Minor league journeyman Gabriel Suarez, whose grandfather was of Spanish descent, was one of the reasons why Spain won the recent 2012 World Baseball Classic Qualifier in Jupiter, Florida to move on to the 2013 WBC in March. Going 6-for-12 with a .667 slugging percentage and .647 on-base percentage during the four-game tournament, Suarez was a pleasant surprise for underdog España.
Selected by the Montreal Expos in the 26th round of the 2004 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Phoenix’s South Mountain Community College, the Denver-born Gabriel Suarez has played in the minor leagues with stints in the independent and international baseball leagues since turning pro. The 28-year-old Adelaide Bite outfielder has played every position but catcher in his career.
Debuting in the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals farm system in 2004-05, Suarez has been affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles (2006), Colorado Rockies (2006), Cincinnati Reds (2006-07), Pittsburgh Pirates (2007-08), San Francisco Giants (2009), Houston Astros (2009), Philadelphia Phillies (2010) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2012). Before being signed by the Dodgers organization in July, Suarez played in the Mexican Leagues for Vaqueros Laguna and Delfines de Ciudad del Carmen as well as in the Independent Freedom League for the Montezuma Federals. Prior to making his way to the Australian Baseball League, the free agent spent time with Dodgers Single-A affiliates Great Lakes and Rancho Cucamonga.
The well-traveled utility player has twice found
his way back into the minor leagues by way of independent league baseball. Currently playing
for the 2012-13 Adelaide Bite, Suarez has put together a .235 batting average with one double, four RBI and one stolen base. At the completion of his Aussie baseball expedition in the ABL, Suarez will be focused on the World Baseball Classic. After winning the WBC Qualifier in Florida to advance to the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Spain’s second baseman Gabriel Suarez was already thinking about what was next. “We’re looking forward,” said Suarez. “Dream come true. We came here for this.” Spain overcame the odds with little time to prepare and beat a talented Israel team in the WBC Qualifier Final to earn the right to play against Pool C host Puerto Rico along with powerhouses Venezuela and Dominican Republic in San Juan beginning March 7, 2013.
The San Francisco Giants have never been big in the larceny department. The 1986 team holds the franchise record with 148 stolen bases. After guiding Giants’ baserunners to a 67.5% success rate in swiping bags during his first four seasons, first base coach and baserunning instructor Roberto Kelly turned up the heat to 75% in 2012. Now as manager of host Panama in the World Baseball Classic Qualifier, Kelly hopes to parlay his World Championship magic to lead Panama’s best to a ticket to the WBC competition beginning March 7, 2013. The 2012 Giants ranked tenth overall in MLB with 118 stolen bases, a vast improvement from last year’s 24th ranking and 85 steals. The team identified baserunning as an area that needed work this past season after their NL-low 2011 run total of 570. Led by outfielders Angel Pagan, Gregor Blanco, Hunter Pence and shortstop Brandon Crawford, instincts and speed made a difference when taking an extra base or advancing from first to third. Reflecting on winning the 2012 World Series and the sudden increase in offense, coach Kelly said: “First of all, we had the guys to do it with. Second, we had to score more runs.” Despite having a more mobile lineup than ever, third baseman Pablo Sandoval and catcher Buster Posey possessed less than optimal speed on base. “Obviously we’re not going to ask those guys to steal 20 bases,” Kelly said. “But they can get bigger leads and let the pitcher know they’re there. Getting a bigger lead’s going to allow you to have a better chance of going from first to third.” San Francisco skipper Bruce Bochy recalled why the Giants recruited the two-time MLB All-Star and successful minor league manager Roberto Kelly in 2008. “The teams he managed had a lot of speed and used it well,” Bochy said. “He has a great way about him, he’s very professional, and he had a successful career in the big leagues. He’ll help the runners to read pitchers, work on their jumps, their secondary leads — all the things that help you take an extra base.” Kelly also has worked with Giants outfielders and helped them post a .989 fielding percentage–third-best in MLB since 2008. Gregor Blanco credits his aggressive outfield approach in making web gem catches throughout the season and his precise bunt stop mere inches fair on the infield dirt in the World Series to coach Kelly. Blanco said, “I was joking with Roberto Kelly when I got to first base. We practiced that. That was a perfect bunt.” When the Hall of Fame asked for the glove that saved Matt Cain’s perfect game, he obliged. Blanco said, “I’m happy to be able to accomplish that, and I’ll be able to see my glove in Cooperstown. It’s a great deal for me. That comes from hard work and working with the guys, with Angel Pagan, with Roberto Kelly. I have to give credit to them.” Coach Kelly also likes Pagan. “He’s a great talent and has been great for us on both sides of the field,” Kelly said. “He’s been fine for us and in control. He’s very aggressive.” Switch-hitting Luis Durango is Panama manager Roberto Kelly’s answer to Pagan. The speedy outfielder recently signed with the Kansas City Royals after hitting .289 with a .352 OBP and 46 steals for Triple-A Gwinnett Braves in 2012.
