Escobar next Venezuelan star at short?
Following countrymen's trail, rookie ascends to Crew's starter
PHOENIX -- Alcides Escobar has come a long way from a small town in Venezuela to assume his place in that nation's long line of Major League shortstops.
Position analysis• Manager
• Third base
• Second base
• Left field
• Center field
• Right field
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He grew up idolizing Alex Rodriguez, but his Venezuelan heroes included his uncle, Jose Escobar, an infielder who played 13 seasons in the Minor Leagues and saw 10 games of big league action with the Indians in 1991, plus, of course, Vizquel, who broke into the Majors with the Mariners when Escobar was two years old. Later, Escobar cheered for his first cousin, Kelvim Escobar, a right-hander who has now pitched parts of 12 Major League seasons and is trying to get healthy in Mets camp.It was Kelvim Escobar who turned on the Brewers to his cousin. He convinced legendary scout Epy Guerrero -- Mike Guerrero's father, who was working for the Brewers at the time -- to take a look at Alcides at the Brewers' academy in the Dominican Republic. Alcides Escobar worked out for the Brewers for a month before they offered a $30,000 bonus. He signed on July 9, 2003. "He was so skinny when he was 15, 16," Kelvim Escobar said. "I think he got checked out by other teams, and they said he was too skinny, that he had no pop. ... I know many scouts didn't want to sign him because he was way too skinny. But Epy was the only one that signed him." What does Sandy Guerrero remember? "I remember a lanky, skinny kid," Guerrero said. "You could see from his walk and his footwork that he was going to run. If you just looked at him quickly you might not think he was that good. But if you really looked, you told yourself, 'He's just 16!' He was more like a raw 19- or 20-year-old, and when you thought about it that way you appreciated his tools." Those were the waning days of the Brewers' Dominican academy that closed in late 2003 and only recently re-opened in a new location. Escobar and fellow Venezuelan infielder Hernan Iribarren spent their early days in the organization working with Brewers Minor League instructor Mike Guerrero -- Epy's son and Sandy's younger brother -- who pounded 200 ground balls in their direction per day for six months. Escobar ate it up. "The work they did then is why he is here today," Sandy Guerrero said. "You asked him to do something, and he was willing to go do it for as long as it took. He never told you, 'I'm tired.' He has all the abilities, but he made himself into the player he should be." What kind of Major League player he turns out to be remains to be seen, but the signs are there. Escobar batted .298 last season at Triple-A Nashville with 42 stolen bases in 109 games before an Aug. 12 promotion to Milwaukee, where the Brewers had just demoted incumbent shortstop J.J. Hardy. In 38 games the rest of the way, Escobar batted .304 (38-for-125) in the big leagues. Then it was back to Venezuela for winter ball, where he played for Lara and won the league's batting title with a .393 average. By the time he was done, the Brewers had traded Hardy to the Minnesota Twins, clearing the way for Escobar to take over. Escobar and Hardy remain close. Escobar said they spoke via telephone two weeks before the start of Spring Training, and Hardy offered encouragement. Escobar calls his predecessor "a great person, a great teammate, a great player." Two years ago, Escobar met Vizquel for the first time. He remembers the advice being simple -- "work hard" -- and the veteran walked away equally impressed. Vizquel signed over the winter with the White Sox and is training down the road from Maryvale Baseball Park. "I've talked to him a couple of times and he seems like a good kid," Vizquel said. "We have a tradition. We have Luis Aparicio, who was the mentor of baseball, and for our generation it was Davey Concepcion. [Escobar] is part of the new generation of shortstops coming up. They used to watch baseball when they were growing up, and it feels good to know that I caught their attention and they care about playing shortstop the right way." "Now, we have pitchers and catchers and outfielders and first basemen and everything all over the field. But right now, it is still special to be a shortstop from Venezuela." "I think this guy can do a lot of things," said White Sox skipper Guillen. "I saw him play in the winter and he did very well. He can hit, and he's pretty a solid shortstop. "First, people wanted to be [Luis] Aparicio, and then they wanted to be [Chico] Carrasquel and Davey Concepcion and Ozzie Guillen and Omar Vizquel. That feeling still lives, and I think that's the reason why there are a lot of good shortstops from Venezuela." Alcides Escobar also remains close with his cousin. Kelvim Escobar said the two talk on the phone or swap text messages just about every day. The younger cousin often calls, seeking advice. "Playing at this level is not easy, it's never easy," Kelvim Escobar said. "It's a learning process for everyone, and I know how hard it is, but he's very talented. You have to work hard, learn and acknowledge the game, stay focused. I told him, 'Don't try to do too much, don't put pressure on yourself. Just go out there and let your abilities do the work for you. Be focused.' And things should be fine for him. "One of the things I like from him is he's very confident, and he believes in his talents. And when you see a guy like that, it's helpful. You can't take things for granted, so he has to work hard and take advantage of that opportunity. It's the opportunity [of a lifetime]." Alcides Escobar realizes the opportunity. His goals include playing a full Major League season, staying healthy and making an All-Star team. "Plus, the World Series," he said, flashing one of those smiles.
Notable Venezuelan shortstops
|Chico Carrasquel||1950-59||White Sox, Indians, Athletics, Orioles||Third in 1950 AL Rookie of the Year, four-time All-Star|
|Luis Aparicio||1956-73||White Sox, Orioles, Red Sox||1956 AL Rookie of the Year, 1984 Hall of Fame inductee|
|Dave Concepcion||1970-88||Reds||Nine-time all-star, two World Series rings|
|Ozzie Guillen||1985-2000||White Sox, Orioles, Braves, Rays||1985 AL Rookie of the Year, 2005 AL Manager of the Year|
|Omar Vizquel||1989-||Mariners, Indians, Giants, Rangers||11-time Gold Glove winner, active leader in games played|
|Alex Gonzalez||1998-2007, 2009-||Marlins, Red Sox, Reds||Signed this winter with the Blue Jays|
|Carlos Guillen||1998-||Mariners, Tigers||Has not played SS since '07|
|Cesar Izturis||2001-||Blue Jays, Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals, Orioles||2005 All-Star|
|Elvis Andrus||2009-||Rangers||Second in 2009 AL Rookie of the Year|
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.