Other players call him Papi. It is Spanish for Daddy. And even
though Carlos Baerga is only 27, it is the most fitting nickname
Moments after the last out of the 1995 World Series, Cleveland
Indians rookie reliever Julian Tavarez sat weeping alone on the
Cleveland bench as his distraught teammates filed out of the
dugout. Then Papi came back. The Indians' All-Star second
baseman sat down beside Tavarez, embraced him, cradled his
trembling head and began to speak softly: "Este es tu primer ano
en las Grandes Ligas. Podras estar en la Serie Mundial
nuevamente. Puede suceder muchas veces. [This is your first year
in the major leagues. You can be in the World Series again. It
can happen a lot]."
"He explained to me everything," Tavarez recalls. "It made me
stop crying. It made me feel better. He helped me a lot."
It was the most poignant picture from the Series. But TV cameras
cut away from the dugout while Tavarez was still sobbing--before
Baerga had worked his wonders on a devastated human spirit.
March 12, 1996
Among Latin players and coaches, especially in his native
Puerto Rico, Baerga has acquired myriad monikers, from
Cabezon (Big Head) for the majestic dimensions of his cranium to
Culon (Big Ass) because he was such a sturdy workhorse as a
teenage player. While playing winter ball at home, he is spoken
of simply as Carlo--one of the guys.
But throughout the major leagues Baerga is Papi. The nickname
originated through a bit of clubhouse serendipity. His teammates
in Cleveland used to overhear him addressing his own father as
Papi, so they gave him the name. It stuck and spread, perhaps
because it so aptly describes his paternal nature--the way he
cares for others. Now "almost everybody calls me that," Baerga
says. But in shrugging off the possibility that the name has any
meaningful connotations, he adds, "They call me that just
because they like to hear the name, I think."
Baerga's modesty prevents him from acknowledging the esteem in
which he is held. But uncomfortable as he is with any sort of
"leader of Latins" label, that's what he is. "I don't like to be
mentioned as a leader," he says. "I just like to help the Latin
players. Remember, we are maybe 150 Latin players in all of
Major League Baseball. We have to compete against a lot of
American players. They're never going to give us everything. We
have to work hard, do our jobs and care about ourselves."
Ourselves is the term Baerga frequently uses to refer to the
Latin contingent in the big leagues. "A lot of Latin players,
they don't care about ourselves outside baseball. They do stuff
that ... that's no good. We have to learn to do things right.
You have to really be a professional in this game. That's what I
want to teach the other guys."
On the field, Baerga teaches by example. "He likes to play
baseball hard," says Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who
as a kid in Puerto Rico watched Baerga play American Legion
ball. "He plays every day. He can play sore; he can play hurt.
And he's a man who hits .300 every year."
Indeed, when Baerga hit .314 in 1995, it marked the fourth
consecutive season in which he had hit .310 or better. By
instinct a bad-ball hitter who loathes the notion of walking, he
found patience and selectivity last year and was the
second-hardest American League batter to strike out, averaging
only one K in every 19.4 plate appearances. In 1992 he became
the first second baseman since Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby to
hit over .300 and have more than 200 hits, 20 home runs and 100
runs batted in. Then he repeated that remarkable feat in 1993.
Says Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou, "He can get a hit
anytime he wants. He has a base-hit swing. He has a bat that
knows how to get a hit."
Baerga sets an example off the field too. "We look at him like
he's a leader," says the Seattle Mariners' Edgar Martinez, the
1995 American League batting champion. "He's always the type of
guy to organize, and he's always helping."
For example, at the turn of this decade Baerga's beloved Puerto
Rican winter league lay dying of fan apathy, due primarily to a
dearth of major leaguers willing to go home to play. Baerga
refused to let that demise continue. Every winter he played
there. Every summer he preached to his fellow Puerto Ricans,
urging them to play in the winter league to show loyalty to
"I didn't play in Puerto Rico for five years," says Pittsburgh
Pirates outfielder and first baseman Orlando Merced, who played
in the winter league in 1995-96 solely, he says, because of
Baerga. "He got the message across to me that 'people in Puerto
Rico really want to see you play.' He talked to me, and I
realized the people there need to see me playing."
Besides simply wanting some time off, many Puerto Rican players
had misgivings about playing in a league in which some of the
fields are so rough that they pose an injury threat, thus
endangering their lucrative major league careers. "It's a scary
thing that if you play here you may get hurt, and then you don't
play in the States," said ex-Toronto Blue Jays second baseman
Roberto Alomar in January, just after signing a three-year, $18
million contract with the Baltimore Orioles. But when he said
that, Alomar was standing in the clubhouse of the San Juan
Senadores, having accepted Baerga's challenge to come and play
with him on a winter-league team. Baerga and Alomar together
made the Senadores deeper at second base than any other team on
When Baerga himself weighed the risks of injury against the love
of his native land, it was no contest. "I've been playing here
10 years, and, yes, you have to worry about the possibility of
injury," he said one night with both ankles heavily iced and
wrapped following a Senadores game. "But the thing is, I love to
play, I love this game, I love the people here. I love to play
every day. I don't even like to watch a game, you know, like at
DH. I like to be in the field, moving around, making plays."