Leadoff hitter Luis Durango was one
of the few bright spots in Panama’s two losses during the 2009 World Baseball Classic Pool D competition in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In game one against host Puerto Rico, Durango singled, walked twice and stole one base. In Panama’s follow-up contest
in which they were eliminated by the Dominican Republic, he went 2-for-3. Hitting .600 in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Durango was second in the international games in batting average and on-base percentage. Panama’s 48-year-old manager will use Durango’s ability to get on base, steal a bag or two and ultimately score to win the 2012 WBC Qualifier games beginning November 15th at Panama City, Panama’s Rod Carew Stadium. A positive role model for Panama’s next generation of MLB stars, Roberto Kelly is committed to the growth of baseball in his native homeland and is looking for ways to teach the youth about the game and life’s lessons. After enjoying a solid 14-year Major League playing career and compiling a lifetime .290 batting average with 241 doubles, 124 home runs, 585 RBI and 235 stolen bases over 1,337 games, Kelly is now a two-time World Champion MLB coach and manager of Panama’s national team. An inspiration for many on how hard work and dedication can bring success, Panama looks to Kelly
to lead the country to greatness by advancing to the 2013 World Baseball Classic. He will not be alone in this special assignment as former MLB outfielder Rubén Rivera (1995-2003) will be there by his side every step of the way. Although his cousin–New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera–has never participated in the World Baseball Classic, Rubén will be making his third WBC appearance for Panama. Still playing ball and in excellent shape at age 39, Rubén is very much the heart and soul of this Panama squad. With over 3.5 million Panamanians cheering on their national baseball heroes in the World Baseball Classic Qualifier, there’s a good chance that the sense of excitement in Panama City will equal that of the recent enthusiasm at the 2012 World Series Champion Giants celebratory parade in the streets of downtown San Francisco. The common link to key both of these teams is Giant coach and Panama manager Roberto Kelly. With his expertise and his roster of very talented players, Panama is destined to party hard after a win of the
WBC Qualifier Final on November 19th.
Despite being labeled “The Rookie” for his his small size dating back to his childhood living across the street from Panama’s Omar Torrijos Herrera Stadium, Mets shortstop Rubén Tejada has big league intelligence and baseball embedded in his DNA. The Santiago de Veraguas native wants victory for his country. Host Panama battles neighboring Colombia, Brazil, and Nicaragua in the upcoming World Baseball Classic Qualifier beginning November 15th at Panama City’s renovated Rod Carew Stadium. “The only reason we are here is to win and clinch a spot on the Classic,” Tejada said. “The main thing is move on to the Classic, and God willing, everything will go our way. I come with more experience, so hopefully everything will come out as planned.”The winners from the Panama and Taiwan qualifying pools will join Spain and Canada in the first round World Baseball Classic competition against Australia, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Kingdom of the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States and Venezuela March 7-10, 2013 at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona and Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale. Proud to be representing his country again after showcasing his talent in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and having matured into an everyday player for the Mets, 23-year-old Rubén Tejada brings an innate understanding of the game which rivals that of a seasoned veteran or manager twice his age. However, his interpretation of the strike zone sometimes gets lost in translation. In young Rubén’s case, patience at the plate came with a price for the right-handed hitter, who until 2012 had struggled for playing time since making his MLB debut on April 7, 2010. With the strike zone in Panamanian youth leagues being bigger than it is in America, Tejada was trained to swing at pitches that would be called balls in the USA. With this international anomaly, he had
the tendency to swing early at-bat. At age 20, Tejada was the youngest position player on the Mets Opening Day roster since Tim Foli in 1971. Mets hitting coach Dave Hudgens implemented a more disciplined approach to Tejada’s at-bats by making pitchers work. Since then, Rubén now works the count in search of his pitch. “He can hit,” said ex-Mets scout Ismael Cruz–who signed Tejada in 2006. “People don’t give him credit for hitting. He’s not flashy, he’s not making noise, but he’s a guy who can hit .270, .280. I’ll take that any day. And he’ll jack one every so often.” With a career-high 25 doubles, a .289 batting average and a .333 on-base percentage in 112 games played during the 2012 season, Rubén Tejada had a breakout year despite missing nearly six weeks in May and June with a strained groin muscle. Serving as the replacement for 2011 Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, who took the the $10 million bait lured by the 2012 Miami Marlins, Tejada proved to be worth his weight in gold–earning a fraction of Reyes’ salary ($491,000). Perhaps what was most impressive about Tejada in 2012 was his defense. The 5-foot-11 Panamanian made spectacular web gem worthy plays and ironically finished the season with six fewer errors than Jose Reyes. The two former teammates remain best of friends and workout buddies. After the WBC Qualifier, Tejada will return to a Garden City, Long Island, New York training facility for his annual post-season pilgrimage with MLB All-Star Reyes. For now the business at hand is in Panama. “I’m very happy to be here, especially to be healthy and ready to do all that is needed to help the team,” said Tejada. “First we will try to win our pass, then we will start thinking about the 2013 Classic.”
