EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 22, 2007

Tavarez a mystery no more

On Baseball , Rob Bradford

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Minutes before Julian Tavarez sat in front of his locker yesterday afternoon, Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona echoed what the relief pitcher had told the masses two days before - Manny Ramirez wasn't coming until March 1.

The message wasn't a surprise. What came out of it was.

"You guys don't know me and you don't know Manny," Tavarez said to this lone reporter, reiterating his thoughts from a few days before. "I have a family, I have brothers, I have a sister, I have parents, I have cousins ..."

He had a point.

We attempt to know players like Ramirez and Tavarez, but often times fall short. Just a day before another teammate, Mike Lowell, was talking about Ramirez and how perception seems to fall short when understanding his work ethic. And for some, the image of Tavarez is still creeping out of the well-documented list of on-field explosions that has littered his career.

Getting to know Ramirez like Tavarez ("He's one of my best friends," said the reliever) might not be possible. Other than holding a press conference upon his arrival, Manny probably won't talk to the media the rest of the season, and even his teammates have admitted to having a hard time grasping the slugger's persona.

Tavarez was another story. That's why yesterday afternoon, after most had left the Red Sox minor league training facility, the 33-year-old was willing to offer the insight he insisted two days earlier was sorely lacking.

Who was Julian Tavarez? After listening, it is easy to see why he was fairly positive nobody truly knew his story.

In the Red Sox media guide one of the few biographic pieces of information related to Tavarez was that he attended Santiago public schools in the Dominican Republic. That, he said, isn't accurate.

"I never went to school, not once," he said. "I had to work to earn money for my family." Three dollars a week, to be exact, doing all kinds of odd jobs. It was just good enough to survive, and allow for his prideful exclamation, "I have never stolen anything, not once!"

He comes from one of the poorest parts of the Dominican Republic, a place he said is called "The Dark Hole." Both of his parents worked, with his father spending all week but Saturday two hours away doing construction. And when his dad did arrive back home, Julian was often gone playing baseball.

Tavarez had eight brothers and sisters, although two died before he was born. His oldest brother is 45 years old, and his youngest sister is 30. It was with his sister and mother that Julian grew up in a house that appeared to be closer to a hut. The lodging had no floor, and and a palm tree was used as a roof.

Water was a 20-minute walk, and the family's bathroom consisted of a hole in the ground in back of the house. Rice was often the meal of the day, and it wasn't nearly enough to put weight on the kid who was constantly discounted because of his frail frame.

With no schooling at all, Tavarez's lessons were learned in the real world of the Dominican. But the one thing he knew best was baseball and his dream of playing professionally.

"They kept telling me I was too skinny," said Tavarez, who had played both center field and shortstop. "But I knew I wanted to play."

Finally, his coach convinced the Cleveland Indians to sign Tavarez for $1,000. He only threw 75 mph, but had enough determination, and connections, to make the Indians take a chance on the 17-year-old. The money was spent on a couple of pair of jeans, and a floor for the family's house.

It wasn't until those first days in 1990 with the Indians' Dominican League team that Tavarez sat in front of a teacher and took instruction. Two days a week he would learn English, being forced to speak the foreign language from the time he entered the class to the time he left.

Three years later he was in the big leagues, making $109,000 with Cleveland, where he still lives during the offseason. Tavarez has gone on to pitch in exactly 700 major league games, while making a total of $18,552,333 for his career. A house has been bought in the Miami area for his parents, and little bits of English continue to be learned every day.

After listening to Tavarez, he was right - we often times don't know players like himself and Ramirez as well as we should. It's just too convenient to assume most athletes aren't all that much different than ourselves.

We might never truly know Manny, but it is because of Ramirez that Julian isn't such a stranger anymore.