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Devil Rays recall Hispanic heroes10/07/2004 1:30 PM ET
By Paul C. Smith / MLB.com
ST. PETERSBURG -- As a young boy growing up in Cuba, future Devil Ray Danys Baez watched legendary Cuban slugger Omar Linares play baseball and was sure he wanted to do the same some day.
"Everybody looked up to him, he was the leader," Baez said. "He was the complete package. He could hit, he had a strong arm, he could run and he was a smart player in the field."
Linares was nicknamed "El Nino" because he started playing with the Cuban national team at the age of 16. Baez once saw Linares hit four home runs in one game.
"He was amazing," Baez said. "Every boy in Cuba played baseball and every boy wanted to be like Omar Linares."
But Baez grew up to be a pitcher and, once he realized he wasn't going to hit home runs and make dazzling plays at third base like Linares, Baez also started to admire another Cuban national star.
"Jose Contreras was the first pitcher I remember watching a lot," Baez said.
Baez was fortunate. He got to work and play on the same team as one of his idols.
"He helped teach me the game," Baez said. "I also admired the fact that he worked hard and was a good guy."
As with any sport, younger players grow up with heroes they want to emulate. They see the way the established star plays the game, the way he handles himself on and off the field, and they want to do the same. It's an important rite of passage.
Hispanic baseball players are certainly no exception. But because of the size of many of their countries, sometimes the younger players get to see their idols in person quite a bit. And occasionally, they even have the chance to play or sit alongside them.
"My father was a scout for the Pirates, so I grew up around a lot of those guys," Rays reliever Jorge Sosa said. "Juan Marichal, George Bell, Pedro Martinez. They were always nice to the young kids, telling them about baseball and what it takes to be successful."
Sosa said he also idolized his dad.
"He was a shortstop," Sosa said. "He taught me the discipline you need to play the game."
Rays outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. also has an All-Star dad. Jose Cruz Sr., a Puerto Rican native, played for a total of 19 seasons for the Cardinals, Astros and Yankees.
Cruz Jr. said he watched his father closely and tried to incorporate many of his good qualities into his own makeup.
"I remember that he always enjoyed the game, that he was always hustling," Cruz Jr. said. "He also was very consistent and a clutch hitter."
Cruz Jr. said he also tried to learn as much as he could from another native Puerto Rican who was about a decade ahead of him.
"I've always admired Roberto Alomar," Cruz Jr. said. "He is a switch-hitter, hit with power and was great defensively. He also is always the most aware player on the field. I like that."
Tampa Bay shortstop Julio Lugo also grew up idolizing the impressive power of outfielder Bell. But it was infielder Tony Fernandez whom Lugo most wanted to emulate.
"Tony was smooth," Lugo said. "The way he could hit and field, there was no one like him."
Rays infielder Rey Sanchez also became known as a slick fielder throughout his career, and that's thanks in part to his fascination with former Puerto Rican Dickie Thon.
"He was a very good shortstop," Sanchez said. "I knew I couldn't hit home runs the way he did, but I admired him. And I got to know him well."
Second baseman Jorge Cantu said he has been compared to another Mexican infielder.
"Vinny Castilla and I both played third base," Cantu said. "Of course, he's an established big hitter in the Major Leagues. He's also a great fielder. Right now, I'm just honored to be one of the Mexican players compared to him."
Outfielder Midre Cummings never worked behind the plate but said his idol was a catcher.
"I looked up to Tony Pena," Cummings said. "The way he caught the ball, his style behind the plate. Just the way he looked. You always liked the guy. He was something special."
Cummings also likes the batting style of a former batting champion Julio Franco, a native of the Dominican Republic.
"When I was growing up, the way he held the bat, I thought is was the coolest thing ever," Cummings said.
Rays rookie reliever Franklin Nunez, a native of the Dominican, considers himself very lucky. In his first trip to the Major Leagues, he got to watch one of his country's heroes perform against the Rays and play alongside another.
"I like the way Pedro Martinez challenges hitters," Nunez said. "And I am lucky to be able to play with [Rays reliever] Jesus Colome."
And back in the Dominican, there are some young baseball players who surely have enjoyed watching Martinez, Colome and now Nunez.
"We know we are role models, yes," Baez said. "It is difficult sometimes, but it is good and important."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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