Los Angeles Times
March 31, 2001

Safe at Home

              Angels: More than the Angels' money, the family bond and humble Dominican roots are what make Ramon Ortiz a rich young

              By MIKE DiGIOVANNA, Times Staff Writer

                   COTUI, Dominican Republic--The bull is a 500-pound mass of hair, hoofs and horns that remains placid unless someone gets
              too close, then it begins to twitch and snort.
                   It is known simply as "Toro," and for as long as Angel pitcher Ramon Ortiz can remember, it has
              grazed beyond the backstop of this scraggly field known as Los Corozos, where Ortiz learned the
              game that would provide an economic springboard for him and his super-sized family.
                   Wearing a uniform his mother stitched from old dresses, wielding a bat his father whittled from a
              branch, using a glove of cardboard, and throwing a baseball made from a golf ball and tape, Ortiz
              played here as a youngster while Toro shortened the high grass.
                   And as Ortiz warmed up with his brother one Sunday in January, he and a dozen or so relatives
              and friends were unfazed by Toro, as if it were routine to be playing catch while a behemoth
              capable of trampling an entire baseball team, designated hitter and all, stood in the on-deck circle.
                   To Ortiz, Toro's presence was perfectly normal, just as it was normal for him and his 12 siblings
              to grow up in a dilapidated shack with a corrugated tin roof, no running water, electricity or
              bathroom, sharing a bed with one or two brothers and a bedroom with his parents.
                   Just as it was normal to spend full days as an 11-year-old working in the nearby rice fields, his
              body caked in mud and sweat, earning five pesos a day, the equivalent of about $1.50.
                   Ortiz's earnings went to his parents to help them feed and clothe the children.
                   To Ortiz, American creature comforts--sumptuous hotels with room service and health clubs,
              money to buy sports utility vehicles, designer suits and all the food you can eat, manicured Little
              League fields with scoreboards and candy-packed concession stands--seem odd, out of place.
                   As the 24-year-old moves closer to reaching his potential as a top-of-the-rotation starter with accompanying huge salary, Ortiz
              seems amazed by it all.
                   "When I was a kid, I never even thought about [making it in] the big leagues because it was so far beyond my comprehension,"
              Ortiz told Times reporters looking into the phenomenon of baseball in the Dominican Republic. "I'm living a dream every day."

