of his clubhouse cubicle like a base runner caught in a rundown. "I eat so much that if I didn't keep moving, I'd gain about 300 pounds."

The 5'11", 200-pound Baerga fortified himself for last season by lifting weights in the morning, stretching in the afternoon and taking taekwondo classes at night. Every winter he goes home to Puerto Rico to play ball for the San Juan Metros. "My people have been so good to me, I feel I have to play at least part of the season," he says. "I owe that to them."

In Puerto Rico, Baerga is feted, paraded and mobbed by children everywhere. "The kids down there are baseball-crazy," he says. "They won't even let you take batting practice. They come right onto the field for autographs." Baerga never refuses them. "It makes me happy to see people smile," he says. "My father once said, 'Be the same person. Don't ever change. People will always remember what you do now, so behave yourself.' "

This is one ballplayer who not only acknowledges fan loyalty, but actually rewards it. In the spring of '92 Baerga signed a three-year, $8 million contract with the Indians against the advice of his agent, Scott Boras. "Scott spent three days trying to persuade me to hold off," says Baerga. "He pleaded, 'Don't sign! Don't sign!' But I love this team, I love the fans, I love the front office, and I love the new ballpark that's opening this year. I told Scott I had to sign." And he did.

Boras was even more opposed to the four-year extension, for $21 million, that Baerga signed last spring. The pact will keep him with Cleveland through the '98 season. "Scott really fought with me on that," Baerga says. "He told me that if I kept putting up big numbers, I could name my price and my team. I told him. 'When I come up to bat, I just want to think about baseball. So forget about free agency.' The Yankees or the White Sox might pay me more money, but I wouldn't be playing happy. I'm happy in Cleveland. The Indians are my family, and my father always told me to stand by my family."

Born and raised in San Juan, Carlos is the oldest of Josè and Baldry Baerga's four children. After teaching eight-year-old Carlos to switch-hit, Josè, who worked in the credit office of the newspaper El Nuevo Día, deposited his son in a league of 11-year-olds. When Carlos was 14, Josè placed him in the country's top amateur league, composed mostly of players in their 20's and 30's. In 1985, on Carlos's 17th birthday, the San Diego Padres paid him a $60,000 bonus to sign with them.

Baerga was assigned to the Padres' Class A affiliate in Charleston, S.C., where he was supposed to ride the pine for two months until he could join San Diego's rookie league team in Spokane. But after two weeks of sitting, Baerga asked manager Pat Kelly, "Coach, why me no play?"

"I've got to play the more experienced guys ahead of you," Kelly explained. Baerga nodded.

The following day Baerga was again out of the lineup. 'Coach," he said after the game, "why me no play?"

Kelly explained, Baerga nodded.

This sequence was repeated daily for about a week until, finally. Kelly relented. Baerga delivered a pinch single. Then he started the next game and had three hits. He wound up batting .270 and never played a day in the rookie league. "I just wore Coach down," says Baerga, chuckling. "Everyday, everyday, everyday...."

For four years Baerga played musical chairs in the minors, shifting between second base, shortstop and third base. Robbie Alomar, his countryman and fellow second baseman, was the Padres' top infield prospect, and Garry Templeton was entrenched at shortstop in San Diego.

The music didn't stop even when Baerga made it to the big leagues, in 1990. (He had been traded to Cleveland after the '89 season in a three-for-one swap for Joe Carter.) Baerga shuttled from second to short to third until the Indians made him their regular second baseman, midway through the '91 season. "From the time he got to Cleveland, Carlos was the heart and soul of the Indians," says Jose Morales, the Tribe's former hitting coach. "We sent him down to Triple A for two weeks in his rookie year, and team spirit just sank. When he came back, it was like a kid returning to his family. He brings an energy, a unity to the team."

"I just try to wake everybody up," Baerga says. "Even if I'm not awake myself." He remembers lying in bed two seasons ago with a pulled hamstring so painful he could hardly walk. "But I somehow got up and got dressed," he says. "And when I got to the stadium, things changed. Suddenly, I felt O.K. Baseball is like a strong drink that gives me confidence."

Baerga may be the only big league ballplayer who puts on cologne before a game. "I like to feel clean," Baerga says. "I like to be ready for action." And when there is no action, he'll create it. "That's the way Carlos approaches life: He's aggressive, he's positive," Morales says. "If Carlos sees you're mad at him, he tries to crumble you down. He would come over and hug me and kiss me and tell me he loved me. I'd say, 'Carlos, what the hell?' And he'd just smile. How can you stay mad at a guy like that? You can't. He knows when to make adjustments."

Radical adjustments. In 1991 the Indians were twice shut out by Fleming, but when they faced him the third time. Baerga, who had been 1 for 6 against the lefty in the first two games, turned around and batted lefthanded. He went 2 for 3—and Fleming went to an early shower.

"Carlos is not just a smart hitter, but a smart situational hitter," says Paul Molitor, the designated hitter for the world champion Toronto Blue Jays. "He knows how to move runners and hit the opposite way. For a young guy, it's amazing how mature he looks on the field."

Off it, Baerga emerged as a team leader last spring after the boating accident that killed Indian relievers Steve Olin and Tim Crews. The following day Cleveland p.r. director Bob DiBasio searched the clubhouse for a player who would talk to the press. "Everybody on the team was in tears," DiBasio recalls. "Nobody wanted to step forward and discuss what had happened." So Baerga volunteered. "I was brokenhearted," he says, "but I had a responsibility to the two good people we had lost. They were part of my life. I told God, 'Give me words, because I know it's going to be hard for me.' "

After speaking to the media on behalf of his teammates, Baerga and leftfielder Albert Belle met at the ballpark. "Neither of us wanted to be alone in our hotel room," says Belle. So they grabbed their gloves, went to the outfield and played a long, silent game of catch. "I'm the kind of guy who doesn't like to be thinking about something bad," Baerga says. "Bad stays in my heart."

He remains as guileless today as he was in 1990 when he hit his first big league home run. Rapt in wide-eyed excitement, Baerga tripped over first base, lost his batting helmet and had to run the last 270 feet around the bases bareheaded. "Actually, I meant to do that," he says with a pout that melts charmingly—infectiously—into a cocky grin. "I knew the only way Mom would get to see the homer back in Puerto Rico was on a highlight film."

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIn San Juan, Baerga showed his father that he can handle a cue as deftly as he does a bat.PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLEBaerga's production at the plate has elicited comparisons to Hornsby.PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLEEver in motion, Baerga takes pride in dirtying his uniform and polishing his defense.PHOTOPHIL HUBER[See caption above.]PHOTORONALD C. MODRAStill a baseball-crazy kid himself, the 25-year-old Baerga is a hero in Puerto Rico.