How do you tell a proud man like Francisco Cabrera, big and strong and only 31 years old, that things look bleak? That scouts aren't knocking down the door of Albany-Colonie (N.Y.) Diamond Dogs general manager Charlie Voelker looking for a defensively adequate, offensively questionable former major league catcher? How do you tell him that the end is near?
Last week Cabrera made his debut with Albany-Colonie, an independent Double A team in the Northeast League. He's making less than $2,000 a month. His new team draws about 2,300 fans a game to 5,500-seat Heritage Park. His new teammates include a schoolteacher, a grad student and a football coach, all of whom have scrapbooks full of press clippings and bygone dreams of reaching the major leagues.
Cabrera is here because, even with one of the most memorable clutch hits in major league history on his r�sum�, no one else wanted him. Over the past five years, since he played his final game with the Atlanta Braves, Cabrera has worn the uniforms of teams in Canada, Japan, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and, last year, Taiwan. This year, until his agent hooked him up with the Diamond Dogs, he was sitting around his home in Santo Domingo, playing with his five children and hoping for work. "This is my last chance to get back to the major leagues," says Cabrera, who hit .254 with 17 home runs in 351 at bats over five seasons in the bigs. "I would like to be remembered for more than one at bat."
One swing, fair or not, is his legacy. It came in Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series. Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, Braves trailing Pittsburgh 2-1. "Frankie," said batting coach Clarence Jones, "get ready to hit." Cabrera was a 26-year-old nobody—an emergency catcher, a late-season call-up with 10 at bats that season. He pinch-hit for Jeff Reardon. Stan Belinda, the Pirates' closer, threw a slider. Ball one. A high fastball. Ball two. The next pitch, an inside fastball, was fouled off. Belinda fired another fastball, up and over the plate. Cabrera lined it to left. David Justice scored. A sliding Sid Bream followed. Game over. Series over. Hero born.
"You know what's funny?" says Cabrera as he sits in the Heritage Park dugout, wearing a pair of blue wrist bands left over from his Braves days. "They had me and Javy Lopez ready to pinch-hit, and they picked me. Javy Lopez is a star in the majors. The guy who threw the pitch was Stan Belinda. Stan Belinda is still in the majors."
He stares toward the outfield wall, lined with billboards for Subway and The Gazette and Suburban Propane, and his smile fades. This is not funny. Cabrera looks as he did when he was Atlanta's hero, save for a dark goatee and a few wrinkles. His stance, with the high, cocked right elbow, is vintage 1992. In his first game with the Dogs, on Aug. 18, he was awful, going 0 for 4. Two games later he was 3 for 3, lighting up the Massachusetts Mad Dogs for a homer, a triple and three RBIs.
"My dream as a boy was to play baseball," says Cabrera, who wants to scout after retiring. "When I reached the big leagues, it was more than I ever imagined. So being here is still special, because I love to play the game. If I can make it back, it'd be wonderful. If I don't, I'll at least be remembered for something."