Alex Cintron looked at his alarm clock while in bed on Sunday morning, thinking he still had an hour to sleep before getting up and heading off to the park.
Suddenly, his heavy eyes jolted open at the knocks and loud Spanish at his door. This, Cintron knew, was his official wake-up call.
The man getting Cintron up and at ’em was Diamondbacks teammate Carlos Baerga, 10 years his senior. Someone Cintron idolized growing up, someone who is now his best baseball friend.
"He’s knocking on the door, yelling, ‘Let’s go!’ " Cintron said. "We drive together a lot. Every morning (for a day game), I’m going, ‘Come on, I can get a few more minutes of sleep.’ But he’s always ready to go. . . .
"When he first got in the big leagues, I was about 12. I loved to watch him play. To have a chance to play with him and learn from him is exciting."
The wake-up knocks and ballpark commutes are just part of the mentor relationship that Baerga, a 10-year veteran and three-time All-Star, has developed with Cintron, who boasted just 118 days of big league service before this season.
Both native Puerto Ricans — Baerga, 34, was born in San Juan, Cintron in Humacao — the two infielders played against each other in winter ball in recent years. After Baerga signed a minor league deal with the DBacks in the offseason, a friendship was forged at spring training.
"When we first got to play together, I realized what kind of player he is and the ability he has," Baerga said. "Alex is so young in his career. If he keeps learning the game and realizing the confidence he has in himself, he’s going to be that much better."
Baerga’s reaching out to a teammate is nothing new. He has always been a clubhouse leader and popular player on every team he’s been on.
"He was a good cheerleader, even when he was playing every day," said Luis Isaac, longtime bullpen coach for the Cleveland Indians, where Baerga played from 1990-96. "He was the soul of the team. He kept everybody on their toes."
Arizona manager Bob Brenly said he appreciates the attention Baerga has given Cintron, who is hitting .302 with three homers and 14 RBIs. However, he knows that Baerga’s mentoring motives extend beyond friendship.
"Not only is Carlos being a good guy," Brenly said, "he’s being a good and smart owner."
Baerga is a player-owner for the Bayamon Vaqueros, a Puerto Rican winter league team. Not coincidentally, the Vaqueros recently acquired Cintron in a trade with the Caguas Criollos.
"So, it’s a little selfish on Carlos’ part," Brenly said. "But the bottom line is that Alex is getting a good education from a guy who was one of the best in the game for a long time."
Certainly, Baerga has more than his share of baseball ups and downs to convey to Cintron. From hit prospect to All-Star to oft-injured to valuable role player, Baerga has filled every role on the baseball playbill.
One of the men who elevated Cleveland to the American League’s elite in the mid-1990s, Baerga eclipsed 20 home runs and 100 RBIs twice. But his production suddenly declined in 1996, and he was traded to the New York Mets in July of that season.
"We’re still puzzled by that," Isaac said. "We don’t know what happened. His body just didn’t respond."
Injuries were part of the problem. Another was a lack of focus the Indians perceived in Baerga, a social butterfly who could often be seen chatting on a cell phone during batting practice.
Baerga couldn’t regain his form with the Mets. Troubled by knee pain and inconsistency, he was out of baseball by the 2000 season.
In 2001, Baerga started working his way back, playing in Korea and the independent Atlantic League. He signed with the Boston Red Sox last year, hitting .286 in 73 games.
"You have to work hard," said Baerga, batting .294 with three home runs and 18 RBIs this season. "I learned after a while in baseball that nothing is guaranteed. You never know how long you are going to be here.
"Yes, enjoy the moment, but be aware that somebody somewhere is dying to take your job away. You have to take everything out of every day. That’s what I convey to Alex."
When Cintron began the season at Class AAA Tucson, Baerga called him every day. Cintron batted .393 in 26 games with the Sidewinders and was promoted to the D-Backs on May 7.
Cintron said Baerga helps him most with anticipation — what a pitcher is thinking, what defensive options exist on a ground ball. During games, the two usually sit together in the dugout, discussing certain situations.
"I pretty much know what to do on the field," Cintron said.
"He gives me the little extra things, things that come with his experience."
Many feel Baerga’s playing and ownership experience make him an ideal candidate for a managing or administrative post someday.
Cintron knows firsthand that Baerga has all the tools.
"He’s smart," Cintron said. "He would be a great coach, and if he wanted to become a manager or general manager, he could do that."
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