For Wandy Rodriguez, everything. Last season, a decade after faking his identity to get a big league shot, the Dominican native reminded fans of one of the joys of Opening Week: You never know whose star will rise next
The coach knew the boy had a chance. His delivery was smooth and easy. His breaking ball had good late movement to it. And though he was small and skinny, he, like so many other Dominican youngsters, threw hard enough, in the mid-80s. The coach had turned the boy into a pitcher only a few weeks earlier, but the boy was a natural.
It was 1998 and a scout from the Astros was holding tryouts in Santo Domingo, 40 miles away from the coach's baseball academy in Bonao. There the boy could show he deserved a ticket to the majors. But there was a troubling detail. The boy was 19. Scouts don't give 19-year-olds from the Dominican Republic a second look, certainly not ones still as raw at that age as the boy was. "So, you see, we have a problem," the boy heard the coach tell him. "You need to find a new name. You need a new identity."
The boy showed up at the tryout and threw a dozen pitches for the scout, a tall man named Ricardo Aponte. He wasn't the best one there—"not even close," remembers Aponte. "But his arm was loose and free. It wasn't worn down like so many others. And he was lefthanded. That's what made him rare."
April 11, 2010
Aponte introduced himself and asked the boy his name and his age. "My name is Eny Cabreja," the boy said. "I'm 17."
The boy lived with those lies for four years. In 2002, three years after he signed with Houston, the pitcher that the Astros thought was 21-year-old Eny Cabreja said that wasn't so. He was Wandy Eriberto Rodriguez from the small farming town of Santiago Rodríguez. He told them that he wasn't 21. He was two years older. "I was scared I was going to be sent home," says Rodriguez. "When they said I could stay, I felt free. I didn't have to cheat anymore."
The beauty of baseball's opening week isn't just the Pollyannaish sense of possibility, the feeling that this could be the Royals' (or the Pirates', or the Orioles' or—gasp—the Cubs') year. It's the thrill of the unknown, the certainty that six months from now, we'll be marveling at the exploits of someone we've barely heard of today. A year ago Wandy Rodriguez was that player: He'd been kicking around in the Astros' rotation for four seasons, the owner of a pedestrian 37--40 record and 4.79 ERA in 102 starts and nine relief appearances. But by October, Rodriguez, at age 30, had out of nowhere become one of the game's elite pitchers.
Rodriguez finished in the top 10 in the National League in ERA (3.02), strikeouts (193) and quality starts (23), and his curveball was suddenly hailed as one of the best pitches in baseball. Now in his sixth big league season and, perhaps, on the verge of fame beyond the boundaries of Houston, he's a reminder of one of baseball's truisms: When a season begins, you never know where the next hero will come from. And no, he has no regrets, no guilt over how he escaped Bonao's scraggly fields. Deep down, Wandy knows. Without the lie, he wouldn't be here.
The boy didn't want to be a pitcher. He grew up dreaming of playing outfield for his favorite team, the Braves. He had a strong arm and swung a good bat, and in 1994, at 15, he quit school and left home for Luis Coronado's baseball academy in Bonao. But after the boy had been there for four years, Coronado called Wandy's uncle, Faustino Rodriguez, to tell him to take the boy back to Santiago Rodríguez. "His uncle said the boy was a big leaguer," says Coronado. "I said, 'How can he be a big leaguer if he can't run or hit for power?'" Faustino begged Coronado to keep him, and the coach relented. "He's smart. He has a good arm," Coronado recalls telling Faustino. "I could make him a pitcher."
Says Rodriguez, "I was mad. I just spent four years working on hitting, and now you want me to pitch?' It didn't make sense to start all over. But I didn't have a choice."
Within months Rodriguez was throwing 87 mph. But there was the problem of his age; big league scouts in the Dominican are on the prowl for prospects in their early- or mid-teens, not unpolished 19-year-olds. Coronado suggested that the boy would have a better chance of being signed if he were younger, and Wandy and his uncle went about making it appear as if that were the case. They went home to Santiago Rodríguez, where they approached a friend of Wandy's named Eny Cabreja. Wandy and Eny had played ball together growing up. "He didn't play as much as me, but he played," says Rodriguez. "I went to the field one day and I told him what I needed. He just said, 'O.K., no problem.' A few days later he gave me some papers." Rodriguez returned to Bonao with a new identity.
