Senor baseball

Luis Mayoral's job with the Rangers isn't all brown and white

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.

At first, his efforts were to no avail: Sierra was one of several players traded to the Oakland A's for Jose Canseco, and the heir apparent to Roberto Clemente's throne would never be so great again. Worse, there was some initial resentment toward Mayoral from a handful of Anglo players.

"The problem here then was it was a small organization in the front office," Mayoral says. "And Texans believe Texas is the center of the universe. This is not a criticism, but it's what I got. All of a sudden, they see a member of--and I hate to use the word--a minority come in here to the front office, and I think it fucked up their minds big-time. But Blake and Schieffer understood."

Soon enough, Mayoral became responsible for showing young Latin ballplayers how to survive in the States. He taught Gonzalez how to open a checking account and showed Rodriguez how to pay bills; he meets with 23-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis on a regular basis and helps him adjust to life in the majors.

"When you get to the big show," Gonzalez says, "you need to mature a lot. You need a guy behind you, and Luis is that guy. He is a father, a best friend, a brother."

Mayoral's the link between the white and brown players. He's also a disciplinarian and diplomat, charged with raising rich adults as though they were children: In 1993, at the insistence of Juan Gonzalez's mother, Mayoral and the slugger shared an apartment in Arlington so Mayoral could keep an eye on her son, who had become distracted by the trappings of quick fame. That year, Gonzalez hit 46 homers--enough to lead the American League.

"Sometimes he would take me to the side and tell me to relax," Gonzalez says. "When you're young, you need peace of mind, patience. I have that now. I see everything."

Some Rangers still do not understand Mayoral's job. Once, in the middle of a team meeting, Mayoral says, Will Clark referred to him as a "babysitter," which stung him like a fastball in the chest. Still, they remain tenuous friends: Sitting on Mayoral's dresser are pieces of soft rubber he will give Clark to insert into his shoes that will ease the pressure on his heel, which the first baseman injured last season.

But that's Mayoral--a man who doesn't hold a grudge for long, who will often say that it was God who gave him his first job in baseball. You can't imagine Mayoral remaining angry at anyone for long: He's a walking grin, always on to tomorrow's project before today's is done, quick to call a stranger by his or her first name. He refers to most everyone as "Papi," which is his nickname for the person who hits home runs. Only someone as temperamental as Clark could bristle Mayoral, who ranks among his friends such major-leaguers as Baltimore Orioles stars Cal Ripken Jr. and Roberto Alomar and Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Raul Mondesi and every commissioner since Bowie Kuhn.

They're all pals from way back, when Mayoral would broadcast Major League Baseball games to Puerto Rico during the 1970s and '80s, including World Series and All-Star games, and as a journalist covering American baseball. In 1970, when Latin players made up a small percentage of the MLB's roster, he also founded the annual Latin American Baseball Players' Day for the major leagues. Now, more than 20 percent of the league's players were born in Spanish-speaking countries--and Mayoral thinks he's responsible to take care of every last one of them.

"Baseball is the stage that I perform on," he says now. "But in life, I perform in a humble, silent way, almost hidden."

Mayoral was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, but grew up, between the ages of 9 and 18, in the Panama Canal zone and in Seattle; he traveled often because his father was an officer in the U.S. Army. When his father went off to fight in Korea in the early '50s, Mayoral spent time with his uncle, who had done play-by-play on Puerto Rican radio.

In 1965, he met Roberto Clemente--the greatest player ever to come from Puerto Rico, the Pittsburgh Pirates star whose on-the-field grace was matched only by his desire to do better off the diamond. Clemente, who died December 31, 1972, in a plane crash while delivering food and clothing to earthquake victims in Nicaragua, became one of Mayoral's closest friends and influences during Clemente's last years. They rarely spoke baseball. Instead, Clemente would tell Mayoral of the difficulty he had when he first came to the States in 1955--a black Puerto Rican who found that, because he didn't speak the language, he was somehow less a man.

"In Puerto Rico, Roberto was a smart, educated young man," Mayoral says. "Not here. In Pittsburgh, he was a stupid Latino because he didn't understand the language."

Mayoral's first job in baseball was as an observer, writing about the game for The San Jose Star, El Vocero, and other English- and Spanish-language newspapers. He was a journalist for 22 years, from 1970 to 1992, holding the job even during his days scouting Puerto Rico for the Pittsburgh Pirates (from '72-'78) and the Chicago White Sox (till 1980) and acting as general manager for the Arecibo and San Juan baseball clubs.

In 1980, Mayoral also wrote the first of three books, Mas Alla de un Sueno (Beyond the Dream). He was 35 and thought "it was time to share the beauty I find in the game," he says, explaining that in Puerto Rico, there are only a handful of books available about baseball. He would write two more books, Mas Alla de un Sueno--Lo Inolvidable (Beyond the Dream--The Unforgettable) and a biography of Clemente, and he says he donated the proceeds to various entities, including the Little League in Puerto Rico and a federally sponsored organization that helps the elderly find work. "I've never been rich," he says, "but I've always been well-off."

As a writer, Mayoral never saw himself as a "historian of trivia," as sportswriters have been called more than once; he preferred to think of himself as the sport's ambassador on the island. In the April 12, 1981, issue of The San Jose Star, Mayoral wrote the obituary of Pedrin Zorrilla, a Puerto Rican baseball pioneer who formed the Santurce Cangrejeros Baseball Club and discovered such future Latin stars as Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, and Ruben Gomez. In his piece, Mayoral didn't just tick off Zorrilla's accomplishments, but also added the personal touch: "[Zorrilla] was as humble as any man you can find...a man who cared for his people and for his countrymen."

Such would be the hallmark of Mayoral's journalism and his work with the Rangers: If you are a baseball man, you are a good man.

"I'm all for stats, and I'm all for goals and the lofty pinnacles players reach, but what I like to dig into is the beauty of the game, the feelings of the players," he says. "Players to me are like artists. I see Juan [Gonzalez] performing in right field like I did Clemente, and that to me is Picasso, Nureyev. There's so much beauty in it.

"A lot of people only go out and see the spectacle of it--the green grass, the white uniforms, the Ballpark in Arlington--when the fans don't know what it takes to get that spectacle going. Ballplayers stimulate something in people young and old, rich and poor. In my life, baseball is a great denominator. Politics and religion tear people apart, but baseball brings them together. And it's my job to make sure that happens."

E-mail Robert Wilonsky at rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.

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