                   A Land Far, Far Away
                   From Santo Domingo, the capital of this baseball-crazed Caribbean island of 8 million people, it's a two-hour drive north to
              Cotui--pronounced coe-tuh-WEE--through the lush foothills of the Cordillera Central mountain range and into the Vega Real, an
              expanse of farmland known for its tropical fruits and tobacco.
                   The route, much of it over single-lane roads teeming with motor scooters, emaciated horses and donkeys, and the occasional
              oxcart, provides a firsthand look at the Third World conditions that prevail in much of the Dominican.
                   Small towns along the way, such as Piedro Blanca and Maimo, are dotted with straw-covered huts and pastel-colored shanties.
              Most have dirt floors. There are no doors or windows--just openings in the wood or concrete.
                   Stray dogs slink through potholed streets, scavenging for scraps. Children in bare feet and tattered T-shirts play in muddy lots. A
              woman walks a naked toddler on the side of the road.
                   Cotui seems a little better off, a little less worn.
                   It is a bustling city of about 60,000, its streets fanning out from a central town square alive with the sounds of merengue and the
              sights of farmers and craftsmen peddling their wares.
                   Three miles outside town, a crossing over the Presa Hatillo Dam provides a panoramic view of mountain-ringed Lake Atello.
              Then it's down a bumpy gravel road leading to a rural valley and Ortiz's house.
                   A hundred yards down another dirt road and past a few coarsely built dwellings lies an oasis of sorts--a new, Spanish-style
              stucco home with a gated entrance that seems as out of place as a Jaguar in a lot full of Pintos.
                   This is the five-bedroom, three-bath house that Ortiz, thanks to an advance from the Angels on his $250,000 contract for 2001,
              is building for himself, his parents and siblings.
                   Next door is the family compound, where Ortiz grew up and where much of the family still lives. It looks like a large campsite,
              but with a shack at the center instead of a tent. There is no grass--just dirt, mud and lots of fruit trees, all surrounded by a
              barbed-wire fence.
                   A spigot in front of the house is a 1998 addition. The family used to haul water from a nearby river. Before electrification10 years
              ago, candles provided light.
                   The weathered concrete and wood home has four rooms that strained to shelter a family of 15. There are two bedrooms, and a
              small living room, bare except for a television, stereo and a few chairs. In the kitchen are two small cabinets, an old stove, and a
              table. Ducks waddle through at their leisure.
                   Out back is the outhouse, with two holes cut through a thick slab of concrete and a plastic shower curtain for privacy.
                   A mud-filled pen holds six pigs, which the Ortizes breed for sale or the dinner table.
                   Out front is a long bench made of bamboo strips nailed into a tree, the centerpiece for family gatherings, of which there are many.
              Chickens wander the premises as Ortiz, wearing a pea-green sweat suit and three gold chains, talks about his upbringing.
                   "This was a great place to grow up," he said. "It's very tranquil, very peaceful, and people here are very nice. It would be a lot
              different if I grew up in [an urban setting like] Santo Domingo. People there don't even know places like this exist."
                   As Ortiz speaks, he is flanked by his father, Alfonso Urena, a soft-spoken 61-year-old whose Angel cap sits a little crookedly on
              his head, and his mother, Cleotilde, whose face seems worn by the rigors of raising 13 kids, but whose spirit remains strong.
                   Cleotilde, 58, her black hair pulled back tightly in a bun, looks the part of the stern family matriarch, but she has a tender
              disposition. She greets strangers with hugs and kisses. As she speaks proudly of Ramon, she places her hand gently on his forearm.
                   "He never gave me any trouble," Cleotilde says in Spanish. "Well, sometimes a teeny bit of trouble, but not much."
                   Feeding such a large family was a challenge, but not a chore. Dinner time, Cleotilde said, "was like a big party in the house every
              night." She and her kids fished Lake Atello for trout, and rice and beans were a staple.
                   "We pooled money from the family for food, and we caught a lot of fish," said Cleotilde, a seamstress. "It didn't matter how many
              mouths there were to feed. You found a way."
                   Many of the children, now ages 21-41, worked in the rice fields or joined Alfonso, who worked at the dam. Ortiz quit school
              after junior high so he could work and help with household chores. Playing baseball consumed his small amount of free time.
                   "But I never thought of myself as being poor," he said. "There were a lot of kids who were worse off than we were. Now, I'm in
              a position where I can do things I never thought I could do before. I thank God for that opportunity."
                   And baseball.

