Bodley: Everyone's rooting for Cantu now
Marlins' infielder hasn't stopped trying to prove himself
When it comes to bargains, Marlins third baseman Jorge Cantu is about as good as it gets. As their cleanup hitter he has driven in 195 runs the past two years for a measly $4 million.
And this season he has been in the headlines almost daily, attacking records and driving in runs in just about every game. He's earning $6 million for 2010, well below what most RBI machines make.
The thing about the personable, cheery Jorge Luis Guzman Cantu is that he has had to prove himself in many of his five-plus big league seasons. But that shouldn't be the case any more. He's no longer one of the game's best-kept secrets.
Last week against the Cincinnati Reds, the team that sent him packing after the 2007 season, he became the first player in MLB history to get at least one hit and one RBI in his team's first nine games. He added a 10th game to the streak, but it came to an end Friday night in Philadelphia, although he did manage a hit off Roy Halladay.
"Every streak has to come to an end," Cantu said. "It was a fun ride, for me a great achievement. I enjoyed it, and I'm very proud."
The close-knit family back in Reynosa, Mexico, was elated.
"My mother, Adriana, was in tears," he said. "They couldn't believe it. Everybody was rooting for me. I received something like 37 text messages that day. It was crazy."
Teammate Dan Uggla said, considering how many people have played Major League Baseball and that nobody has ever done it before, that it "just shows you what kind of an accomplishment it was."
Cantu said there was no pressure each game to keep it going.
"When there are runners out there in scoring position, I'm more relaxed," he said. "I'm just looking for that one pitch to drive."
Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said, "He doesn't let the situation get him excited. He doesn't give at-bats away. He knows when there's a man on third and the infield's back, he'll try to get the ball up the middle and get the RBI."
Cantu, leading the Majors with 16 RBIs, collected a hit and drove in a run in Saturday's victory over the first-place Phillies, and added a ninth-inning single and scored an insurance run in Sunday's 2-0 win over the Phils. He has hit safely in all 13 games this season, and counting 2009, has a 17-game hit streak.
Cantu, 28, passed George "Highpockets" Kelly, who began the 1921 season for the New York Giants with a hit and an RBI in each of the first eight games. Cantu did it against the Reds in his ninth game.
That it came against Cincinnati was fitting. The Reds, who obtained Cantu in a trade with Tampa Bay during the 2007 season, released him rather than offer salary arbitration and pay him at least $1 million.
Not one of the other 29 teams offered a Major League deal, so the Marlins signed Cantu to a Minor League contract, with a $500,000 salary if he made the big club.
Wayne Krivsky was Cincinnati's general manager when Cantu was released on Dec. 5, 2007. Walt Jocketty took over the following April.
Jocketty said seldom has the release of a player come back to haunt him as much as Cantu has.
After the Rays dealt Cantu to the Reds, he was immediately sent to Louisville where he once again had to prove himself.
"Wayne Krivsky is a fine gentleman," Cantu said. "He told me how it was going to be, that I needed to go to Triple-A to get some at-bats. I totally agreed with him, to stay there a few weeks. They brought me back, and I was there for the last month and a half."
He batted .298 in 27 games.
When Krivsky informed him of the release, Cantu said, "He said I deserved to be a starter somewhere else. The Marlins gave me the opportunity to battle for third base, which I did, and haven't stopped since."
Standing by his locker before a game, Cantu paused a moment, looked across the room and said, "I've had an uneven track record since I started. There was a little down year in 2007, but it's amazing what happens when a team picks you up, believes in you and gives you an opportunity. You as a player know what kind of talent you have."
Gonzalez added, "We're very, very lucky to have him. Nobody wanted him. He's the guy you want at the plate in clutch RBI situations. He keeps getting better each year."
After batting .277 with 95 RBIs in 2008 and more than earning the $500,000, Cantu received $3.5 million for '09. He hit .289 and drove in 100 runs.
"He's a very steady player. He's shown some power this year, and is on a pace to drive in a hundred runs again," Gonzalez said. "When you look over the course of his year, there are really no valleys."
Cantu put up good numbers with Tampa Bay his first two seasons there, batting .301 with 17 RBIs in 50 games in 2004, and .286 with 117 RBIs for the full '05 season.
"I try not to be too aggressive at the plate. That comes with experience," he said. "In my early years, that was a problem. I didn't have too many walks. I'm just trying to be more selective with the pitches."
Cantu was born in Texas, but his family moved when he was a baby to Mexico, where they have a 4,000-acre cattle ranch. He prides himself on being a citizen of both the United States and Mexico.
If baseball hadn't become a way of life -- he signed his first contract when he was only 16 -- Cantu said he would be a rancher.
"My father started it years ago, exporting cattle. It has been very successful," he said. "I spend my offseasons there. It's a lot of land. It's the family tradition."
Oh, one stat I almost forgot: Cantu is single, but ladies shouldn't get their hopes up, because, he said, "I'm seeing someone very special."
And that prompts an even bigger smile than when he talked about breaking an ages-old baseball record.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.