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Look Who's Here Scouts who ignored Mexican slugger Erubiel Durazo have huevos on their faces after his dazzling Arizona debut

Feb. 07, 2000
Feb. 07, 2000

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Feb. 7, 2000

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Look Who's Here Scouts who ignored Mexican slugger Erubiel Durazo have huevos on their faces after his dazzling Arizona debut

This is a dangerous story, because the moral, when you get right
down to it, is, The kid knows best. Maybe not every kid, or even
very many kids. But some kid, or at least one kid. Isn't that
just as bad? When you establish that the grown-ups (the scouts,
the managers, the front-office types) are not always right--and
that the kid might be--well, this is just the kind of precedent
that permits a skinny ragamuffin from the dusty diamonds of
Hermosillo, Mexico, to dream, to know, that someday he'll be in
the major leagues.

This is an article from the Feb. 7, 2000 issue Original Layout

Erubiel Durazo--that onetime stick figure from the Sonora
Desert--gives every underrated player the comfort of knowing
that mistakes in talent evaluation are made and that no
rejection ought to be considered final. All these overlooked
prospects now may think they could very well end up like Durazo,
exploding across the National League. His impact was so sudden
that the only thing in the literature to explain it verges on
the otherworldly. "He's like The Natural," suggests Derek
Bryant, the scout who confirmed Durazo's outlandish faith in his
own abilities. "Wonderboy and all."

How Durazo could jump from Double A to the Arizona Diamondbacks
within one season ("We ran out of levels in a hurry, didn't we?"
says Bryant), during which he disrespected the pitching equally
at all stops, is one of baseball's great mysteries. The idea
that somebody could materialize and end up hitting .329 and 11
home runs in 52 games in a major league team's division title
drive truly mocks the system. "I guess," says Diamondbacks
manager Buck Showalter, "there's now hope for all those kids who
never get drafted."

But the greater mystery is what allowed Durazo, who turned 26 on
Jan. 23, to persevere, to ignore the enormous slights of
baseball authority. He couldn't have guessed, any more than the
scouts, that he would become a strapping young man, 6'3" and 225
pounds, or that his almost comically short arms would produce a
power swing that would make his new teammates whistle in awe.
Did he think, when he was a 6'1", 175-pound, 15-year-old
southpaw pitcher on the sandlots, that he'd hit for power and
average at every class of baseball?

Even the determined Durazo had the occasional doubt. "It got to
the point where I almost forgot about making it in the big
leagues," he said last month back in Hermosillo, where he was
living in his parents' house and helping the Naranjeros (Orange
Growers) in their Mexican Pacific League playoff finals against
the Navojoa Mayos. "It was my dream for a long time, but I was
thinking about quitting. It became real hard to keep dreaming."

Mostly, though, he dreamed. Even in high school, Durazo
single-mindedly pursued a life in the majors. He and four other
Hermosillo boys traveled 200 miles north to live with families
in Tucson and attend school and play U.S. baseball. It was an
ambitious effort to beat the system, to escape the traditional
route through the Mexican League and enter baseball's draft.
(Only residents of the U.S. and Puerto Rico are eligible.)
Durazo played solidly at Amphitheater High--"learning English
and getting better baseball instruction," he says--but captured
nobody's imagination.

Bryant, a big league outfielder in 1979 (39 games for the
Oakland A's) who later made his living in Mexico as a scout and
a manager and is now the Diamondbacks' minor league outfield
coordinator, first saw Durazo when the kid was 15. Looking back,
it might be easy for Bryant to say that rival scouts weren't as
astute as he. "But you have to realize," Bryant says, "when
scouts saw him, he was a skinny lefthanded pitcher who [at bat]
was spraying the ball all around. It's not that so many people
were wrong about him. It's just that it was the wrong time."

