Fernando Rodney spins a story as easily as he flicks his unhittable changeup.
Rodney, the Dominican Republic’s mesmerizing closer in this World Baseball Classic, brought a curious bauble with him to one spring training as a member of the Detroit Tigers: a necklace bearing what appeared to be an animal’s tooth.
When reporters inquired about the peculiar artifact, Rodney explained that the fang came straight from the mouth of an alligator who had lost a wrestling match … with Fernando Rodney. He insisted on wearing it every day, even during bullpen sessions, until Tigers manager Jim Leyland (not entirely in jest) voiced concern that his closer might impale himself.
Now several years wiser, Rodney has acquired a safer talisman: fruit.
As Rodney recounted it, he received a plantain — flown from his hometown of Samaná to San Francisco — at 2 p.m. Monday, several hours before his team’s WBC semifinal against The Netherlands. Rodney said his family sent it for good luck. At least, that’s his story.
To Rodney and his countrymen, the banana-like plantain — or plátano in Spanish — is more than produce. It is a staple of the Dominican diet and cultural symbol, in the same way that apple pie is invoked as a touchstone of Americana. And this particular plátano — sent to Rodney on his 36th birthday — was exceptional indeed.
“If you keep me close to you,” Rodney heard the Lucky Plátano say, “you’re going to get the win.”
Watch as Fernando Rodney unholsters a plantain at the WBC.
So, Rodney dutifully brought it with him to the third-base line during pregame introductions. He holstered it on his belt, unsheathed it for the cameras when his name was announced, celebrated with it in the dugout as the Dominicans rallied in a four-run fifth inning, and (apparently) harnessed its power while retiring the Dutch in order to close out the 4-1 win to set up Tuesday’s championship encounter with Caribbean rival Puerto Rico.
The meme was at once absurd and appropriate. Absurd, because the Dominicans (7-0) have been the dominant team of this WBC and hardly need more luck. Appropriate, because the lightheartedness Rodney inspired is such an essential characteristic of his team.
“Baseball is supposed to (be) fun,” Dominican manager Tony Peña said. “These guys, they tried to motivate themselves doing the little things. The thing is, you need to find a way to lose the stress. How are you going to keep your whole group of players laughing and keep them loose?
“I got surprised when I saw Rodney with the banana on the side. Then he pulled it out, and I just laughed. Right in the middle of the game, it made everybody laugh. And in a game like this, you need to have a little bit of fun. I’m glad he did it.”
The Dominicans are making baseball look riotous and artful at the same time. From now until Tuesday’s final pitch — regardless of the result — the argument can be made that this is the best roster of baseball players in the world. Based on their record, run differential (33-14) and two prior victories over the Puerto Ricans, the Dominicans clearly have been the best team in this WBC. And if we step into Rodney’s metaphysical world for a moment, couldn’t the Dominican Republic — if it existed as the 31st major-league team — win the World Series?
“I don’t know how they’d finish, but we’d be one of the best teams in the league,” said Moises Alou, the retired six-time All-Star and current general manager of the Dominican team. “We have a bunch of stars on the team, everyday players, guys who are the top players on their teams. But that can’t be possible.”
No, but the union of Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Carlos Santana, Nelson Cruz and Hanley Ramirez in this tournament — backed by their whistling, rollicking fans — has been a sight to behold. Cano, in particular, has assumed a greater role since the 2009 WBC, when two losses to the Dutch doomed the Dominicans to a stunning first-round exit. (It helps that Cano is batting .517.)
“I haven’t been able to say a word here,” Alou said. “Before the game, we meet, we pray, we talk, and it’s been all Tony and Robbie. After Tony’s done, Robbie always has something to say. That has made my job a lot easier. He’s a true leader. He’s showing it on the field, and he’s showing it in the clubhouse, too.
“We’re like a family here. One of the guys, his wife had a miscarriage yesterday. Another guy, his wife gave birth about a week ago. And they stay here. They didn’t go home. Everybody’s together for one purpose — to win the championship.”
We can argue whether the WBC is a true measure of international competitiveness, but the Dominicans have made a strong statement about their place in the baseball hierarchy. Japan won the first two WBC titles with tournament records of 5-3 and 7-2, respectively. Now Peña’s team is poised to complete the most dominant run in the event’s brief history. And they’re doing it without the likes of Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Adrian Beltre, Jose Bautista and Alfonso Soriano.
Talent-rich doesn’t begin to fully describe the state of baseball in the Dominican Republic. The national depth chart is a little thin among starting pitchers, with Wandy Rodriguez, Edinson Volquez (Monday’s winner) and Samuel Deduno (Tuesday’s starter) forming the WBC rotation. But the overpowering bullpen — guided by Rodney’s crooked hat — has enabled the Dominicans to withstand Volquez’s recurring bouts of wildness.
“We’ve got so many players in the Dominican, and they all wanted to play,” Alou said. “Whenever a guy was stopped by his team, or a guy said no, there was always a good replacement. Not just a player to replace him — a good player. It’s been shown in this WBC.”
If one believes the Dominican is destined to win the WBC, there was further evidence of providence (or was it plátano?) in the first inning. With the Dutch already leading 1-0 and another runner on third, Andruw Jones lofted a high fly ball down the left-field line. As it drifted foul, left fielder Moises Sierra leaped into the stands and squeezed it for the final out of the inning — despite a fan’s best effort to grab the souvenir.
It was, in that way, the exact inverse of the Steve Bartman tragicomedy 10 years ago — when another Moises (Alou) attempted to make an ill-fated play at Wrigley Field.
“Even the guy had glasses like Bartman,” Alou said, able to laugh a decade later. “But the guy missed the ball, and Sierra caught it. I didn’t (even) have to think (about it) right away, because the broadcaster already mentioned what happened in ’03 in Chicago.
“Maybe it’s a good sign. He caught the ball. Maybe we’re going to win the championship.”
Maybe? More like probably. And if they do, it won’t be because of Rodney’s plátano. For one last time Tuesday night, we’ll be watching the best team in baseball.