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This is a dangerous story, because the moral, when you get right down to it, is, The kid knows best. Maybe not every kid, or even very many kids. But some kid, or at least one kid. Isn't that just as bad? When you establish that the grown-ups (the scouts, the managers, the front-office types) are not always right—and that the kid might be—well, this is just the kind of precedent that permits a skinny ragamuffin from the dusty diamonds of Hermosillo, Mexico, to dream, to know, that someday he'll be in the major leagues.
Erubiel Durazo—that onetime stick figure from the Sonora Desert—gives every underrated player the comfort of knowing that mistakes in talent evaluation are made and that no rejection ought to be considered final. All these overlooked prospects now may think they could very well end up like Durazo, exploding across the National League. His impact was so sudden that the only thing in the literature to explain it verges on the otherworldly. "He's like The Natural" suggests Derek Bryant, the scout who confirmed Durazo's outlandish faith in his own abilities. "Wonderboy and all."
How Durazo could jump from Double A to the Arizona Diamondbacks within one season ("We ran out of levels in a hurry, didn't we?" says Bryant), during which he disrespected the pitching equally at all stops, is one of baseball's great mysteries. The idea that somebody could materialize and end up hitting .329 and 11 home runs in 52 games in a major league team's division title drive truly mocks the system. "I guess," says Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter, "there's now hope for all those kids who never get drafted."
But the greater mystery is what allowed Durazo, who turned 26 on Jan. 23, to persevere, to ignore the enormous slights of baseball authority. He couldn't have guessed, any more than the scouts, that he would become a strapping young man, 6' 3" and 225 pounds, or that his almost comically short arms would produce a power swing that would make his new teammates whistle in awe. Did he think, when he was a 6' 1", 175-pound, 15-year-old southpaw pitcher on the sandlots, that he'd hit for power and average at every class of baseball?
Even the determined Durazo had the occasional doubt. "It got to the point where I almost forgot about making it in the big leagues," he said last month back in Hermosillo, where he was living in his parents' house and helping the Naranjeros (Orange Growers) in their Mexican Pacific League playoff finals against the Navojoa Mayos. "It was my dream for a long time, but I was thinking about quitting. It became real hard to keep dreaming."
Mostly, though, he dreamed. Even in high school, Durazo single-mindedly pursued a life in the majors. He and four other Hermosillo boys traveled 200 miles north to live with families in Tucson and attend school and play U.S. baseball. It was an ambitious effort to beat the system, to escape the traditional route through the Mexican League and enter baseball's draft. (Only residents of the U.S. and Puerto Rico are eligible.) Durazo played solidly at Amphitheater High—"learning English and getting better baseball instruction," he says—but captured nobody's imagination.
Bryant, a big league outfielder in 1979 (39 games for the Oakland A's) who later made his living in Mexico as a scout and a manager and is now the Diamondbacks' minor league outfield coordinator, first saw Durazo when the kid was 15. Looking back, it might be easy for Bryant to say that rival scouts weren't as astute as he. "But you have to realize," Bryant says, "when scouts saw him, he was a skinny lefthanded pitcher who [at bat] was spraying the ball all around. It's not that so many people were wrong about him. It's just that it was the wrong time."
The time wasn't any better in June 1995, when Durazo, despite having hit .434 during two years of baseball at Tucson's Pima Community College, still wasn't selected in the draft. Durazo is a member of a high-achieving family. His father, Isidro, worked as a bank manager and, over time, accumulated a 6,000-acre cattle ranch in the high desert. Erubiel's older brother, Isidro Jr., is in England working on a doctorate in engineering. So Erubiel's lack of progress was beginning to chip away at his dream. "I was ready to give up, to go back to college, do something else," he says. "For six or eight months I just stayed home and thought about it." But he stayed in the game, and in 1997 Bryant, managing the Monterrey Sultans of the Mexican League (the approximate equivalent of Triple A), called Durazo, who had played for him in Hermosillo earlier that year. "The next morning," Durazo says, "I'm on a bus."
By this time Durazo had given up pitching for first base and had grown into a hitter. With the Sultans in '97-98, he batted .282 and was the Mexican League Rookie of the Year. The next season, also at Monterrey, he hit .350, cracked 19 homers and drove in 98 runs in 119 games. Bryant suggested that the Diamondbacks, who had signed an agreement to work with the Sultans, take a look at Durazo, and this time scouts saw an entirely different player. Arizona purchased Durazo's Monterrey contract in December 1998.
To start the 1999 season Durazo was deposited in El Paso with the Double A Diablos of the Texas League. After 64 games he was batting .403 with 14 homers, so he was jumped to the Triple A Tucson Sidewinders of the Pacific Coast League. After only 30 games there Durazo was hitting .407 with 10 homers, so on July 26 he was brought up to the big club when regular first baseman Travis Lee, in a long slump, was benched. Showalter had only a vague memory of Durazo from spring training: During a Diamondbacks exhibition in Hermosillo, the hometown boy had been put in to bat as a courtesy and had singled. Other than that, Showalter had no idea what he was getting.