It is seven days after the seventh game of the World Series, and word spreads like wildfire through the shanties and littered alleyways of Macarao, a dirt-poor neighborhood in the rugged hills southwest of downtown Caracas. "Nene Fran" is home. To the rest of the world he's K-Rod or Frankie or simply the Kid. But here in Venezuela, Francisco Rodriguez is known by the nickname he got as a hungry child, playing and break-dancing and hustling in the streets: Baby Fran.
The Anaheim Angels' wunderkind reliever is standing in a pockmarked parking lot outside Building 22, a five-story apartment house with cracked, yellowed walls. This is where Rodriguez was raised, crowded into a two-bedroom flat with the grandparents he called Mom and Dad and, depending on who needed a place to stay, anywhere from three to eight uncles and cousins. In this parking lot three-year-old Francisco swung an invisible bat and slid into phantom bases. This is where Nene Fran would break-dance to his beloved Michael Jackson music, rolling around in the dirt and coming home, in the words of his grandmother, Isabel Rodriguez, "negrito, looking like a disaster."
The nene is 20 years old now, an October hero. He has been front-page news in Venezuela for weeks, and upon his arrival at Maiquetia International Airport two days earlier he was greeted by a horde of photographers and a couple hundred fans. Luis Salazar, the manager of the La Guaira Tiburones, the Venezuelan team that holds the winter-league rights to Rodriguez, says, "He's a bigger name than the president right now."
In fact, as Rodriguez strolls through Macarao, Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, is congratulating him in one of his regular televised addresses. Facing a crumbling economy and steep political opposition, Chavez, who was briefly ousted in a military coup earlier this year, has seen his hold on his office become more tenuous by the day. Looking for some positive p.r., his operatives have been trying since Rodriguez arrived to set up a photo op with Chavez at the presidential palace in Caracas. The day after visiting Macarao, as tens of thousands of people take to the streets in protest against Chavez, Rodriguez will downplay the possibility of meeting with El Presidente, saying, "I think he's busy." (They did find time for a phone chat on Saturday.)
A crowd of children has been following Rodriguez ever since he stepped out of his green 1998 Ford Explorer--the one with the Angels decal on the windshield--and he is signing the bats, gloves, faded caps and scraps of paper that they hand to him. He marks every item with his swirling signature, his uniform number (57) and his new nickname, K-Rod, a tribute to his impressive strikeout ability. Friends and distant relatives stop by for handshakes and hugs. The entire neighborhood is transfixed by Rodriguez's homecoming, save for a cluster of men and boys in a corner of the lot who exchange fistfuls of Venezuelan Bolivars over a racing form. Rodriguez smiles at the group. "I used to do that," he says. "I used to take bets for horse racing. That's how I paid for my school uniform, my books, the bus, my first glove. It was the only way I had to buy things."
Four years ago Rodriguez's family left Building 22 for a four-bedroom apartment in La Urbina, a leafier middle-class community on the other side of the Venezuelan capital, a social climb made possible by the $900,000 signing bonus the Angels gave Francisco four months before his 17th birthday. Rodriguez uses that apartment as a base when he returns to Venezuela, but he still spends much of his time in Macarao. "This is why I don't feel nervous or scared on the mound," he says. "Because of where I grew up. We were poor. I never had new shoes or new T-shirts. But we were all together. Every time I go out to the mound, I think about where I come from and what I used to have."
That was Rodriguez's only thought as he walked off the mound after the sixth inning of Game 2 of the Division Series against the New York Yankees. It was his first postseason appearance, and manager Mike Scioscia had entrusted him with a 4-3 lead, but after getting two outs and allowing a single, the young righthander made a colossal mistake: He allowed a two-run home run to Alfonso Soriano on an 0-2 slider. Yankee Stadium rocked, and Rodriguez envisioned himself spending the rest of the series on the bench.
But Scioscia and pitching coach Bud Black knew Rodriguez's history. He had struggled as a starter for three seasons in the minors, accumulating an 11-12 record, and was switched to the bullpen only this year, at which point he blazed through Double A and Triple A, striking out 120 batters in 83 1/3 innings. There were questions about his maturity and his readiness for the majors when he was called up after the Triple A playoffs ended in mid-September, but Rodriguez helped allay those doubts with his September performance: 13 strikeouts in 5 2/3 scoreless innings in five games against the division-rival Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers. "We liked his composure, his mound presence, his stuff," says Black. "We started to say, 'Hey, this guy can have an impact.'"
On the final day of the regular season Scioscia called Rodriguez into his office. The kid figured he'd be told to have a nice winter; he was shocked when he was informed that he would be on Anaheim's playoff roster.
