Trip to World Series 'bittersweet' for Furcal
Shortstop's father, brother didn't get to see him reach goal
ST. LOUIS -- Smile.
Champagne-drenched Cardinals shortstop Rafael Furcal posed near the entrance in the visiting clubhouse at Miller Park after Sunday's NLCS-clinching victory until his face hurt. He was not going to let this moment, this feeling, pass. His wife, Glenny, digital camera in hand, made sure of it. Nearby, Furcal's buddy, Cesar, dressed head to toe in Cardinals gear, watched with his hands on the back of his head and his mouth wide open.
He couldn't believe "Rafa" was going to the World Series. Furcal couldn't believe it, either, so he took photos with teammates, clubhouse attendants and anyone within camera shot. The photos would be proof that after 12 hard years in the big leagues, he had finally made it to the World Series. The pictures were for Furcal's children and one day, for his children's children. But most of all, these snapshots of Furcal were for his father, Silvino, and his older brother, Jose, who didn't live long enough to see him get to this point.
"In English, the word is 'bittersweet.' This is very tough for me, because it was my father's dream to watch me play in a World Series," Furcal, 33, said in Spanish. "My family is everything to me. They are here with me now, and I'm doing it for them."
It was Silvino, a ballplayer in his younger days, who introduced young Rafael to baseball. Brothers Jose, Manuel and Lorenzo, all ballplayers, too, nurtured his passion for the sport. It wasn't uncommon to hear about the Furcals running up and down the hills near their home in Loma de Cabrera in the Dominican Republic. In fact, it was a way of life in Furcal's neighborhood. "Loma" is the Spanish word for "hill."
The Cardinals' shortstop was born with the ability to run fast and swing hard, but it was Silvino that reminded the young Rafael to enjoy the sport and respect his teammates. Until his death on Father's Day last year, the elder Furcal would call his son after games with coaching advice.
Silvino suffered serious internal injuries after being kicked by a horse on the family farm in the Dominican Republic and died in surgery. Jose committed suicide in 1999.
The word "devastated" does not begin to describe Furcal's feelings after the deaths. He still clears his throat when he talks about his father.
"He was everything to me," Furcal said. "He taught me to have fun in this game."
The lessons Silvino taught Rafael live on, and they will be on display when he takes the field Wednesday for Game 1 of the World Series against the Rangers at Busch Stadium. In some ways, you can say Silvino is also making his World Series debut.
"What you don't know is how enthusiastic [Furcal] is about the competition," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "Rafael is one of those guys that's excited about a chance to win. He's expressive, and he gets guys going."
When healthy, nobody gets it going like Furcal.
That said, the shortstop raised a few eyebrows when he arrived in St. Louis from Los Angeles on July 31 and said he chose to waive his no-trade clause and leave the Dodgers because the Cardinals gave him the best chance to win a ring. A few months earlier, a frustrated Furcal told Los Angeles reporters that he was considering retirement following a game in which he broke his thumb.
The Cardinals were 57-50 and in second place in the National League Central with the sixth-best record in the league when they agreed to acquire Furcal for Minor League infielder Alex Castellanos. The club likely was uncertain which Furcal was going to show up.
After all, Furcal had hit only .197 in 37 games with the Dodgers because of two lengthy stints on the disabled list -- first with the thumb injury, then an oblique strain. His bag of tricks still featured speed and power at the top of the lineup, along with a strong arm in the middle of the infield, but his baggage also included a long list of stints on the DL.
Furcal played in only 97 games with the Dodgers in 2010 because of a left hamstring strain and a lower back strain, but he appeared in 150 games, including 141 at shortstop, the year before. In 2008, he missed 125 games because of an injured lower back.
"Raffy has a history of playing on winning clubs and there were certainly some medical questions," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "But based on our medical due diligence and our scouting, we thought he would be the right fit if we could get a deal done. Clearly, he has been a positive addition to our team. We did feel we gave up a prospect, and we thought if we were going to take the approach to win now, that it was worth it."
The Cardinals went 15-13 in August and roared to an 18-8 finish in September to push past the Braves for the NL Wild Card. Furcal hit .240 in August in his first full month with the club. He hit .275 in September. Furcal hit .227 with two triples in the NL Division Series against the Phillies and .185 against the Brewers in the NLCS.
He admits he still has his bad days. Furcal committed five errors in six games during a crucial stretch in late September and was benched for a day.
There's little doubt that had Silvino been alive, he would have phoned his son that night. Instead, it was Dodgers coach and Dominican Republic baseball legend Manny Mota who called offering encouraging words.
"Manny is like a father to me," Furcal said. "He always gave me the support and guidance that I needed with the Dodgers. To this day, when he sees me on television doing something bad, he's one of the people that calls me to correct me. I am lucky to have a person as experienced in baseball as Manny in my life, very lucky."
Mota estimates he talks to Furcal once or twice a week. When they don't speak, they text, he said. Sometimes, Mota just stares at his television and wishes him good luck from afar.
"I have a great admiration for Rafael as a person and as a player," Mota said in Spanish. "He believes in his abilities. He knows what he can do as a player. And that's why he is how he is. He demonstrates it every day."
Furcal is the "chispa" for every team he plays for, Mota said, and he's right. "Chispa" is the Spanish word for "spark."
"It's hard to be in a bad mood around Rafael," Cardinals second baseman Nick Punto said. "He's always giddy and loud. He brings a good energy. I played against Rafael and I saw it on the field. You can see that guys rallied around him."
It was the jovial Furcal who coined the phrase "happy flight," as a way for the Cardinals to commemorate victories on getaway days. Including Sunday's 12-6 victory in Game 6 of the NLCS, the Cardinals have boarded 17 straight flights having won their most recent game.
Theoretically, the ultimate happy flight for Furcal could still be waiting in the wings. Furcal's 34th birthday is on Oct. 24, the scheduled date for Game 5 of the World Series. It's the same night the clubs will fly back to St. Louis for what could be Game 6.
"I'm having a great time. I've never made it to the World Series, and it's really special for me," Furcal said. "I'm very happy and honored to be on a team like the St. Louis Cardinals. I know when I am healthy that I can play."
Silvino knew that, too.