Ubaldo inspired by challenging upbringing
Veteran righty motivated to succeed after growing up poor in Dominican Republic
Outside of San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, near the market, lies a hole.
Natives refer to the area as Hoyo Caliente, or "Hot Hole." The destitute neighborhood hosts constant foot traffic from market-goers and a high volume of residents within its tight quarters.
Indians pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez spent most of his childhood in Hoyo Caliente, which he described as "always crowded," "really poor" and "really dangerous."
Every day, Jimenez and the rest of the kids in the project played baseball, sometimes in the front yard, other times in the street. Once in a while, they would play on the roof of a nearby store. Anywhere to escape the harsh reality surrounding them.
They didn't have bats and balls at their disposal. There was no Louisville Slugger factory nearby. Rather, in the sweltering heat of the ghetto, the youngsters swung a tree branch at the detached head of a doll. Such ingenuity would make MacGyver proud.
"It didn't matter what we used," said the soft-spoken Jimenez in his calm, high-pitched voice. "We were poor; we didn't have a lot of things. ... It was crazy. In the Dominican, all the kids really love baseball. It doesn't matter how you play it."
Jimenez's humble beginnings helped shape who he is today: A lanky pitcher who mostly keeps to himself and rarely shows emotion on the field, even though he has experienced the highest peaks and most cavernous valleys that a baseball career can offer.
|"A lot of people think because you do bad out there, that's the end of the world, but it's not. This is baseball. Sometimes things are going to go your way and sometimes they're not. It's a tough game, but it's the game I love."|
|-- Ubaldo Jimenez|
It was imperative to his parents, Ubaldo Sr. and Ramona, that Jimenez not follow other troubled teens into that hole, and they weren't shy about telling him so. He noted how they "worked hard every day so we could have food on the table and get an education," even though they also showed him tough love, which he now laughs at.
"My mom used to hit me every single day when I got home because she didn't want me to be hanging around [bad people]," Jimenez said matter-of-factly while flashing a smile. "I used to get beat every day by my mom. But I'm here because of my family and the way they raised me."
Ubaldo Sr. spent 13 years in the army before working as a bus driver and a security guard. Ramona was a nurse, which sparked her son's interest in one day becoming a doctor.
When Jimenez was finished playing ball on that day's makeshift field, he'd return to the house his family rented. The living space, which Jimenez said rivaled the width of a few lockers in the Indians' clubhouse, featured a refrigerator as its only appliance. Without the privilege of a washing machine, his mother was forced to clean the family's clothes by hand.
"I didn't realize that until I got to be 9 or 10 years old," Jimenez said. "I was always playing baseball, so I was always dirty. So she said, 'You have to do it by yourself to see how hard it is.'"
At night, Jimenez would sleep in the living room on a small cot, which he called a "bed sandwich" for its appearance when folded up.
It could have been easy for Jimenez to submit to the pressures set forth by his surroundings. Instead, he used his one passion -- baseball -- as an out. Eventually, the thousands of hours he spent outside from sunup to sundown paid off. Jimenez signed with the Rockies for $50,000 at the age of 17, and he immediately relocated his family to a better neighborhood in the Dominican.
"I always played baseball, just because I love it," Jimenez said. "It wasn't about getting money or getting out of poverty that way. I played because I loved it. I played every single day."
Jimenez commenced the uphill climb through the Rockies' farm system the following summer. During his Minor League journey he encountered the typical ups (an 11-6 record and 3.35 ERA as a 19-year-old in Class A in 2003) and downs (a 5.43 ERA in Double-A in 2005; a 5.85 ERA in Triple-A in 2007). Throughout it all, he maintained the even keel his parents demanded from him.
"In the Minor Leagues," Jimenez said, "I saw teammates getting really aggressive and things like that and I even saw people that hit the wall and then they get hurt and injured and that's something that I think about. It's not worth it. Why are you going to hurt yourself knowing that tomorrow is another day? If you do bad today, tomorrow you'll have a chance to make it better. That's why I always try to be the same. It doesn't matter if I'm doing good or bad."