In January 1999 the Astros handed the boy now known as Eny Cabreja a $5,000 signing bonus. He gave $500 to Coronado, $500 to his uncle, took $500 for himself to buy new clothes, and gave the rest to his family to buy cattle. "Eny" moved slowly through Houston's system: He spent two years with the Astros' Dominican Summer League team, then moved to the rookie-level Appalachian League in 2001. He showed promise, going 4--3 with a 1.58 ERA and more than three times as many strikeouts as walks that first year in the States, but was still just a middling prospect.
Then, in the winter before the 2002 season, Rodriguez had to face the truth. Before the start of spring training the real Eny Cabreja told Rodriguez that he had obtained a cédula, an official identification card of the Dominican Republic. Rodriguez would therefore be unable to pass himself off as Cabreja when he applied for a U.S. work visa before spring training. After four years of lying, the ruse was up.
Rodriguez was so ashamed, so frightened of the consequences, that he sent his uncle and aunt to tell Aponte who he really was. "Wandy was hiding in a car in the parking lot," says Aponte. "I walked over there and said, 'It's going to be O.K. Just work hard and win back the confidence of the organization. We're not going to send you home.' He was a different person after that. His confidence grew. He was happy. Finally Wandy Rodriguez could exist."
As a prospect Wandy Rodriguez was a no-name. Going into the 2005 season he was a 26-year-old who had never pitched above Double A, so far under the radar that he wasn't among the 900 prospects listed in Baseball America's annual prospectus of minor leaguers. Minor league expert John Sickels didn't include Rodriguez in his guide of more than 900 prospects that year, either—and Sickels had even seen him pitch in person a year earlier. "His fastball was mediocre," says Sickels, who runs the website minorleagueball.com. "His command just wasn't there. His strikeout rate was going down. His performance at Double A wasn't great. He was giving up more than a hit per inning."
But there was something there: Rodriguez could throw a nasty curveball. "The first time I saw him [in 2001], he wasn't throwing it for strikes," says former Astros general manager Tim Purpura. "But even then you saw he got a tremendous downward plane on it. You thought, with that pitch, this kid's got a chance."
The Astros gave him a shot in May 2005, calling him to the majors after just eight starts at Triple A Round Rock. Rodriguez won 10 games as a rookie, and by 2007 that curve had helped him earn a full-time spot in Houston's rotation. For two years his performance was nondescript, but last year Rodriguez was able to dominate because "he was hitting with his strike-one fastball, down and away," says Dewey Robinson, the Astros' pitching coach in 2008 and '09. "Hitters have so much trouble squaring up on the curve, he could do anything after [that first strike]—throw the curve for a strike, bounce one in."
According to the website Fangraphs, Rodriguez's wasn't simply the most effective curveball in baseball last year—it was one of the top 10 pitches, in the same class as Justin Verlander's four-seam fastball, Chris Carpenter's two-seamer and Tim Lincecum's changeup. Last year Rodriguez threw curves a major-league-high 36.8% of the time and generated outs on 23.9% of them. Only six other pitchers had a pitch that delivered a higher percentage of outs. Rodriguez even saw his velocity increase, sometimes touching the mid 90s. "Wandy gets a lot of his power from his legs," says Robinson. "A big thing for him is that over the last few years, he's really built up his strength in his lower half."
"He throws harder at 31 than he did at 21," says Sickels. "He's a model example of how someone with a very unimpressive minor league track record can still develop into a very interesting pitcher. His development curve has been unlikely, to say the least."
Rodriguez is also one of the few pitchers to handle Albert Pujols, who has just five hits (and no RBIs) in 31 at bats against him. "People are finally noticing what I've been saying," says Astros righthander Roy Oswalt. "Wandy has the best curveball in baseball."
The Astros are counting on another big season from Rodriguez, especially with Oswalt, Houston's 32-year-old longtime ace, fighting a nagging hamstring injury in spring training and coming off the worst season of his career. Rodriguez is only 17 months younger than Oswalt, and yet their careers seem headed in different directions. "What we saw from Wandy last year wasn't a blip but the beginning of something," says G.M. Ed Wade. "He's going to be a frontline pitcher here for years to come."
Life has settled down for Rodriguez, who will make $5 million this year after losing his arbitration request for $7 million. Last week his wife, Luz, gave birth to their second child, Amanda. The boy from Santiago Rodríguez, though, remains close to his past. This off-season Rodriguez went to Bonao, to visit and work with the coach who gave him a chance. And he still talks to Cabreja, who is now a student in the Dominican. "I wish things could have been different, that I could just be myself for those years and still be in the major leagues," says Rodriguez. "I didn't want to lie. But I think I had to." He adds, "And everything has worked out O.K."
Rodriguez is proof that an average minor leaguer can still develop into a very interesting pitcher.