GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The first thing Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker told newly acquired pitcher Mat Latos was, “Just be yourself.”
Baker smiled and said, “I said that even though I know that Latos is, uh, a little bit different.”
And it is more than the Body By Ink, tattoos from neck to toes, and the spiked hair that forces his hat size to be larger than his head.
Latos is a genuine character — and that’s said in the best of ways. He is a guy who finds the fun in life and keeps everybody around him loose and laughing.
Before Latos began an interview, he saw fellow starter Johnny Cueto making faces at him and he said to Cueto, “Come on over here. Come on over.” Cueto just laughed. Latos was told that Cueto acts as if he can’t speak English, but it is known he does and he understands everything.
“He speaks English,” Latos said. “Uh, huh. That’s fine, though. I don’t speak any English, either.”
Latos plays golf, more for laughs than pars and birdies. The other day he told a teammate, “I play 13 holes, then I get to a water hazard and go fishing.”
As an explanation, he later said: “I know I’m not a great golfer. I go out there to surprise myself. When I’m shanking balls, whether it is going left or going right, I’m making new homes for groundhogs when I hit off the deck.
“By the time I get to the back nine, I’m so aggravated by all the bad shots I’ve had, I get to the water and say, ‘You know what? The fishing pole is right next to me on the cart, so I might as well pull over and do something I know I can succeed at.’ ”
Latos appears to have fit in well in the clubhouse. He is one of those guys you always know is around, always kidding with his teammates.
“For the most part, I’ve fit in,” he said. “I’m still a little apprehensive. It was hard for me, not knowing anybody on the team. I know the names and faces, but I do not really know them.”
He laughed and said: “I didn’t know Joey Votto was so quiet. I thought he didn’t like me.”
The Reds certainly like him. They traded four players for him — Edinson Volquez and three extremely high draft picks in Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal and Brad Boxberger.
Latos even had a straight line for that one.
“The one guy I didn’t want to get traded for was Yonder Alonso,” Latos said. “I love him. He’s a great guy. They say people were unhappy that the Reds traded Yonder. So was I. He has a sweet swing, a nice line-drive stroke.”
But it was obvious the Reds wanted Latos in the rotation, almost desperately, or they wouldn’t have included so much in the package.
“You look at it, and it is obvious to say that Cincinnati wanted me and it was worth it to them to trade those four guys,” he said. “And San Diego thought the complete opposite. They thought those four guys were more valuable to them than I was.
“So, the Reds did themselves a favor and me a favor, if I wasn’t that valuable or important to the Padres. And they got a great deal — four good guys for me. And it is out of no disrespect to them by me saying they did me a favor or them a favor. They got me to a team that wanted me more.”
Latos, 24, was 14-10 with a 2.92 ERA in 2010 with the Padres. He dipped to 9-14 with a 3.47 ERA last year.
There were mitigating circumstances. He suffered a freak mishap last spring, bursitis in the bursa capsule in his shoulder.
“From what I was told, it was a freak thing and I’ve heard nobody else had it,” he said. “I might have had a little inflammation, and when I threw a pitch, it caused that bursa to inflame. It wasn’t anything threatening. It wasn’t the labrum; it wasn’t the rotator cuff.
“I haven’t had any injuries, knock on wood that have been threatening to my shoulder or my arm or my elbow, or my pinkie finger or my nail.”
Because of the inflammation, Latos was cautious to a fault when the season began and was pitching under protective custody — he threw pitches he knew wouldn’t provoke a risk.
“I lean more toward my second half of the year as a gauge,” he said. “The bursitis happened, and it had me a little leery. I didn’t want it to inflame, didn’t want it to come back again.”
So, at midseason Latos had a chat with a coach because he was throwing mostly 91-93 mph with a two-seam fastball. He was told to go back out and throw 95 mph, the way he did in 2010.
“I said, ‘All right, if that’s what they want, that’s what they want,’ ” Latos said. “I’m just going to let it go and see what happens. And I had a good second half, back where I was.”
After losing his last five decisions of 2010, he lost his first five to start 2011 — 10 straight losses. After the 0-5 start last year, he finished 9-5. His ERA the first half of the season was 4.04. The second half was 2.87.
Asked where Latos fits into the rotation, Baker said, “Near the top. Johnny Cueto is No. 1 and Latos is right near the top. We haven’t figured it out yet, but we have an idea.”
Baker said he also told Latos not to apply pressure to himself because he was traded for four guys.
“That can happen,” Baker said. “I was involved in a four-for-two trade when I went to the Dodgers from Atlanta. I was hurt that first year, and I got booed every time I stuck my head out of the dugout.”
Baker and Ed Goodson were traded from Atlanta in 1975 to Los Angeles for Lee Lacy, Tom Paciorek, Jerry Royster and Jimmy Wynn.”
“Fans thought the Dodgers gave up too much to get me, but my second year, I hit 30 home runs and batted .291 and it was all good from there,” Baker said.