Ay Caramba!

SURPRISE, ARIZONA--I think Einar Diaz is laughing at me. I can't be sure. He's talking with a pitcher, who also happens to be Latino. They are speaking Spanish. I don't speak Spanish. I had plenty of opportunities to learn--I "studied" the language in high school, and my father, who is Cuban, is fluent--but for some reason it never sunk in. I'm half Italian, too, and I never picked that up either, so I always figured my linguistic failures canceled each other out--two negatives make a positive and such.

Diaz--the catcher whom the Rangers acquired in a trade with the Cleveland Indians to be the backstop pro tem now that Pudge Rodriguez is gone--is, by most accounts, a nice guy. Smiles a lot. Pats people on the back. That sort of thing. Could be that he's just fooling around with his teammate. Could be that they aren't talking about me after all. But I think they are.

They are talking to each other, but they are looking in my direction. Glancing, really. And laughing. This can't be good. Like I said, I don't speak Spanish, but I am hip to signs. I am an expert on signs. Particularly when the signs mean, "Oh, sweet Jeebus, can you believe this Gonzalez idiot?"

For the last few minutes, I've been trying to pronounce Diaz's first name. Among the press corps there is no consensus. You hear "Eye-nar" and "Eee-nar" and "E-nee-ar" and many other butcherings. But I want to get it right. I'm a professional. Plus, I have nothing else to do; it's raining today, so getting a tan on the company dime is out.

"OK, try again," Diaz snickers, encouraging me to continue. "It's 'A-nar.' Like 'A' with a 'nar' on the end."

Sounds simple enough. Except that my East Coast accent, coupled with the misguided belief that, deep down, I have "the Spanish" in me, makes it come out "A-nee-yar." Absolutely brutal. Diaz lapses into a laugh so deep it looks as if he's having a spasm. (This is why I never earned higher than a C in high school Spanish and why my father called me "el jackasso." Or something.)

And Diaz thought replacing Pudge would be tough.

They brought him in to do that, you know. Maybe not at the plate or the ticket office, and certainly not in your hearts, but someone had to fill out all that gear. That someone is my (still laughing) tutor. That someone is Einar Diaz.

He went through a similar situation with the Indians. Succeeding a local favorite, that is, not educating hopeless writers. In Cleveland, after decades of futility and heartbreak, the Indians snapped out of their organizational funk in the '90s and won a few pennants. A big part of that renaissance was facilitated by Sandy Alomar, an all-star catcher who winked at the fans or signed autographs as often as he threw runners out or knocked runners in--frequently.

"That was tough, but what can you do?" Diaz asks. "You have to do your job, you know? Doesn't matter who came before you."

As Alomar was phased out, Diaz was ushered in. Over the past two seasons, he appeared in 236 games for the Indians and, last year, threw out 31 attempted base stealers, good for third-best among AL catchers. He also hurt his right elbow and missed a bunch of games at the end of the season.

In November, the Indians sent him to Tempe, Arizona, to work on his throwing. He says by that time, though, he was feeling fine. The rehab had gone well. It was strange, he thought, that Cleveland would ask him to go to Arizona to throw when they already knew he was back to full strength.

"That's when I knew something was up," Diaz says. A few days after heading to Tempe, he was traded to the Rangers. "You know what? That was OK with me. I'm not really surprised that things didn't work out in Cleveland. I know that they wanted to do something different this year, and that's part of the business."

So Diaz finds himself in a familiar situation. Perhaps Pudge wasn't as congenial as Alomar, but he was just as effective a player. If not more so. Rodriguez won 10 gold gloves during his stint in Ranger Red and was a perennial .300 hitter. Those are tough cleats to fill, regardless of spin or whether Diaz cops to the pressure.

"We like Einar Diaz as our catcher," says manager Buck Showalter, defending a guy who hit .206 last year--second lowest among all AL players with 300 or more at-bats. "We liked Pudge Rodriguez as our catcher. Einar will be the first to tell you that he's not Pudge. If you're expecting Pudge to walk through the door, don't. Like I've said all off-season, if you give yourself a chance, you're going to like a lot of the things that Einar does. He brings...he's probably not going to hit .330 or drive in 100 runs, but he's going to bring what he can bring, and I think that'll be pretty good. I think he did a pretty good job in Cleveland, and he had to replace Sandy Alomar, who was pretty good up there."

Admittedly, there's more to playing baseball than hitting (though you'd never know it if you dose on SportsCenter). Where Diaz might excel is in his defense, in his ability to block balls or throw runners out or, most important to the Rangers, in how he handles the skeletal starting pitching staff. That was the major knock on Pudge--that he was unwilling, or unable, to call a good game. One veteran writer told me that, when a runner was on base in a stealing situation, he believed Rodriguez would sometimes call fastballs even if another pitch was better suited. That way, Pudge had a better shot at throwing the opponent out.

"I'm already getting to know my pitchers," Diaz says. "Yeah, that's important--what they like, what they don't like and in what situations. That sort of thing. I think we're all learning together."

Right. Learning. I'm still trying to learn his first name. Just when I'm about to give up, something close--probably as close as I'll get--to "A-nar" escapes my lips.

"See, that was good," Diaz affirms while trying to stifle more chuckles. "You keep practicing. You work on it."

It's too bad Yao Ming beat Einar and me to the punch with that "Yo/Yao" commercial. We could have made millions.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez

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