The coach knew the boy had a chance. His delivery was smooth and easy. His breaking ball had good late movement to it. And though he was small and skinny, he, like so many other Dominican youngsters, threw hard enough, in the mid-80s. The coach had turned the boy into a pitcher only a few weeks earlier, but the boy was a natural.
It was 1998 and a scout from the Astros was holding tryouts in Santo Domingo, 40 miles away from the coach's baseball academy in Bonao. There the boy could show he deserved a ticket to the majors. But there was a troubling detail. The boy was 19. Scouts don't give 19-year-olds from the Dominican Republic a second look, certainly not ones still as raw at that age as the boy was. "So, you see, we have a problem," the boy heard the coach tell him. "You need to find a new name. You need a new identity."
The boy showed up at the tryout and threw a dozen pitches for the scout, a tall man named Ricardo Aponte. He wasn't the best one there—"not even close," remembers Aponte. "But his arm was loose and free. It wasn't worn down like so many others. And he was lefthanded. That's what made him rare."
Aponte introduced himself and asked the boy his name and his age. "My name is Eny Cabreja," the boy said. "I'm 17."
The boy lived with those lies for four years. In 2002, three years after he signed with Houston, the pitcher that the Astros thought was 21-year-old Eny Cabreja said that wasn't so. He was Wandy Eriberto Rodriguez from the small farming town of Santiago Rodríguez. He told them that he wasn't 21. He was two years older. "I was scared I was going to be sent home," says Rodriguez. "When they said I could stay, I felt free. I didn't have to cheat anymore."
The beauty of baseball's opening week isn't just the Pollyannaish sense of possibility, the feeling that this could be the Royals' (or the Pirates', or the Orioles' or—gasp—the Cubs') year. It's the thrill of the unknown, the certainty that six months from now, we'll be marveling at the exploits of someone we've barely heard of today. A year ago Wandy Rodriguez was that player: He'd been kicking around in the Astros' rotation for four seasons, the owner of a pedestrian 37--40 record and 4.79 ERA in 102 starts and nine relief appearances. But by October, Rodriguez, at age 30, had out of nowhere become one of the game's elite pitchers.
Rodriguez finished in the top 10 in the National League in ERA (3.02), strikeouts (193) and quality starts (23), and his curveball was suddenly hailed as one of the best pitches in baseball. Now in his sixth big league season and, perhaps, on the verge of fame beyond the boundaries of Houston, he's a reminder of one of baseball's truisms: When a season begins, you never know where the next hero will come from. And no, he has no regrets, no guilt over how he escaped Bonao's scraggly fields. Deep down, Wandy knows. Without the lie, he wouldn't be here.
The boy didn't want to be a pitcher. He grew up dreaming of playing outfield for his favorite team, the Braves. He had a strong arm and swung a good bat, and in 1994, at 15, he quit school and left home for Luis Coronado's baseball academy in Bonao. But after the boy had been there for four years, Coronado called Wandy's uncle, Faustino Rodriguez, to tell him to take the boy back to Santiago Rodríguez. "His uncle said the boy was a big leaguer," says Coronado. "I said, 'How can he be a big leaguer if he can't run or hit for power?'" Faustino begged Coronado to keep him, and the coach relented. "He's smart. He has a good arm," Coronado recalls telling Faustino. "I could make him a pitcher."
Says Rodriguez, "I was mad. I just spent four years working on hitting, and now you want me to pitch?' It didn't make sense to start all over. But I didn't have a choice."
Within months Rodriguez was throwing 87 mph. But there was the problem of his age; big league scouts in the Dominican are on the prowl for prospects in their early- or mid-teens, not unpolished 19-year-olds. Coronado suggested that the boy would have a better chance of being signed if he were younger, and Wandy and his uncle went about making it appear as if that were the case. They went home to Santiago Rodríguez, where they approached a friend of Wandy's named Eny Cabreja. Wandy and Eny had played ball together growing up. "He didn't play as much as me, but he played," says Rodriguez. "I went to the field one day and I told him what I needed. He just said, 'O.K., no problem.' A few days later he gave me some papers." Rodriguez returned to Bonao with a new identity.