Just call it the Caracas connection. That’s what the ninth inning at Bethpage Ballpark seems like these days when the Ducks are ahead.
It starts, of course, with Francisco Rodriguez, the Ducks' big-name closer with 437 major-league saves to his credit. And, given Rodriguez’s penchant for the strikeout — they don’t call him K-Rod for nothing — it usually ends in the gloves of either Ramon Cabrera or Dioner Navarro, former major leaguers who are splitting time behind the plate.
All three were born and raised in Caracas, the capital city of Venezuela.
Rodriguez and Cabrera still have homes down there, the pull of the home town or, in this case, home city, too big to turn away from.
“I’m here working. Period,” Rodriguez said of his time in America. “When I come to the U.S, I come here to work and play baseball. But my life in the offseason in in Venezuela…That’s my roots. That’s where I grew up. That’s where all my family and brothers and sisters are. I love everything about Caracas.”
Rodriguez has been very good at that work this season. Entering the weekend, he was 2-0 with a 2.54 ERA, 20 saves, and 28 strikeouts in 29 appearances.
While the three didn’t grow up together — although Rodriguez said he knew of Navarro because they played at the same fields in the youth ranks, albeit at different levels — they each share an appreciation for where they came of age.
“It was amazing, man,” Navarro said, reflecting on growing up in the city. “It was a different atmosphere. I love my country, but I saw the opportunity I was going to have here and I took advantage of it.”
Cabrera, who played parts of two seasons with the Reds, said of growing up in Caracas: “I liked it because it was the capital of Venezuela and that made us pretty proud…It’s good to be here, represent the country, represent the city, and play ball the right way.”
Unlike his two countrymen, Navarro hasn’t been back to Venezuela since 2008. He still has cousins there, but has seen no pressing need to return.
“I made my life here,” said Navarro, who lives in Florida. “I got my family here and my kids all were born here. The big-league season is such a long season that, once the season is over, I just want to go home and enjoy my family and spend time with the kids.”
Navarro signed with the Ducks on July 31. After a 13-year major league career, he took 2017 off to take care of his wife, Sherley, who suffered a stroke in 2016. But, with Sherley in a more stable state, Navarro decided to come back to the game he loves. That will include a return trip to Venezuela to play winter ball after the Atlantic League season ends.
“I’m so excited,” Navarro said of going back to his homeland. “Life is crazy. Everything is well and then, all of a sudden, everything is upside down. It was a little crazy trying to get a job down there...I thought because I hadn’t played there for a long time they were going to give me [trouble]. But no. As soon as I called, they were thrilled about the opportunity. Obviously, I was thrilled about the opportunity to go play down there.”
It’s been a bit of a slow start for Navarro, who has abandoned his switch-hitter status for the moment and is only batting from the right side. In 22 at-bats over his first five games, he hit .182 with four hits and an RBI.
Despite sharing very common ground, Rodriguez said that the three don’t talk about their hometown often, but instead enjoy learning about other cultures from their teammates in the Ducks diverse clubhouse.
“It’s funny, we don’t talk much about Caracas,” Rodriguez said. “We talk about everything in conversation, but we’re not talking specifically about ‘oh, remember we did this in Caracas.’ We get a little of everything [here]. We have Dominicans, American guys, guys from everywhere. We try and talk and learn about each culture on a daily basis. To say that we talk about our country everyday would be lying. We don’t.”
And, of course, they talk about winning. The Ducks have done quite a bit of that lately — with wins in 10 of their last 12 games, entering the weekend — landing them in first place.
“Everything’s clicking — hitting, pitching, and defense,” Rodriguez said. “Everything has been a lot better than it was in the first half. Starters are going deep in the game and now we’re holding the lead when we’re supposed to. The offense has given us the opportunity be in the game all the time. We have a little of everything going on right now and hopefully we continue this all the way to the end.”