Carlos Baerga had stepped onto the field and heard the roar of the Cleveland crowd countless times. Apparently it never gets old. "I got chills," Baerga said. "It was a very special moment for me."
The moment in question was Baerga's appearance at Progressive Field on April 15, when the former Tribe All-Star threw out the ceremonial first pitch before a game. This was Baerga's first trip back to Cleveland since 2002, when he was a part-time player for the Red Sox. While Baerga might not be a regular visitor to the building, he didn't need to wear a name tag. "The fans still remember me," he said with a big smile. "You don't even have to say my name. They remember what I've done before." In seven seasons with the Indians during the club's ascension from the doldrums of Cleveland Municipal Stadium to the renaissance that took place at the park now known as Progressive Field, Baerga did plenty to ensure his name will be etched into the hearts of those who watched him play. It began with his engaging personality and catchy smile and continued with his clutch hits at the plate. Between 1991 and 1995, he collected 890 hits and drove in 458 runs. And when the move was made to The Jake in '94, he was a leader in the clubhouse of a team that was just beginning to emerge as a powerhouse in the American League Central. One day, while touring the site of the new park as it was under construction, a reporter asked Baerga what the best part of the move would be. "We get to wear the red shoes!" Baerga said excitedly. Fourteen years later, Baerga looks back fondly at that first touring of the grounds of a park where the Indians would make many a memory. "We walked through the ballpark," Baerga recalled, "and I said, 'Wow. They're building this place with us, these young players.' When we came here, everything changed. It's like when you give a toy to your kids. They start smiling and jumping. To build a new ballpark for us was so special, because everything started clicking and we started winning." Two specific moments stand out to Baerga from those special days with the Indians. The first, as you might guess, was when he famously hit a home run from each side of the plate in the same inning of the April 8, 1993 game at Yankee Stadium. The other was Sept. 8, 1995, when the Indians clinched their first playoff berth since 1954 with a win over the Orioles. Those fond feelings, however, are tempered by what happened on July 30, 1996, when the Indians traded the popular Baerga and infielder Alvaro Espinoza to the Mets for Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino. Baerga had gained noticeable weight in the winter before the '06 season, and his performance had begun to decline.
"I realized this game is not about friends," Baerga said. "It's about the numbers you put down. After I got traded, I saw a lot of players go through that, and I learned something. You can be friendly all your life, but you have to hit. It made me mature in my career and my life."
Baerga was never the same player again. He only hit .193 in 26 games for the Mets that season. He battled a rib injury in '97 and had another disappointing year at the plate in '98. The Mets opted not to renew his contract.
In '99, Baerga became a utility player -- first for the Padres and then, to the fans' delight, for the Indians, who acquired him late in the year. But when he injured his knee in winter ball after the season, Baerga figured his playing days were done.
He was left to wonder what might have been had he not been traded in '96.
"When you're happy and comfortable, you can do a lot of great things," he said. "After I got traded, I was never an All-Star player again. It went through my mind that maybe if I stayed in Cleveland, it would have been a different story. I missed it. I missed it a lot. I missed the players, I missed the city. It's something I'm never going to forget about."
With his Major League skills diminished, Baerga decided to venture into the ownership side of baseball in 2001. He bought the Santurce Crabbers in the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League. The team won a championship under Baerga's watch, but he soon learned another tough lesson about the sport's business side when attendance declined rapidly.
"After five years, I said, 'That's it,'" Baerga said. "I didn't want to keep losing money."
Selling the team was a wise move. The Puerto Rican Winter League was forced to cancel its 2007-08 season because of sagging revenues, though the league is expected to start up again this coming winter.
"It's a very tough time for everybody over there," Baerga said, "because that league was the opportunity that helped me a lot to become a Major League player. Now there's a lot of young players who don't have the opportunity to play in winter ball. That was an advantage I had was the opportunity to play year-round."
Baerga had the opportunity to resume his big league career in '02 with the Red Sox, and he went on to play parts of the '04 season with the Diamondbacks and the '05 season with the Nationals.
Now, he's settled into a happy retirement, working as a baseball analyst for ESPN Deportes. He's the host of the network's Spanish-language equivalent to "Baseball Tonight."
"I love it," Baerga said. "I always said to the guys, 'One day, I'm going to be something on TV, and I hope it's talking about baseball.' This gave me the opportunity to stay in the game and keep talking with the players. Working in another company, I wouldn't have that opportunity."
And the 39-year-old Baerga really loved the opportunity to return to his Cleveland roots with his wife, Mirian, his 17-year-old daughter, Karla, and his 12-year-old son, Carlos Jr.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "Everywhere we went, [the fan support] was just crazy."
|"After I got traded, I saw a lot of players go through that, and I learned something. You can be friendly all your life, but you have to hit. It made me mature in my career and my life."|
|-- Carlos Baerga|
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.