Ugueth Urbina, the meticulous Expos closer, has done more for the rolled-up sleeve than anyone since James Dean. The only thing missing from Urbina's sleeve-turning ritual on the mound is a pack of Lucky Strikes, though his strikes with a 97-mph fastball and equally nasty slider are hardly lucky for opposing batters. Urbina throws them with an exaggerated follow-through and a bare right biceps. "He looks like an old third baseman, Eddie Mathews or someone, with that biceps showing," says Montreal manager Felipe Alou. Other National League managers and players have been less tolerant of the naked gun, riding him from the dugout when he rolls up his sleeve. Urbina shrugs. He swears the purpose of his sleeveless look is not vanity but comfort—or, as the French say, feeling good in his skin.
Urbina needs the exposure. Being a closer right now in Montreal is like being a chimney sweep in Phoenix—it's a noble calling but one not frequently in demand. Through Sunday the Expos had just 39 wins in 97 games, but with his 4-2 record and 23 saves, Urbina had had a hand in 27 of the victories (69.2%), the highest percentage of any pitcher in the majors. Urbina also had struck out 56 in 4216 innings, had a 1.28 ERA and had allowed opposing batters to hit just .164 against him. His pitches are not only hard to hit, especially since he began throwing his slider to lefthanded batters this season, but are also tough to catch. At this year's All-Star Game, Braves' catcher Javy Lopez was handcuffed so badly by Urbina's pitches that he looked as if he were in Williamsport instead of in Denver.
"I can't say if he's the best [closer] because he doesn't get the opportunities," says Alou, who gave Urbina the job when Mel Rojas signed with the Cubs as a free agent after the '96 season. "He might not have to throw for five days. He pitches here without incentive. But what he has done for us is incredible. In the right place, he could get 60 saves." However, Montreal seems like the right place to Urbina, who had 27 saves last year. In March he signed a three-year, $6.4 million contract, becoming one of the core players on the eternally rebuilding Expos, whose owners keep gutting the franchise in order to save it.
Four years ago Urbina's life hit its low point. On May 8, 1994, his Double A Harrisburg Senators manager, Dave Jauss, knocked on his motel door. Urbina, who had been pitching poorly as a starter, thought he was being demoted to Class A. Instead Jauss told him that his father, Juan Manuel, had been shot and killed while being robbed at his home in Caracas, Venezuela. Urbina remained so bitter about his father's murder that for the next few years he seemed ready to fight the whole world.
"I was 20 years old when my father was killed, and I had to grow up too quickly," Urbina says. "When I went home for the funeral, I told my mother I would never come back to play baseball. She would always tell me that my father's dream was for me to be in the big leagues. Every time I reach a goal, I wish he could have seen it. Sometimes it looks like I'm angry on the mound, but that's the way I pitch [best]. I never want to lose that attitude when I pitch."