Just this season, Tribe reliever Nick Hagadone suffered a self-inflicted, season-ending injury to his hand after a string of shaky outings.
It's no surprise that the mild-mannered Jimenez says his family "is everything to me." His parents reside with him during the season on the west side of Cleveland. They no longer work. As Jimenez puts it, "I retired them."
Jimenez's older sister Leidys is completing her eighth year of medical school in the Dominican. Jimenez keeps a picture of his 8-year-old niece Crisley on the back wall of his locker. Without his family, Jimenez says he wouldn't be where he is now, and that makes it easy for him to stay grounded.
"It's not difficult, because of the way I was raised," Jimenez said. "I do my best every time I go to the mound. Off the mound, I do the same thing. I try to be a humble person. I try to be respectful of everyone."
Jimenez slipped up once. In a Spring Training tilt against the Rockies, who traded him to Cleveland last July, Jimenez took exception in an ongoing war of words with former teammate Troy Tulowitzki. He plunked Tulowitzki on the elbow, inciting a bench-clearing incident as he pounded his chest and shouted at the shortstop.
"I'm a human being. If I get challenged, I'm just like any other guy," Jimenez said. "I control my emotions more, but there are some times that you have to let it out. People think that because you're quiet or humble, that means that you're going to take everything. But not like that."
Rockies skipper Jim Tracy called it "the most gutless act I have seen in 35 years of professional baseball."
Jimenez said if he isn't provoked, such a scenario "won't happen again." For now, his only concern is improving on the mound.
The Indians continue to wait for the Jimenez of old, the flame-throwing hurler with a quirky delivery who can touch the high-90s with his heater, the guy who spun a no-hitter and posted a 13-1 mark and a 1.15 ERA in his first 14 starts of the 2010 campaign. Cleveland parted with its top two pitching prospects in a package to acquire the right-hander. Since, Jimenez has compiled a 13-16 mark and a 5.45 ERA in 35 starts with the Tribe and he's the first to admit he hasn't held up his end of the deal.
"He still has the ability to be successful," said Indians general manager Chris Antonetti. "It just hasn't translated as consistently as we'd like. But it's not through a lack of effort. He continues to work exceptionally hard."
On his off days, Jimenez runs in the sand that soaks up Lake Erie's waves. Everywhere he goes, he totes a white towel scrunched in a shape that allows him to position his fingers and practice his unorthodox throwing motion.
"He probably cares a little too much at times," said former Indians pitching coach Scott Radinsky. "Especially going into this year, he's had a lot to prove. He worked his [tail] off over the winter. If you watch him the four days between starts, you'd see a guy that cares. The work he puts in and watching his [bullpen sessions], he cares."
When the season ends, Jimenez and his parents will head back to their native country where, in the nation's capital, they own a home -- the first non-rented abode in which Jimenez has dwelled.
Every so often, Jimenez visits Hoyo Caliente, which he says hasn't changed a bit.
But it's important to the 28-year-old that he never forget where or what he came from. Kids still play ball in the streets. When Jimenez visits the town he takes it upon himself to relay the virtues his parents instilled in him.
"Now you're the one that some of the kids are looking up to," he said. "They want to be you. I definitely want to be a good example, not only on the field, but off the field too."
Jimenez understands that most people will point to the numbers and the perceived nonchalant attitude on the mound and assume that he's content with mediocrity.
"That's the farthest thing from the case," Radinsky said.
Jimenez knows the work he puts in can only take him so far. There are certain things out of his control. Whether it's with a stick and a doll or a bat and a ball, some days things won't go as desired. And Jimenez is OK with that.
"A lot of people think because you do bad out there, that's the end of the world, but it's not," he said. "This is baseball. Sometimes things are going to go your way and sometimes they're not. It's a tough game, but it's the game I love."
After all, Jimenez has climbed out of deeper holes than this.