Although the home team included current or former major leaguers
Martinez, Alomar, Candy Maldonado, Carmelo Martinez and Rey
Sanchez, there was nothing at San Juan's Estadio Municipal Hiram
Bithorn quite like the moments when Baerga stepped up to the
plate. The public address announcer boomed, "CAR-lo
Ba-ERRRRR-ga!" and there was a palpable tone of love in the
crowd's roar, accompanied by the piercing shrill of police-type
whistles and the incessant tattoo of Caribbean drums in the
stands: BOOM-chick-a-boom-boom! BOOM-chick-a-boom!
After games, children spilled freely onto the field to mix with
the players, and Baerga was in heaven. "If 10,000 people want
his autograph, he will stand there and sign for everyone," says
Cleveland bullpen coach Luis Isaac, who is also Puerto Rican.
Baerga's relationship with the Puerto Rican people, especially
the kids, goes much deeper than simply signing and smiling.
"Besides being the star player he has become, he is a superstar
away from the field, doing a lot of beautiful things for the
kids," says Maldonado. "He has been blessed with the ability not
only to play, but also to communicate and have the charisma to
attract people who are going to contribute to his plans and to
things he wants to do."
Last winter when Baerga held his second annual charity softball
game to benefit the children of Puerto Rico, a flood of stars,
both Latin- and U.S.-born, poured in, including Roberto Alomar,
Sandy Alomar Jr., Cecil Fielder, Juan Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton,
Jose Mesa, Raul Mondesi, Eddie Murray, Mike Piazza, Jose Rijo
and Frank Thomas.
Though he plays some 250 games per year, including those on the
Senadores' schedule; visits countless children's hospitals in
both Puerto Rico and the U.S.; and serves as a national
spokesman for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Baerga finds
time to conduct 33 baseball clinics a year--25 in Puerto Rico.
There he teaches more than the game's fundamentals; he teaches
baseball as a manifestation of life and family. There, Papi is
more than a nickname; it is an outlook.
"When I do the clinics, I always talk to the fathers first,"
Baerga says. "I want the fathers to be in the clinics because
they are the first idols. I'm another kind of idol, but the kids
look up to their fathers first."
For Baerga, Papi is a state of heart and mind instilled by his
own father. Carlos credits the silver-haired Jose Baerga for all
that he has become as a player and a person, and the two men
remain very close. "My father always told me when I was a little
kid, 'Don't ever change. Be the same person, and try to be
yourself every time you're in there. Don't try to emulate
anybody. You're a great person; you have a great family. Just
try to respect everybody.'"
In turn, Baerga has earned everybody's respect. Though the
Indians don't have a captain, Baerga fills the role de facto. In
1993, after pitchers Tim Crews and Steve Olin were killed in a
boating accident during spring training, Baerga was the one who
stepped out of a grieving Cleveland clubhouse to speak to the
media on behalf of the team.
"They [team publicists] came in and asked, 'Who wants to talk?'
And nobody wanted to talk," says Baerga. "I got up and said,
'Well, I'll do it. That's no problem.' Then I said, 'God, give
Baerga's comfort in speaking with the media shatters the
long-standing stereotype of the Latin player who is written
about but seldom quoted because of a language barrier. "After
the boating accident Carlo showed me he could handle
responsibility," says Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove. "He's
more than just a leader of the Latin players. All of the players
look up to Carlo."
Baerga has endeared himself to Cleveland with his loyalty to
that long-suffering, much-maligned city. Against the advice of
his agent, Scott Boras, he signed a contract extension in 1993
that will keep him in Cleveland through 1998; if he remains with
the Indians for his option year, 1999, he will have spent his
first decade in the majors with the Tribe. "Those people gave me
the chance to be in the big leagues. That's why I want to stay
there," says Baerga. "They've been good to me. The fans, the
front office. And I love the city. It has changed so much. You
see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the new ballpark, the new
basketball arena. Now you see so many players who want to play
in Cleveland. It's a different feeling."
Perhaps no Latin player since the late Pittsburgh Pirate great
Roberto Clemente, killed in a plane crash while on a
humanitarian mission to Nicaragua in 1972, has been as roundly
beloved--by his peers, by the fans and by his countrymen.
"As Roberto Clemente was," says Merced, "I think Carlos is
following in those footsteps."
Says Baerga, "My father always told me, 'Just try to do the
right things, and everything is going to come.'"
He has. And it has.