a $475,000 signing bonus ($775,000 less than his best friend had been given
five years earlier) and moved quickly through Atlanta's farm system, showing
good plate discipline and a flashy, if erratic, glove. Last June 2, two years
after he was drafted, he made his big league debut. He went 2 for 4 with a
game-winning double against the Chicago Cubs and hasn't stopped hitting since.
He batted .326 in 319 at bats last season, alternating among shortstop, third
base and second base. During the off-season he lived in Miami, answering 7 a.m.
wake-up calls from Edgar Renteria ("�Est�s ready?" Renteria would ask),
who put his apprentice through all-day workouts even after Renteria was traded
to the Detroit Tigers in November—a move, ironically, that was forced by the
rapid development of Escobar, who is seven years younger than the Colombian
Having packed 12
pounds of muscle onto his 6'2" frame, Escobar has gotten off to another
quick start in 2008, hitting .324 with a .529 slugging percentage in the
season's first three weeks. Braves bench coach Chino Cadahia, a fellow Cuban
who is close to Escobar, says, "He plays with ..." and pauses before
adding "�nimo," or soul. McCann compares Escobar with the Marlins'
Hanley Ramirez. This is hyperbole, of course, but at the very least Escobar has
earned entr�e into the National League East's club of elite shortstops, which
also includes the Mets' Jose Reyes and last year's National League MVP, the
Phillies' Jimmy Rollins.
As for Pe�a,
well, destiny has a sense of humor, doesn't it? While Escobar's career races
forward like, say, a black Mercedes, Pe�a's better resembles a fishing boat
adrift. Pe�a is blocked by McCann, who is two years younger than his backup.
Despite a .314 career average in seven minor league seasons and an MVP award in
the 2007--08 Dominican winter league, Pe�a has never batted more than 41 times
in any of four big league seasons. "I don't have any doubt in my mind that
Brayan Pe�a is a major league catcher," says Cadahia, a former backstop
himself. "He needs the opportunity to prove that he can play at this
"Not too many
people have the opportunity to play with their childhood best friend," Pe�a
says. "Every moment I go to the field with him, it feels like we've been
together forever. I am happy for his accomplishments."
WHAT, ESCOBAR is
asked, has he liked most about his new country? "The sacrifices you make
for your family always bear fruit," he replies. That's also how he explains
why he does not worry about Pe�a's future. Someday the sacrifices that Pe�a has
been making on Escobar's behalf since they were children will reward him as
much as they have his best friend. Pe�a was the big brother who forced Escobar
to do his homework so that his teachers in Cuba would let him play ball. Now he
is the mentor who has introduced Escobar to MySpace and hi5 chats and texting
on his cellphone.
The best friends
talk about opening a restaurant together someday, though neither knows how to
cook. "But children," Escobar says, "they're my life. I like to
work with them." Along with Juan Pablo Echevarr�a, a Miami trainer, Escobar
helps run a baseball academy for children ages eight through 12 when he returns
to South Florida in the winter. They have a team: the Braves, of course. The
children wear their pullover jerseys with pride and it is not hard to imagine
one of the youngsters telling his best friend, "Let's grow up to be