It is seven days after the seventh game of the World Series, and word spreads like wildfire through the shanties and littered alleyways of Macarao, a dirt-poor neighborhood in the rugged hills southwest of downtown Caracas. "Nene Fran" is home. To the rest of the world he's K-Rod or Frankie or simply the Kid. But here in Venezuela, Francisco Rodriguez is known by the nickname he got as a hungry child, playing and break-dancing and hustling in the streets: Baby Fran.
The Anaheim Angels' wunderkind reliever is standing in a pockmarked parking lot outside Building 22, a five-story apartment house with cracked, yellowed walls. This is where Rodriguez was raised, crowded into a two-bedroom flat with the grandparents he called Mom and Dad and, depending on who needed a place to stay, anywhere from three to eight uncles and cousins. In this parking lot three-year-old Francisco swung an invisible bat and slid into phantom bases. This is where Nene Fran would break-dance to his beloved Michael Jackson music, rolling around in the dirt and coming home, in the words of his grandmother, Isabel Rodriguez, "negrito, looking like a disaster."
The nene is 20 years old now, an October hero. He has been front-page news in Venezuela for weeks, and upon his arrival at Maiquet�a International Airport two days earlier he was greeted by a horde of photographers and a couple hundred fans. Luis Salazar, the manager of the La Guaira Tiburones, the Venezuelan team that holds the winterleague rights to Rodriguez, says, "He's a bigger name than the president right now."
In fact, as Rodriguez strolls through Macarao, Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, is congratulating him in one of his regular televised addresses. Facing a crumbling economy and steep political opposition, Chavez, who was briefly ousted in a military coup earlier this year, has seen his hold on his office become more tenuous by the day. Looking for some positive p.r., his operatives have been trying since Rodriguez arrived to set up a photo op with Chavez at the presidential palace in Caracas. The day after visiting Macarao, as tens of thousands of people take to the streets in protest against Chavez, Rodriguez will downplay the possibility of meeting with El Presidente, saying, "I think he's busy." (They did find time for a phone chat on Saturday.)
A crowd of children has been following Rodriguez ever since he stepped out of his green 1998 Ford Explorer—the one with the Angels decal on the windshield—and he is signing the bats, gloves, faded caps and scraps of paper that they hand to him. He marks every item with his swirling signature, his uniform number (57) and his new nickname, K-Rod, a tribute to his impressive strikeout ability. Friends and distant relatives stop by for handshakes and hugs. The entire neighborhood is transfixed by Rodriguez's homecoming, save for a cluster of men and boys in a corner of the lot who exchange fistfuls of Venezuelan Bolivars over a racing form. Rodriguez smiles at the group. "I used to do that," he says. "I used to take bets for horse racing. That's how I paid for my school uniform, my books, the bus, my first glove. It was the only way I had to buy things."
Four years ago Rodriguez's family left Building 22 for a four-bedroom apartment in La Urbina, a leafier middle-class community on the other side of the Venezuelan capital, a social climb made possible by the $900,000 signing bonus the Angels gave Francisco four months before his 17th birthday. Rodriguez uses that apartment as a base when he returns to Venezuela, but he still spends much of his time in Macarao. "This is why I don't feel nervous or scared on the mound," he says. "Because of where I grew up. We were poor. I never had new shoes or new T-shirts. But we were all together. Every time I go out to the mound, I think about where I come from and what I used to have."
That was Rodriguez's only thought as he walked off the mound after the sixth inning of Game 2 of the Division Series against the New York Yankees. It was his first postseason appearance, and manager Mike Scioscia had entrusted him with a 4-3 lead, but after getting two outs and allowing a single, the young righthander made a colossal mistake: He allowed a two-run home run to Alfonso Soriano on an 0-2 slider. Yankee Stadium rocked, and Rodriguez envisioned himself spending the rest of the series on the bench.
But Scioscia and pitching coach Bud Black knew Rodriguez's history. He had struggled as a starter for three seasons in the minors, accumulating an 11-12 record, and was switched to the bullpen only this year, at which point he blazed through Double A and Triple A, striking out 120 batters in 83? innings. There were questions about his maturity and his readiness for the majors when he was called up after the Triple A playoffs ended in mid-September, but Rodriguez helped allay those doubts with his September performance: 13 strikeouts in 5? scoreless innings in five games against the division-rival Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers. "We liked his composure, his mound presence, his stuff," says Black. "We started to say, 'Hey, this guy can have an impact.' "
On the final day of the regular season Scioscia called Rodriguez into his office. The kid figured he'd be told to have a nice winter; he was shocked when he was informed that he would be on Anaheim's playoff roster.