                   From Toro to Pedro
                   Much of Ortiz's childhood was spent at Los Corozos, the home field of Team Ortiz and Toro the bull.
                   A quarter-mile from the house, it's a patch of dirt and weeds that is relatively smooth for a sandlot and has something of a
              backstop--a mangled chain-link fence atop a short concrete semicircle.
                   The bases are discarded dish towels. The mound is a lump of dirt. Cows and horses graze in the outfield. A nearby river, which
              flows out of Lake Atello, provides relief from the stifling heat and humidity.
                   "All the brothers and some other friends would form a team to play teams from other towns," Alfonzo Urena recalled. "Ramon
              threw very good. From the beginning, he wanted to be a major league player."
                   Cleotilde told him to quit his job in the rice fields when he was 16 and concentrate on baseball.
                   "I wanted him to dedicate all of his time to baseball, because that's the future he had and we had," she said.
                   By then, Ortiz had grown to his current height, 6 feet, but was a rail-thin 150 pounds.
                   He was deceptively strong, though, thanks to daily swims in the lake. To build endurance, he began running miles and miles
              through the woods and hills and across the dam and back.
                   "People would say, 'Why are you running? Do you just want to get skinnier?' " Ortiz recalled with a chuckle.
                   A tip about a lanky kid with a whip-like arm and a smooth release drew the attention of Jose Gomez, the first professional
              baseball scout to visit Los Corozos.
                   Ortiz, then 18, threw seven fastballs and three curves during a tryout, hitting 85 mph on a speed gun. Gomez, then an Angel
              scout, right then and there offered $3,500--more than twice the Dominican per capita annual income of $1,600--and Ortiz signed on
              the spot.
                   He was brought to the Angels' baseball academy in San Pedro de Macoris in the summer of 1995. His potential was apparent
              but he needed to fine-tune his mechanics.
                   After going 8-6 with a 2.23 earned-run average and 100 strikeouts in 97 innings in the Dominican summer league, Ortiz was off
              to the U.S.
                   His 1996 rookie-league season was spent in Mesa, Ariz., and Boise, Idaho. Ortiz went 11-10 with a minor league-leading 225
              strikeouts in 181 innings for Class A Cedar Rapids in 1997, throwing a no-hitter against Quad City.
                   Baseball America tabbed him the Angels' No. 1 prospect.
                   As Ortiz's fastball topped 90 mph and his slider and changeup improved, he drew comparisons to Red Sox star Pedro Martinez
              because of his Dominican roots, his slight stature and overpowering stuff.
                   A stress fracture in his right elbow limited Ortiz to seven starts in 1998, but he rebounded in '99, advancing from double-A Erie
              to triple-A Edmonton to the big leagues.
                   His major league debut, an eight-inning, one-run, four-hit victory over the Chicago White Sox on Aug. 19, 1999, fueled
              expectations that Ortiz couldn't match in eight more starts that season. He struggled with his command in 2000 and was sent down
              to Edmonton twice after stints in the big leagues.
                   But then came the night he and his family will remember for the rest of their lives. Ortiz outdueled his idol, Martinez, in a two-hit,
              2-1 victory over the Red Sox.
                   The Aug. 8 game ended in Anaheim a little after 9 p.m., but the party was just beginning in Cotui, where it was after 1 a.m.
              Residents who didn't own TVs watched the game at a sports bar in Cotui and drove to Ortiz's house afterward.
                   "A lot of people came here on their motorbikes; it was like a parade," Cleotilde said. "Everyone was jumping up and down,
              banging cans together. The party went on all night."
                   Then came some sobering developments: Ortiz was shelled by the Yankees and White Sox in two of his next five starts, slipping
              into the bad habits--lack of command, overthrowing--that had marred his earlier stints in Anaheim.
                   But he ended the season with five solid starts, going 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA and fueling hopes he will emerge as the staff ace, the
              consistent winner the pitching-thin Angels so desperately need this season.
                   "Last year, I was up and down so much it hurt my confidence, but I found my control in September, and that helped," Ortiz said.
              "I want to be a No. 1 pitcher. I go into every season thinking that way."

                   Home-Field Advantage
                   No matter how much money he makes, Ortiz plans to return to Cotui after his playing career, just as he does every winter. Not
              because he has become a hero in a town that celebrated "Ramon Ortiz Day" Feb. 12, but because of the pull of the family bond, and
              the allure of a simpler lifestyle.
                   "It's different here than in the U.S.," Ortiz said. "Families are very close, and they stay together until the kids get married. In the
              U.S., when kids turn 18 or 19, they have their separate lives. In my family and most Dominican families, everyone works together to
              support each other because the economy here is not as solid."
                   Unlike some Dominican players who carry the burden of supporting large families, Ortiz doesn't feel pressured to strike it rich.
                   "I rely on them for their support more than they rely on me for my support," he said. "What they need, I give. There's no
              pressure. I believe in God, and he helps me do what I'm doing."
                   Faith is the bedrock of the Ortiz family. They attend mass every Sunday. God's name is frequently invoked, and praised
              throughout the day. Across the windshield of Ortiz's blue SUV is the phrase Dios me Protejie: God protects me.
                   In the old house, Cleotilde built a shrine, a candle surrounded by baseball items and religious objects. She lights the candle on
              days Ramon pitches. And he calls home for a blessing before taking the mound.
                   Tuesday, Ortiz and the Angels will start another baseball season. It has been an encouraging spring for Ramon. He has a 2-1
              record with a 3.51 earned-run average in six games, with 26 strikeouts and three walks in 25 2/3 innings. But his heart will be where
              his home is, where his parents and brothers and sisters are, where Toro the bull roams.
                   "When I'm done playing baseball, I will come back to this country, to this town, to be close to my family," Ortiz said. "I'm happy,
              because I've made my parents and family very proud."
                   Times staff writer Paul Gutierrez contributed to this story.

              Copyright 2001