FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - His first baseball glove wasn't even a glove. It was a milk carton, fashioned into a makeshift catching device for the poverty-stricken fields in the Dominican Republic.
So maybe Deivi Cruz has a tendency not to blink when he looks at this next challenge. The Orioles signed him to replace Mike Bordick, who made one error last year - yes, one - in the best defensive season for a shortstop in major-league history.
Bordick made his lone error April 10 and then set records for shortstop excellence by playing 110 consecutive games and fielding 543 consecutive chances without a single error.
During Bordick's stretch of perfection, Cruz made 13 errors for the San Diego Padres, and by all accounts, he had a pretty solid defensive season.
The comparisons could drive a weaker-minded player crazy. Cruz just shrugs.
"Everybody has a different game," Cruz said this past week. "I know Mike Bordick played like 110 games errorless, but I can't think about that. I have to do my job. I have to do what I can do. I can't say I'm going to be like somebody else. I have to go out there and do my job the best and try to help my team."
Cruz's new team is steeped in shortstop tradition - from Luis Aparicio to Mark Belanger to Cal Ripken to Bordick - but this isn't the first time Cruz has played in the shadows.
He was the Detroit Tigers' starting shortstop in 1997, the year after Alan Trammell retired. Trammell became a mentor, defensively and offensively. In 2000, when Cruz hit .302 and ranked third in the American League with 46 doubles, he gave the credit back to Trammell.
Cruz fell from favor with the Tigers the following season, when he made 17 errors in 110 games and hit just .256. He left as a free agent and signed with the San Diego Padres, taking a pay cut from $3 million to $600,000.
If that wasn't humbling enough, he arrived at spring training with news that he was older than everyone had thought. He wasn't 26, he was 29, and in baseball years that's like going from adolescence to middle-age.
That happened to a lot of foreign-born players last year, with stricter visa controls abroad. Orioles shortstop prospect Ed Rogers, for example, went from 20 to 23.
"If you can play, you can play," said Cruz, who turned 30 in November. "It doesn't matter how old you are."
Cruz had been a rising star ever since he graduated from the milk carton to a real glove, given to him by his father, who played catcher for an amateur team. Suddenly, Cruz's baseball value was plummeting like a lousy Internet stock, until he found a way to resurrect his career last season.
The Padres didn't sign him to be their everyday shortstop, but that's what he became. He played 151 games and hit .263. Take away September, when he had 10 hits in 63 at-bats, and his average was .277. He made 15 errors, but the Padres were thrilled, considering their shortstops had made 42 errors in 2001.
The standards are certainly different with the Orioles. It's feasible Cruz could have more errors Opening Day than Bordick had all last season.
"It's one of those things that shouldn't have an effect on him," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "We're very conscious of that, and we're keeping an eye out for it, but sometimes some things are better left unsaid. It's one of those things, if you say something to him, you have a tendency to expand problems."
The Bordick Era didn't end well for the Orioles. Less than a week after being hired, Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie and vice president Mike Flanagan had to make a decision about Bordick's future. They offered him a one-year, $1.5 million contract. He had just bought a new house in Baltimore and had a fifth baby on the way, and still he declined.
But the shortstop market was bone dry. Bordick, who hit .232 last year, wound up signing a one-year, $1 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays to back up Chris Woodward.
The Orioles turned to Cruz, signing him to a one-year, $1.2 million contract with an option for 2004. They got their new shortstop without losing the flexibility to go sign a big free agent at that position next offseason, when the list could include reigning American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada and Kazuo Matsui, a switch-hitting leadoff specialist who's still turning heads in Japan.
The scouting report says Cruz should have similar range to Bordick's and perhaps a better arm, but it might be impossible to have better hands.
Offensively, Cruz is considered a slight upgrade.
"I think what we're looking for from Deivi is the same thing we were looking for from Bordy," said Orioles bench coach Sam Perlozzo, who oversees the team's infield play. "We want him to make the plays he's supposed to make, and I think Deivi's going to do that for us.
"We're not expecting him to be a super flashy shortstop. We just want him to do what he does best, and from what I can see he's going to be steady."