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08/05/09 8:00 PM ET

Rodney travels unusual road to Majors

Dominican pitcher played other sports, changed positions

Our week-long package of stories looking at the Tigers' Latin-American players and how they grew up around baseball continues with a look at closer Fernando Rodney. The package leads up to the Tigers' annual Fiesta Tigres celebration Saturday at Comerica Park.

DETROIT -- To say Fernando Rodney overcame long odds to get to this point in the Major Leagues would be an understatement. For him, simply getting noticed was a gamble.

Rodney didn't spend all his days on the ballfields of Samana, Dominican Republic, as a kid. He had plenty of other things to do. His father worked in town doing various jobs, sometimes as a fisherman on the beaches, other times in agriculture. Rodney would venture out and join him some days after going to school in the morning. Other times, he'd be in school, or at the local gym boxing, or practicing karate or wherever.

Baseball was something he did on weekends, if he wasn't at the beach along the Dominican Republic's eastern coast. To get him serious about it, he said, took a dare.

"One day my friend went to Santo Domingo, to a baseball academy," Rodney said. "And one day my friend said, 'Hey, I think I have a better arm than this guy.' [The guy] said [he'd offer] 100 pesos to go to home plate and throw the ball out to the field. And he threw the ball out.

"And [the guy] said, 'Do you play baseball?' He said, 'Yeah, I like to play baseball. That's what I do in Samana.' And the next day, he signed him. And I said, 'Oh, well, if my friend can do it, why can't I do it, too?' That's what motivated me to play baseball."

He wasn't a hard-throwing pitcher as a teenager, but instead a third baseman and a catcher. After all, he had more of an infielder's size than that of a pitcher. It wasn't until after he took interest in baseball as a profession that he took the mound, starting to pitch in 1996, the year before he signed.

He wasn't a baseball-academy product, but a player in a program. His coach, however, had the ear of scouts. So when he called longtime Tigers talent evaluator Ramon Pena with a couple pitchers for him to see, Rodney got his chance. Rodney threw to Pena, he said, and eventually Pena tossed a contract his way.

The next year, Rodney was pitching in the Dominican Summer League. A year after that, Rodney was in Lakeland, Fla., with the Tigers' Gulf Coast League team.

It's a unique story, as far as Dominican talents go. But, of course, Rodney is a unique personality compared with a lot of players. He didn't know what he wanted to do for a career until late in his childhood. But he also knew enough to realize pitching was his quickest way to get into pro ball, and he knew long-tossing was a way to keep his arm big. He also knew enough that boxing wasn't a career. He sparred with some good fighters, but never entered an organized bout. He liked practicing karate, but didn't feel he could block well enough to avoid getting beaten up.

Eventually he knew enough to pick up English as he made his way through the Tigers' farm system -- not so much through formal instruction as by observation. When he was first in Lakeland, he said, he knew how to say 'Good morning' and 'Good afternoon,' and he knew how to order food at a restaurant. So he would make a 15-minute walk to McDonalds, say hello and order a burger with no pickles or onions.

"Those were the only words I knew," he said.

So how did he learn the language?

"I have an open mind," Rodney said. "I started paying attention around 2000, 2001. I listened more. I paid more attention. It was a lot of work, but most of what I know now is to see people and how they talk -- people on the street, friends, watching TV, a lot of comedies. That's helped me a lot."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.