The time wasn't any better in June 1995, when Durazo, despite
having hit .434 during two years of baseball at Tucson's Pima
Community College, still wasn't selected in the draft. Durazo is
a member of a high-achieving family. His father, Isidro, worked
as a bank manager and, over time, accumulated a 6,000-acre
cattle ranch in the high desert. Erubiel's older brother, Isidro
Jr., is in England working on a doctorate in engineering. So
Erubiel's lack of progress was beginning to chip away at his
dream. "I was ready to give up, to go back to college, do
something else," he says. "For six or eight months I just stayed
home and thought about it." But he stayed in the game, and in
1997 Bryant, managing the Monterrey Sultans of the Mexican
League (the approximate equivalent of Triple A), called Durazo,
who had played for him in Hermosillo earlier that year. "The
next morning," Durazo says, "I'm on a bus."

By this time Durazo had given up pitching for first base and had
grown into a hitter. With the Sultans in '97-98, he batted .282
and was the Mexican League Rookie of the Year. The next season,
also at Monterrey, he hit .350, cracked 19 homers and drove in
98 runs in 119 games. Bryant suggested that the Diamondbacks,
who had signed an agreement to work with the Sultans, take a
look at Durazo, and this time scouts saw an entirely different
player. Arizona purchased Durazo's Monterrey contract in
December 1998.

To start the 1999 season Durazo was deposited in El Paso with
the Double A Diablos of the Texas League. After 64 games he was
batting .403 with 14 homers, so he was jumped to the Triple A
Tucson Sidewinders of the Pacific Coast League. After only 30
games there Durazo was hitting .407 with 10 homers, so on July
26 he was brought up to the big club when regular first baseman
Travis Lee, in a long slump, was benched. Showalter had only a
vague memory of Durazo from spring training: During a
Diamondbacks exhibition in Hermosillo, the hometown boy had been
put in to bat as a courtesy and had singled. Other than that,
Showalter had no idea what he was getting.

"His arms seemed awfully short," says Showalter, who heard the
vets teasing the shy newcomer with the braces on his teeth. "You
know, 'Hey, Erubiel, got change for a dollar? Aw, never mind,
you probably can't reach your pockets.' That kind of thing."

Showalter also noticed that Durazo was, for a rookie, stable.
Although Durazo's cell phone is constantly ringing these
days--"Chicks," he says, flipping the phone off after another
call--he's hard to distract from baseball and family. "I mean,
he has a picture of his mom and dad taped to his locker," says
Showalter.

The other impression Durazo made was at the plate. "He hit some
balls that had the dugout buzzing," says Showalter. "He hit one
in Miami, against the Florida Marlins, and nobody said anything;
they just looked at each other and rolled their eyes, like,
O.K., I guess he can hit a little."

Showalter kept waiting for Durazo to get found out by major
league pitchers. But Durazo remained unsolved, and Showalter
became confident enough to move second-year man Lee to the
outfield. Showalter made Durazo a fixture at first, where his
play was smoother than the manager had been led to believe it
would be.

Tim Johnson, the former Toronto Blue Jays manager who just had
Durazo in Hermosillo, is sold--especially after seeing Durazo
bat .364 with 11 homers, 37 RBIs and a .623 slugging percentage
in 42 games in the Mexican Pacific League regular season. "He's
the real thing; he's going to hit," Johnson says. But even more
reassuring is Durazo's work ethic. After three years of
wall-to-wall baseball, Durazo was told not to report to
Hermosillo immediately, to take some time off. "But he had to
play," says Johnson. "He just loves the game."

If the Diamondbacks are right, after everybody else was so wrong
for so long, Durazo will be in the majors a lot longer than he
was in that Sonora purgatory. But wherever he is, he'll be
living testament to the idea that somewhere, maybe on a dusty
diamond in Hermosillo, there's a kid who knows more than the
experts do.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY VICTOR BALDIZON SHORT SUBJECTS Durazo's arms aren't long, but his compact swing produced a .329 average and 11 homers in 52 games last year.