There have been big-splash rookies and unlikely postseason heroes before, but never has a player burst onto the scene quite the way Rodriguez did. Surprised to be left in that game against the Yankees, he retired Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams and Robin Ventura in order and got his first win when the Angels rallied for three runs in the eighth and an 8-6 victory. By the end of the World Series, Rodriguez had pitched in 11 of Anaheim's 16 postseason games. He won five of them, tying Randy Johnson's major league record, and had just one loss. Of the 70 batters he faced, 28 struck out. Only five of them scored.
In the story of nearly every sports hero there's an event that becomes legend. When Rodriguez was 12, he was pitching in a youth league game with his best friend, Dimas Reyna, behind the plate. Rodriguez already had a reputation for leaving his catchers' hands swollen; this time he uncorked a pitch with so much movement that it veered past Reyna's mitt and drilled him in the chest. The opposing coach protested that Rodriguez was throwing a breaking ball, a violation of league rules. Rodriguez insisted that the pitch was his fastball.
In Rodriguez's natural throwing motion his index and middle fingers roll slightly over the ball as he releases it, almost as if he's throwing a curve. That unorthodox technique imparts a tight spin on the ball that, when combined with the tremendous velocity he generates, produces a severe cutting movement that sends the ball boring in on lefthanded hitters and diving away from righties. "I don't really throw a slider," he says. "I just change my arm angle. If I release the ball at a three-quarter angle, it moves like a slider. If I throw over the top, it breaks straight down."
When he was seven years old, Rodriguez took that strange technique to the Graciano Ravelo Baseball School, a bare-bones complex in a gritty Caracas neighborhood an hour and a half away from Macarao by bus. Ravelo, who scouts for the Rangers, had started the school in 1975 as a way not only of developing talent for the majors but also of keeping kids off the streets and out of trouble. Rodriguez, who couldn't afford the school's $3 monthly fee (Ravelo waived it), was precisely the kind of kid the coach was aiming to help. When Francisco was just a few months old, he was turned over to Isabel by his birth mother, Isabel Mayorca. Rodriguez's father (also Francisco Rodriguez), Isabel's son, lived with them sporadically when Francisco was young but moved out when the boy was four. He has little contact with the family now. When asked about his biological father, Rodriguez stiffens. "I don't give a f about him," he says. "He can do what he wants."
Rodriguez is similarly bitter toward Mayorca, who lives in Macarao, about a half mile away from Building 22, but has continually ignored her son. On a few occasions when he was young, Francisco wandered down the narrow road and stopped by her house. He says he was always sent away after a brief visit. When he was in Macarao two weekends ago, Rodriguez turned Mayorca away when she approached and tried to hug him. "When you're seven or eight years old, you want to see your mom," he says. "I still ask myself, Why? Why wasn't she there, even for 10 minutes?"
By the time Francisco was 15 he had developed into a baseball prodigy. Scouts from several major league teams were drooling over the 5'8", 155-pound shortstop and pitcher whose fastball was routinely clocked at more than 90 mph. Rodriguez says that in 1998 Ravelo tried to sign him to a Rangers contract for $120,000. After consulting with his grandfather Juan Francisco, Rodriguez chose instead to wait and pitch for the Venezuelan national team in a 1998 youth tournament in Mexico. He pitched so well--striking out 14 against the host country--that by the time it was over he had a $400,000 offer from the Atlanta Braves and tryouts lined up with several other teams.
That September, Rodriguez's promising stuff persuaded the Angels to outbid the field (the Yankees, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies also made offers) with the largest signing bonus they'd ever given a foreign player. Rodriguez reported to Tempe, Ariz., for his first pro camp the following spring, but he returned home in mid-April to be with his grandfather, who was suffering from diabetes and stomach cancer. Francisco was due to fly back to the U.S. on April 25. As he was getting ready to leave that morning, his grandfather called to him from his bed. "Don't come back here if something happens to me," Juan Francisco told his grandson. "You stay there and show them you can play baseball."
Rodriguez's flight departed at 2:20 that afternoon. At 2:22 his grandfather passed away. "It was like he was waiting for me to leave before he died," says Rodriguez.
The loss of his grandfather devastated Rodriguez. He returned to Caracas again and considered quitting baseball. Isabel persuaded him to return, but his first season as a professional was played under a black cloud. "It was hard to concentrate," he says.
Rodriguez has children of his own now. He and his fiancee, Andrea Harvey, who lives in Phoenix, have two daughters, 20-month-old Adriana and six-month-old Destiny. Despite his anger at his absentee father, he also has a son (by a woman in Macarao) whom he supports financially but rarely sees--23-month-old Frandeiker, who was in his arms within minutes after his recent arrival in Caracas. Rodriguez plans to spend about a month in Venezuela before returning to Arizona to begin working out for next season and for a setup role in the Angels' bullpen. "I worry about next year a little bit," he says. "I don't want to have a good year and then go back down. I want to prove I know how to play this game."
Amazingly, a man with a record number of postseason wins will still be eligible for the Rookie of the Year Award in 2003. Nene Fran is still a baby.