Friday, October 07, 2005

[Baseball] Breton: The lonely death of Mario Encarnacíon

Published on Sacbee on Oct. 6, 2005.

Marcos Bretón: The lonely death of Mario Encarnacíon

A gentle soul dies in world far away

By Marcos Bretón -- Bee Sports Columnist

Published 2:15 am PDT Thursday, October 6, 2005
Story appeared in Sports section, Page C1

This is lovingly dedicated to Mario Encarnacíon, an original River Cat and once-highly rated A's prospect who died tragically, a world away.

Some of us learned only Wednesday that Mario had died, at 30, in Taiwan, where he was playing baseball.

According to the Taipei Times, his body was found in his Taipei County apartment by officials with the Macoto Cobras of the Chinese Professional Baseball League.

Mario missed Monday's practice, only to be discovered on his bed - the air conditioner and TV on, his refrigerator open.

Pending an autopsy, the cause of death is unknown, though Chinese media reported that Mario flunked a steroids test in May, for which he was suspended two weeks.

It was also reported that he had an acute case of gastroenteritis, which was causing him great discomfort.

"I don't know how to put this into words," former River Cats general manager Gary Arthur said. "In 16 years of working in Triple-A baseball, Mario was right at the top. There was just something about him."

Call it humanity.

Mario wasn't a warped athlete like we've come to expect in most ballplayers. He was big-hearted, fun-loving, a good friend.

You loved him for who he was, not the player he was supposed to be - the superstar-in-training - once thought by the A's to be better than now-superstar Miguel Tejada.

Sadly, Mario's can't-miss trajectory veered toward a darker place that ended in a seemingly unnecessary and preventable death.

I grieve for him, his wife, his baby son who will never know him, and his mother who at this moment is experiencing anguish no mother should.

I can close my eyes and remember the strapping kid with the heart-scraping smile who, in the spring of 1996, was The Man among A's prospects.

At 6-foot-2, Mario had the loping stride of a powerful gazelle. And when he connected with a pitch, the crack of the bat would send the ball on a scalding line toward the place heroes launch moon shots.

You couldn't help but root for him.

He was fatherless, an uneasy target for young women looking for a rich husband and hustlers looking for a pigeon. His first steps on his journey were in Grand Rapids, Mich., in the steely cold of spring, where this kid from the tropics played in snow flurries and ice storms.

He cried for his mother then, stood up to American players mocking his English, challenged anyone to fight him for control of the clubhouse stereo.

What a sight he was: both beautiful and sad. When he ran the outfield, he was pure big-league. When he batted, he was putty in the hands of pitchers throwing breaking balls in the dirt - which he couldn't resist.

Unlike Tejada, who had a steel spine and ruled his emotions, Mario was a gentle soul who took baseball's punishment to heart. The pressure of succeeding and lifting his family out of poverty was a weight that soon stooped his massive shoulders.

Yet Mario was loved in Grand Rapids. "He was a big teddy bear with lots of love to share," Brenda Karsies, a diehard fan whose family houses Dominican players each year, said Wednesday.

He was loved in Modesto, where in 1997, Mario befriended a Modesto A's fan named Jeff Plaster, who had lost his own son in a motorcycle accident and came to view Mario as a surrogate son to ease his pain.

"He would just make me feel better. He would give me great advice about getting on with my life," Plaster told me in 2001.

Others remember the River Cat who always made his teammates laugh. "He had an infectious personality," said Mike Gazda, formerly the River Cats' director of media relations who now works with the Florida Marlins. "I can still picture the smile he had on the baseball field. He loved the game."

He did, maybe too much. When Mario's body sustained numerous injuries, he watched with anger as lesser talents such as Eric Byrnes got promoted over him. "His behavior changed," Arthur said. "He really wasn't the same when he was traded to Colorado (by the A's in 2001)."

I drove Mario to the airport that day, feeling sad and guilty, because I suspected he wouldn't reach the bigs.

He had the skills but lacked Tejada's focus and drive, was vulnerable and too sensitive for his own good.

"Something has gone wrong with taking this young man out of the Dominican Republic," Arthur said. "I'm frustrated, I'm angry, I'm sad. Somehow, I feel partly responsible, you know?"

He's not the only one.

The last time I saw Mario, in 2003, his struggles became my column fodder. He was with the Montreal Expos' organization, after being cut loose by the A's, Colorado and the Chicago Cubs. Rock-bottom in Taiwan awaited, and all I could do was buy him lunch at Centro Cocina Mexicana and interview him.

I should have confronted him about steroids as other friends did, should have thrown his denials back in his face.

Who knows? Maybe gastroenteritis did kill him, or maybe something else happened. Or maybe, just maybe, he hadn't learned from that positive test in May and played Russian Roulette minus the help of high-priced chemists.

We won't know for a while, and maybe we'll never know.

Meanwhile, I remember him hugging me goodbye as he left for Colorado, giving me one of his bats.

"For old-times sake," he said smiling at me. "Thanks for being my friend, Marcos."

Some friend. I should have put my stupid notebook down and told Mario that I loved him, always will.

