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.

We work like a horse.
We eat like a pig.
We like to play chicken.
You can get someone's goat.
We can be as slippery as a snake.
We get dog tired.
We can be as quiet as a mouse.
We can be as quick as a cat.
Some of us are as strong as an ox.
People try to buffalo others.
Some are as ugly as a toad.
We can be as gentle as a lamb.
Sometimes we are as happy as a lark.
Some of us drink like a fish.
We can be as proud as a peacock.
A few of us are as hairy as a gorilla.
You can get a frog in your throat.
We can be a lone wolf.
But I'm having a whale of a time!

You have a riveting web log
and undoubtedly must have
atypical & quiescent potential
for your intended readership.
May I suggest that you do
everything in your power to
honor your encyclopedic/omniscient
Designer/Architect as well
as your revering audience.
As soon as we acknowledge
this Supreme Designer/Architect,
Who has erected the beauteous
fabric of the universe, our minds
must necessarily be ravished with
wonder at this infinate goodness,
wisdom and power.

Please remember to never
restrict anyone's opportunities
for ascertaining uninterrupted
existence for their quintessence.

There is a time for everything,
a season for every activity
under heaven. A time to be
born and a time to die. A
time to plant and a time to
harvest. A time to kill and
a time to heal. A time to
tear down and a time to
rebuild. A time to cry and
a time to laugh. A time to
grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones
and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a
time to turn away. A time to
search and a time to lose.
A time to keep and a time to
throw away. A time to tear
and a time to mend. A time
to be quiet and a time to
speak up. A time to love
and a time to hate. A time
for war and a time for peace.

Best wishes for continued ascendancy,
Dr. Howdy

'Thought & Humor'

P.S. One thing of which I am sure is
that the common culture of my youth
is gone for good. It was hollowed out
by the rise of ethnic "identity politics,"
then splintered beyond hope of repair
by the emergence of the web-based
technologies that so maximized and
facilitated cultural choice as to make
the broad-based offerings of the old
mass media look bland and unchallenging
by comparison."

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