Originally created 11/30/97

Columbia proud of Renteria



BARRANQUILLA, Colombia - Luis Morrison smacks the tennis ball with a small wooden plank, sending eight young friends scurrying down a pothole-pocked street just a block away from where Edgar Renteria grew up.

They all have one dream: to one day be just like their hero and former neighbor, the Florida Marlins shortstop who drove in the run that won the 1997 World Series and is the pride of this working-class neighborhood called Montecristo.

The boys, ages 6 to 12, have two beat-up baseball mitts between them, so most have crafted gloves out of folded newspapers.

Mule-drawn fruit carts make their way through the "outfield," periodically interrupting the game. Hit it under the telephone line and past the corner store and it's a home run.

"Money and fame," said 12-year-old Luis when asked why he wants to be like Renteria, an instant sports icon in Colombia after his 11th-inning single won the Series on Oct. 26.

Just a decade ago, the man responsible for the baseball mania now sweeping Colombia was one of these children.

"I had the same newspaper mitt and we played in the street with a ball made of wound cord or plastic," the 22-year-old Renteria reminisced as he sat on a leather couch in his new, spacious home in the wealthier Modelo section of this Caribbean port.

"That's how you learn how to play. When I arrived in the United States and started playing on the beautiful fields, it was like playing on a pool table. It's a lot easier than the streets of Montecristo."

Renteria, on whom President Ernesto Samper has bestowed Colombia's highest civilian honor, is the seventh of eight siblings. He grew up in poverty and never knew his father, who died when his son was a baby.

Renteria's mother, Visitacion, had to take odd jobs to support the family, and life was a constant struggle until Edgar was 8, when his brother Edinson was signed by the Houston Astros to a minor-league contract.

Though the first in the family to excel at baseball, Edinson never made the big leagues. He's now a minor league instructor for the Atlanta Braves.

Renteria dropped out of high school with dreams of being a soccer star, but never stopped playing baseball. When he was 16, he left for the United States, signed by the Marlins.

He quickly made it to the majors and in 1996 was runner-up for rookie of the year.

Already one of the league's top shortstops, the Colombian also is quite a hitter and base runner, batting .277 with 32 stolen bases and 52 RBI last season.

The baseball fever Renteria unleashed in Colombia with his World Series heroics is unprecedented, not only along the coast, but in the interior where baseball always has taken a back seat to soccer, the country's passion.

To mark Renteria's return from Florida after the Series, Barranquilla's mayor declared two days of foot-stomping, salsa-blaring celebrations.

In Bogota, the capital 450 miles south of Barranquilla, the parks are full of children playing baseball, many for the first time.

"I've never seen a reaction like this," said Mike Schmulson, who has been broadcasting the World Series for Colombia since 1947, crediting the "ecstasy" of Renteria's success for the country's newfound love affair with baseball.

The tall, soft-spoken Renteria, who is mobbed by autograph-seekers and people who just want to touch him every time he leaves his house, says he wants to use some of his fortune to help bankroll a baseball school for disadvantaged kids.

"All the athletes in Colombia come from poverty. The poor people are the ones who fight, they are hungry so they have to do something. The people who have money don't care very much about the poor people," Renteria said.

In the meantime, "The Hit," as Renteria's Series-winning single has come to be known in Barranquilla, is providing incentive enough for the city's kids, where coaches hope the baseball boom will carry a wave of Colombians to the majors.

Jaime Palmera, manager of Barranquilla's all-star Little Leaguers, said some of the 10- to 12-year-olds playing in a recent youth championship could be future Renterias.

"One day, when I'm older, I hope to turn on the television and see one of them playing in the big leagues," he said from the dugout at the Tomas Arrieta stadium. "Some of these kids might have a future in baseball."

If young Hector Lobo's attitude is any indication, they just might.

The 5-year-old boy, clad only in his underwear but hitting remarkably long fly balls outside the stadium in a pickup game against his two sisters, said Renteria better watch himself.

"I'm not as good as Renteria yet," Hector said after hitting yet another home run. "But I'm sure I'll be better than him someday."