A cattle rancher with properties outside Houston and also in his hometown of Aguadulce, Panama, MLB free agent Carlos Lee may not know where he is headed to play for the 2013 season. Yet he does know that home is where the heart is, and right now Panama is his immediate destination for the upcoming World Baseball Classic Qualifier at Rod Carew Stadium in Panama City beginning with host Panama’s opening game against Brazil on November 15th and culminating with the live
MLB Network televised WBC Qualifier Final on November 19th at 5 PM (PST). Home Sweet Home Panama will be Lee’s final outpost when he decides to gracefully retire at the end of his celebrated Major League Baseball career. “When I’m finished, I’m planning to go back home,” Lee said. “I’m from Panama. It’s pretty safe and nice there.”
Although 36-year-old Carlos Lee was last seen wearing a Miami Marlins uniform after a 2012 midseason trade, he has always been a fan favorite from early on in his career while playing for Chicago White Sox (1999-2004), Milwaukee Brewers (2005-2006), Texas Rangers (2006) and Houston Astros (2007-2012). White Sox TV announcer Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson–who witnessed firsthand Lee’s 2004 28-game hitting streak, which broke the franchise record and surpassed Rod Carew’s 25-game record for a Panamanian player–knew that the three-time MLB All-Star (2005-2007) and two-time Silver Slugger (2005 & 2007) was a special player and coined him “El Caballo”.
Despite his place in the White Sox records book, many think of Lee as a lifetime Texan. As the cleanup hitter for Houston, he drove in 100 or more runs in three of his five Astro seasons, averaged 26 homers and hit over .300 three times. Carlos Lee would rather be known for his comparison to Texas ranching icon Nolan Ryan–not for his seven no-hitters, 27 major league seasons, the all-time strikeout record, or his 324 wins–but rather for Ryan’s 2011 Golden Spur Award, which recognizes leadership and exceptional service to the ranching industry.
“El Caballo” lives up to his nickname as the owner of Slugger Ranch in Texas, where he raises prize-winning Brahman, and nine ranches in his native Panama. Lee instantly won credibility with his 2006 Brahman Grand Champion at the largest Brahman show in the world at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Two years later, he donated $25,000 and over 300 bales of hay to support Texas ranchers whose properties were ravaged by Hurricane Ike.
Growing up around his grandfather’s passion for cattle ranching, Lee is now passing down his love for baseball and cattle breeding to his own son, Carlos Alejandro. Jim Williams of V8 Ranch said of Lee: “Carlos is not only a good baseball player, but he’s also the most progressive breeder in Panama as far as importing top genetics. He probably knows the pedigree and bloodlines of his cattle like a sportscaster would know about statistics.”
Whether it’s the playing of the game of baseball, the breeding of cattle and quarter horses, or the roping of calf, Lee wants to leave behind the family legacy of being among Panama’s best. Baseball Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who was born in 1945 on a train in the city of Gatún–in what was then known as the Panama Canal Zone–currently holds the honorary title of Panama’s best all-time hitter. So it’s only appropriate that the country’s best–including “El Caballo” Carlos Lee–will be playing in the World Baseball Classic Qualifier under Panama’s legendary manager Roberto Kelly against Brazil, Colombia and Nicaragua at Panama City’s Rod Carew Stadiumbeginning November 15th. While handicappers are betting on
five days of modified double-elimination competition, insiders will be banking on plenty of horsepower from “El Caballo” Carlos Lee–who plans to lead Panama
from gate-to-wire en route to the WBC Winner’s Circle.
