In bigs, Frieri grounded by his Colombian roots
Angels reliever vows to never forget family, friends from small village
ANAHEIM -- Sincerin is a small, undeveloped, poverty-stricken village located roughly 30 miles off the northern coast of Colombia, where fishing, farming and soccer dominate the day-to-day. For a young Ernesto Frieri, that was no different.
Until Game 7 of the 1997 World Series found its way into Frieri's tiny home, because a baby-faced shortstop from the city of Barranquilla -- about a two-hour drive from this desolate Sincerin town -- was starring in it.
Until Frieri reveled in that shortstop, Edgar Renteria, slapping the game-winning single off the Indians' Charles Nagy with two outs in the 11th inning.
And until Frieri experienced how the entire nation rallied around Renteria, the instant national hero who at that time was one of only five natives to even sniff the Major Leagues.
The next day, Frieri -- three months removed from his 12th birthday -- traded his soccer ball for a baseball.
His life would never be the same again.
"That was such a big moment for all of Colombia," Frieri recalls now, in Spanish. "It was a pride we all felt like no other. That pushed me to go out and start playing baseball. And I guess it was a good decision. Here I am."
Here he is, starring, as few would've anticipated at the start of the season, as a closer for the contending Angels.
Buried in standout Padres bullpens, the Angels plucked the 27-year-old Frieri from San Diego in early May, in exchange for infielder Alexi Amarista and Minor League pitcher Donn Roach. With a funky delivery, a lively fastball general manager Jerry Dipoto simply calls "magic" and an unwavering belief in his own ability, Frieri was an out-of-nowhere force from the start, striking out 45 batters and hurling 26 1/3 scoreless innings to almost make the All-Star team.
Now, in his third season of significant big league action, Frieri has established himself as a prominent reliever, posting a 2.35 ERA while going 23-for-26 in saves through 65 innings since moving to Anaheim.
But always in the forefront of his mind is that small Colombian village that still defines him, where the roads are unpaved, technology is barren and everyone maintains an uncommonly upbeat attitude -- similar to the one an amicable Frieri uses to light up the Angels' clubhouse.
Still in the forefront of his mind is that kid who used to have to share gloves and borrow cleats just to play the game that quickly grew on him.
"I will never forget about that," Frieri says, solemnly. "I will never forget about the guy that always let me use his spikes, or the guy that always let me use his glove. I keep in touch with those guys. Every time that I realize I'm a big leaguer, that I'm here playing the best baseball in the world, I always remember where I came from. It makes me feel proud of myself. I will never forget where I came from, I will never forget about my people."
His people start with his grandmother, Zoila Gutierrez, who practically raised him while his mom looked for work opportunities in Spain and his father disappeared. In order to maintain all her kids, Zoila ran a tamale stand. And when Frieri was about 10 years old, he began waking up at 4 a.m. to help grind the corn for that tamale stand, taking up that almost-daily chore for about five years.
That, he'll tell you, is why he throws baseballs hard and why his arm never hurts.
"That exercise was helping me before even knowing it, before I even started playing baseball," Frieri said. "I'd do that exercise in the morning, and I'd notice that my arm was developing and it was feeling good and it didn't hurt. I'd throw harder than any of my friends. And thankfully, to this day, I have a healthy arm because as a kid I did that every morning. That's why I can throw one, two, three days in a row, throw a lot of pitches, and the next day I feel good."
Two years ago, constant winter rain finally caused Frieri's childhood home to fall down, so Frieri built Zoila a brand new, much-bigger version. And every year, when the city floods, it's Frieri who invests in the pumps that drain the water out again.
Like most big leaguers, Frieri is well off. But he won't make the big Major League money until after the 2013 season, when he's arbitration-eligible for the first time. So for now, still without an established charity, he pulls all the money out of his own pocket.
"People ask, and since it's my hometown, it's hard for me to tell them no," Frieri said. "It's very deserted. And there are a lot of honest, good people there. It's such a small town, everybody knows each other, everybody's nice to each other. I'm always trying to help them."
Frieri starred in the makeshift baseball games that were played on the lawns of that town. When he turned 14, his grandmother gave what little money she had so Frieri could take the 40-minute bus to Cartagena, one of the biggest cities of Colombia, to learn how to pitch at an academy run by the Padres.
Eventually, he impressed enough that the Padres signed him as an amateur free agent at age 17. Six years later, Frieri made it through the Padres' Minor League system and finally cracked the door open, making two appearances in the Majors as a mid-September callup in 2009.
Then, the ensuing offseason, like every offseason before that, Frieri returned to his small Colombian town.
But when he landed this time, he noticed those unpaved streets were blocked, and that a city with no police department suddenly had several uniformed men on duty, and that decorated vans in a town where people mostly walk were stationed everywhere.
Frieri's hometown was throwing him a parade -- just like they did for Renteria 12 years earlier.
"They walked me down the streets and everyone was hugging me as if I had just won the World Series or something, just for the simple fact that I made it to the big leagues," Frieri said. "That was a very beautiful moment that I'll never forget and that I always have in the forefront of my mind. It was one of the greatest moments of my life."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.