By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla.--Luis Mayoral answers the door wearing only a white T-shirt and red Jockey briefs. He has a lit menthol cigarette dangling from his smiling lips, and for the rest of the hour we spend together, this is how the Texas Rangers' Latin American liaison remains--half-dressed, smoking, smiling as he talks about how he's been around baseball for as long as he remembers.
"I had my dream of playing, and I was a good hitter in the Puerto Rican youth leagues, but I couldn't run, and I couldn't throw," Mayoral says, recalling the moment when a 15-year-old kid came to grips with a very adult reality. He leans back in his chair, and a small grin appears beneath his thick, salt-and-pepper mustache. He rubs his bald head and lights another cigarette.
"That wasn't a deterrent, though. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I would go to the library--I would read anything I could about baseball. My eyes would open wide, my heart would beat faster, and it got to the point when I turned 20, I knew baseball was it for me."
He fills his small Days Inn room with smoke and stories, recounting his days as one of Roberto Clemente's best friends, as a baseball writer and broadcaster, and, now, as the man who's closest to the two superstars who get their paychecks from the Texas Rangers, Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez. Mayoral is one of their best friends but also much, much more--he's their confidant, their countryman, their mentor, the older brother and surrogate father who even now still teaches talented young boys how to be million-dollar men. Mayoral stands between the Rangers' two best players and the rest of the world.
But just a few weeks ago, in early March, he found himself caught between Rodriguez and Gonzalez, whose lifelong friendship had begun to crumble beneath the weight of a few words uttered by Rodriguez's wife, Maribel, about six months ago that traveled quickly around Puerto Rico. What she said remains a mystery even now--it apparently had to do with Gonzalez's longtime girlfriend and merengue superstar Olga Tanon--though it was enough to keep Gonzalez and Rodriguez from speaking to each other during much of spring training.
For Mayoral, it was "the most painful experience of my baseball career," he says a few days after Rangers president Tom Schieffer met with the two players in late March and supposedly settled their differences. Mayoral feels partly responsible for the whole mess: When columnist Jim Reeves first broke the story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on March 16, Mayoral was on his way from Puerto Rico to Port Charlotte, and he wasn't around to pour water on the brush fire quickly engulfing Charlotte County Stadium.
When he returned to Florida, he met with each player and heard both sides of the story. He then arranged the meeting with Schieffer, who wasn't about to let a little squabble between superstars interfere with the team's record-setting spring-training performance. In the end, Gonzalez and Rodriguez, who grew up together in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, and played on the same Little League team, are said to have made up--all along, both maintained they were "like brothers." Yet Mayoral says the argument left a small, stinging scar that has yet to completely heal.
"They're friends, and they've always been," Mayoral says. "But that was disturbing emotionally, when you have to get in between two kids who are like your sons. Tom likes the Rangers to be like a family. Happy families win ball games. Those are the two kids I want to see follow Roberto Clemente into the Hall of Fame. They're the only two guys from Puerto Rico on the highway to the Hall of Fame, and I would hate any problem to distract them. They may say it doesn't bother them, but you can see it on the field. When you've seen them grow up and you know their families, it's a tough situation. It was a month of pulling a string here and a string there--and a lot of praying. It's all settled now. Thank God."
Mayoral has what might be the greatest job in baseball and the most frustrating--protecting would-be Hall of Famers without pampering them. Such is the delicate balance of a job he wasn't necessarily hired to do. On March 9, 1992, Mayoral was hired by Schieffer and vice president of public relations John Blake to act as the assistant director of P.R. His job was to promote the team within the Latin community. He would also become the Spanish voice of the Rangers, calling play-by-play; even now, the Rangers are the only team in the American League to broadcast all its games, home and away, in Spanish. (The games air on KMRT, 1480-AM and 106.7-FM.)
But from the start, the 52-year-old Mayoral was more than just a publicist and an announcer. When he came to Texas, 12 players on the 25-man roster were Latinos, and the Rangers needed someone who could act as an intermediary between them and team management; ownership felt that the lack of such an intermediary was causing friction between superstar Ruben Sierra and a handful of white players, namely Nolan Ryan. Sierra resented the attention Ryan received; he was furious over the enormous poster of Ryan that hung in front of Arlington Stadium. Someone like Mayoral could soothe his raw nerves, explain to him in his own language what the situation was.