Thanks to a clubhouse joke played by pitcher Antonio Alfonseca–who in a 2008 television interview referred to Ruiz as “chucha” (a Colombian slang term for “underarm odor”)–teammates, the media and baseball fans have since referred to the Panamanian MLB All-Star catcher by his beloved nickname “Chooch”. The sweat rebels sacrificed over a century ago which gave Panama independence from Colombia is reminiscent to that of national hero Carlos Ruiz’s in his improbable “I Think I Can” MLB ascent. Having passed on the 5-foot-8 Ruiz in two prior 1998 tryouts–once as a pitcher and a second time as an infielder–Phillies’ Panamanian scout Allan Lewis (AKA “The Panamanian Express” for being the 1967-73 Athletics’ pinch-running specialist) insisted on new international scouting director Sal Agostinelli fly to Ruiz’s hometown in David, Panama to give the Phillies organization one last look before giving up on this natural-born talent with an outstanding bat. While Agostinelli was having trouble considering Ruiz an infield prospect during the 1998 work out, Lewis suggested they try him out at catcher. After a few drills behind the plate with former Phillies Minor League catcher Agostinelli, it was apparent that Ruiz possessed enough athleticism, physical arm strength and promise to suggest it might just work. In what appeared to be a long shot $8,000 signing bonus in converting a second baseman to a position he had never played before, Philadelphia offered Ruiz a pro contract and an invitation to the Phillies Dominican Baseball Academy to become a catcher.
When Ruiz shared the news with his schoolteacher mother that he had been offered a $8,000 signing bonus with the opportunity to play in the Dominican Republic to start his professional baseball career in the Phillies organization, Inocenicia Rios was a bit nervous. After all, her 19-year-old son would be dropping out of school and abandoning his college coursework toward a degree in physical education for little money to beat the odds of making it to the Big Leagues at a position he was unfamiliar with.
Nearly a decade later when her son caught the final pitch of the 2008 World Series to give the Phillies their second championship in franchise history, Panamanian President Martin Torrijos called Ruiz’s mother to congratulate her for supporting Carlos’ decision to realize his dream. Call it Panamanian pride or unconditional love for her son in what seemingly was a futile trip to the Dominican catching baseballs… In the end, the journey to MLB was definitely worth the 2008 World Series ring and the subsequent Presidential Ceremony honoring the Phillies catcher at President Torrijos’ residence at Palacio de las Garzas. When Ruiz was caught between a rock and a hard place having to decide whether to report early to 2009 Phillies Spring Training to work with the Philadelphia pitching staff or represent his country in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, President Torrijos sealed the deal for Team Panama with a personal phone call to encourage the isthmuth nation’s eighth ranked all-time leader in hits to participate in the international competition. Although Ruiz has been heralded as one of baseball’s best hitters today, his skills behind the plate are top-notch. He has taken the initiative to study as much as he can about hitters by reading countless scouting reports on players. As he began to notice things take place on the field, Ruiz learned about which situations required certain strategies. By seeing the adjustments hitters were making, he adapted by calling pitches to counteract them. His confidence to call pitches and to control the pace of the game garnered him the trust of the Phillies pitching staff. Ruiz’s natural leadership skills and keen understanding of the game has made him perfectly suited to playing catcher. Perhaps the true testament to Ruiz’s mastery came and went twice when he caught Roy Halladay’s perfect game during the 2010 regular season and Doc’s no-hitter encore in the 2010 postseason. It was recently announced that the Phillies picked up the $5 million club option on Ruiz’s contract for the 2012 All-Star catcher to return next season. That’s a good move for the rebuilding organization–considering that in 2012 Ruiz posted an all-time career best .325 batting average, which put him in a tie for seventh-best in the league among players with at least 400 plate appearances. His 32 doubles, 16 home runs, 68 RBI and a .935 OPS in 114 games kept Philadelphia alive in the NL wild card hunt late in the season. Despite a lagging foot injury in August which kept Chooch out of the lineup for some time, Carlos Ruiz hit cleanup for the 2012 Phillies in 32 games and fifth for another 32 games. However, Ruiz absolutely raked in the four hole, batting .365 with a .587 slugging percentage and 1.008 OPS in 138 plate appearances.
If Philadelphia doesn’t acquire a big right-handed slugger during the offseason, the Phillies may very well use Ruiz again in 2013 as their cleanup hitter.The pride of Boquerón–Carlos Ruiz will undoubtedly give host Panama an edge over neighboring Colombia, Brazil, and Nicaragua in the upcoming World Baseball Classic Qualifier on November 15-19 at the newly renovated Rod Carew Stadium in Panama City. If you can’t make it there in person, MLB Network will televise the final Qualifier game live from the Panama City, Panama pool on Monday, November 19th beginning at 5 PM (PST). The WBC Qualifiers, which expanded the competitive field of the tournament from 16 to 28 countries, has already seen Spain and Canada advance to the main tournament.
The winners from the Panama and Taiwan qualifying pools will join Spain and Canada in the first round WBC competition against Australia, China, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Kingdom of the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, United States and Venezuela March 7-10 at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona and Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale. Second round WBC games will be held March 12-16 at Marlins Park in Miami, while the WBC Semi-Finals and Final take place March 17-19 at San Francisco’s AT&T Park. MLB Network will televise all 39 games of the 2013 World Baseball Classic. iViva el Béisbol!