All that's left now are the tears.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

[Baseball] Mario Gonzalez Encarnacion

Career Stats for Mario Encarnacion (Excluding stats in the Far East)

The article below published on Sacbee on April 23, 2003, Mario played for Memphis, AAA team of St. Louis Cardinals then. Written by Marcos Breton (*).

Encarnacion is always the hope

April 23, 2003
Section: SPORTS
Page: C1

By Marcos Breton

--In baseball, you don't lose hope. Hope is taken away from you.

It disappears silently after arriving with great fanfare. It hurts like a knife shank when it's gone.

And it slips away like the sands of an hourglass until you're left with a guy looking for a new purpose in life.

This appears to be the fate of Mario Encarnacion - the former River Cats fan favorite and once a top prospect with the A's:

A strapping young man the A's thought would be greater than American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada.

A projected star the A's signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1994 and finally abandoned in 2001 - when he was shipped to the Colorado Rockies.

A player who embodies the flip side of big-time pro sports - the "next great one" who never was.

How is this possible?

How can Encarnacion start out as Robert Redford in "The Natural" and end up as Kevin Costner in "Bull Durham"?

Encarnacion, 27, is playing that role - a veteran who has seen baseball's ups and downs - as a member of the Triple-A Edmonton Trappers of the Montreal Expos organization. He was signed this year to school the Expos' younger, hotter prospects a la the fictional Crash Davis.

"He's more of a longshot at this point," said Encarnacion's current manager, Dave Huppert.

"We have a lot of prospects and wanted to surround them with veterans ... I don't think (Encarnacion) is a top prospect now."

The reasons for his demise are at once easy to understand and frustratingly puzzling.

Since 1999, when he played 133 games between Double-A and Triple-A ball, Encarnacion has been constantly injured and has missed at least 50 games a season.

There was a sprained left wrist and sore hamstrings in 2000, and a serious ankle injury in 2001, all with the River Cats, and an injured right heel last season with the Cubs organization.

It made you wonder how a 6-foot-2, 200-plus-pound body fit for a sculpture - or the NFL - could break down so easily and so often.

Could anyone be that unlucky?

You also wondered how a player who ran the outfield like a big-league star could strike out so often.

As an original River Cat in 2000, Encarnacion struck out 95 times in only 301 at-bats. His nemesis then was the curve. It is now, too.

Meanwhile, when the A's needed outfield help, it was Adam Piatt and Eric Byrnes they called - not Encarnacion.

That still makes me shake my head. But don't take my word for it:

"In my 13 years of being in Triple-A, Mario is my biggest heartbreak kid," said Gary Arthur, the River Cats' senior vice president and general manager.

"I can't think of a guy with his kind of tools who didn't have success."

What hurt most of all is that Encarnacion is easily the nicest, most generous person you will ever meet in baseball.

"I love him," Arthur said, echoing a feeling shared by seemingly everyone along Encarnacion's many minor-league stops.

For example, I once interviewed a Modesto man named Jeff Plaster who befriended Encarnacion and came to view him as a surrogate son.

Plaster had lost his 19-year-old son in a car crash but found solace in Encarnacion's company when the kid played in Modesto in 1997.

"He would just make me feel better; he would give me great advice about getting on with life. I consider him like my own son now," Plaster said in 2001.

You'd think that type of human kindness - coupled with a world of potential - would amount to something great when a guy wants it as badly as Encarnacion does.

Yet Encarnacion had to wait until January before he was signed by the Expos, who didn't even think to send him to big-league spring training.

That marked the first time in five years that the guy everyone thought would be the homer-hitting A's right fielder was relegated to training with minor-leaguers.

Then before arriving in Sacramento to play this week, Encarnacion was suspended for bumping an umpire - a rare burst of rage for a gentle soul.

Maybe reality is setting in because when I asked Encarnacion's manager what lies in store for him, he said: "I see him as a filler guy who could go to the big leagues for a day or so to spell the big-league guys."

Yet at lunch in Sacramento on Monday, Encarnacion said:

"The last thing a player ever loses is hope."

He's still wearing a uniform, so there's always a chance.

Or maybe Encarnacion will be that guy we wonder about in the future - the one who should have been a star but wasn't.

The one who proved that being talented and kind isn't nearly enough sometimes.

* * *

The Bee's Marcos Breton can be reached at (916) 321-1096 or

(*) Breton was the co-author of the book Away Games : The Life and Times of a Latin Ballplayer, which tracked the growing curve of 2 Dominican players, Encarnacion and Miguel Tejada, who later became the MVP of the American League in 2002. You can read his another article here to get an idea about the book.

Two of a player's three daily meals will be provided by their team. Each player is given $11 a day for dinner, leaving little, if any money for expenses. Once a week Freddie Soriano (right) and Mario Encarnacion (left) cut each others' hair.

"I am the great hope of my family,'' said Mario Encarnacion. "You always feel the pressure but God gives you courage." Imitating big league hitter Julio Franco, Mario goes into his stance while his teammate Miguel Tejada observes.

Farewell, Mario Gonzalez Encarnacion (1975~2005)

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Saturday, October 01, 2005

[MLB] Picture of the Day

Remember 2004. Believe in Boston.

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