ATLANTA -- Watching on television in his living room in the Barrio Hazin section of San Pedro de Macoris, a middle-class neighborhood where burros still rub up against cars on the streets, Carlos Bernhardt shouted at the sight of Francisco Cabrera approaching home plate at the end of Game 7 of the Braves-Pirates playoff series the other night.
"I jumped right out of my chair and said, 'Omigod, it's Cabrera,' " Bernhardt recalled yesterday on the phone from the Dominican Republic.
Bernhardt is the Orioles' scout in the Dominican, a tireless foot soldier who has signed dozens of players now flooding the lower tiers of the club's farm system. But he also is the pitching coach for Estrellas Orientales, a Dominican winter league team for which Cabrera has played the past three years.
He also knew Cabrera's father in their youth, when Bernhardt was a pitcher of some renown and Cabrera's father, Pablo, was an amateur outfielder who drove a truck in Santo Domingo. Francisco was this burly kid who was always big for his age. Pablo made little money, but he got a 75-peso advance from his boss for Francisco to have new spikes for trying out with the Blue Jays in 1985.
"The first time I saw Francisco playing, I went, 'This kid will make the major leagues one day,' " Bernhardt said. "I know that is easy to say now. But he had fantastic power. He could hit a ball forever. I didn't know if he could play a position, but anyone who could hit like that was going to make it."
It turned out Cabrera was indeed a fairly hopeless fielder who couldn't hit a curveball if the pitcher tipped it, but yes, he was a fastball-hitting fool. The Blue Jays signed him and he got his first major-league hit four years later, a double off Greg Cadaret
at Yankee Stadium. But then he was traded to the Braves and has spent most of the past three years at Triple-A. Now 26, he is famous for hitting monster home runs in winter ball, but his equation of skills is just below adequate for the bigs.
Not that his career hasn't been a epiphany for his family. "He's been a good son, a great son," Bernhardt said. "He's brought back a lot of money, made their lives better. Like so many families of Dominican players, they had very little before he began playing baseball."
The Braves still thought enough of his bat to put him on their postseason roster, though, and suddenly there he was pinch hitting Wednesday night with the whole season on the line. The Braves were down one run with the bases loaded and two out. Stan Belinda was the Pirates' pitcher. There was a shattering din in the ballpark.
"I knew right away this was a good situation for him," Bernhardt said. "I know Belinda was a fastball pitcher. Cabrera, he can't touch a breaking ball to save his life, But he can hit that fastball. I figure that's why [manager] Bobby Cox sent him up there."
You know the rest. Cabrera took two balls, hit a vicious foul and then singled in two runs to win the game, the National League pennant and a place in baseball history. It is not
an exaggeration to call it one of the most splendidly dramatic moments in baseball history.
"The people went crazy here," Bernhardt said. "It was exciting enough when [Juan] Guzman pitched the Blue Jays into the Series earlier in the same day. But this time they ran out into the streets, running, jumping, laughing. Me, I couldn't help it. I started jumping up and down. I'm a Baltimore Oriole through and through, but at a moment like that, you have to be happy for your people."
You have to understand. Although a sizable collection of superstars are among the more than 200 Dominicans who have reached the majors since the country began exporting players toward the end of a dictatorship in 1956, never has a Dominican been the centerpiece of such a singular moment.
Cabrera will never begin to approach the accomplishments of Rico Carty, the Alou brothers, Joaquin Andujar, Pedro Guererro and George Bell, but they never had a moment that raised legitimate comparisons to Bobby Thomson's home run.
Events have different spin for different people, of course, and in the Dominican the spin on Cabrera's hit, once the shouting stops, is that maybe it will mean at least a little less ignorant American stereotyping of Latin ballplayers as dumb, lazy or useless in the clutch.
"You can't be under any more pressure than that, and Cabrera came through," Bernhardt said. "I went on the radio the other day here and I told the people this has to be the best single moment we have ever had. We were very proud when Jose Rijo and Guerrero were World Series MVPs, but this is something every baseball fan will remember for the rest of their lives. That it was a Dominican kid is just a beautiful thing."