Growing up in poverty and near a hospital in his hometown of Loma de Cabrera in the Dominican Republic, new Marlins second baseman Rafael Furcal saw at a young age how much of a struggle it was for his people to get good medical care.
Many couldn’t pay their medical bills and others would die because he said there were no ambulances and no fire trucks.
“We didn’t have help — not even from the government,” said Furcal, 36, the only major-league player to emerge from the town of 20,000 located on the northwest side of the island near the border with Haiti.
So through the years, the 13-year veteran and three-time All-Star with the Braves, Dodgers and Cardinals has used some of the $90 million he has earned to quietly pick up the medical bills of those in his hometown who needed help.
Three years ago, as a perk in his three-year, $39 million contract he signed with the Dodgers, the city of Los Angeles sent a new fire truck to Furcal’s hometown with his No. 15 printed on the side. Last year, Furcal bought an ambulance and had it sent to Loma de Cabrera.
“I don’t like to talk about [my generosity] because I feel like when you help someone it’s about making that person feel better, not about yourself,” Furcal said. “I had a lot of help getting to the big leagues. So I try to do the most I can. I give God thanks for letting me be capable of helping my people.”
The Marlins, who lost 100 games for only the second time in franchise history last season, are hoping Furcal has enough in the tank to provide some much-needed help for a team that finished last in runs scored a year ago.
With a 24-year old potential Gold Glove-winning shortstop in Adeiny Hechaverria, an outfield loaded with young talent and pieces in the farm system that may be ready to contribute in 2014, Hill said the Marlins set out this winter to add veteran everyday players who could provide leadership and bring championship-caliber experiences to the clubhouse.
None of the four new pieces in the team’s projected starting lineup come Opening Day seem to fill those desires more than Furcal.
When pitchers and catchers report for duty for the first time Sunday in Jupiter, the Marlins will have 10 players in camp with 119 games of combined major-league playoff experience.
Furcal, one of two Marlins with a World Series ring, will own nearly half of that playoff experience (59 games in nine of his 13 big-league seasons).
“What a treat having him on our ballclub,” said manager Mike Redmond, who beamed as he talked about Furcal during Saturday’s Winter Warm Up event for fans at Marlins Park.
“He brings so much experience, exactly what we’re talking about when it comes to adding leadership, chemistry. Everybody I’ve talked to says this guy is the best teammate ever.
“I think he’s going to be great for [Hechavarria] to talk to and learn from. I know Rafy’s not the type of guy to just sit there in the corner. He’s a vocal guy. He likes to talk. He’s not afraid to say something when something needs to be said. That’s great. I like those guys.”
Furcal, who sat out the 2013 season following Tommy John surgery last March, signed a one-year $3.5 million deal in December after he agreed to make the switch from shortstop to second. He has not played there in the big leagues since 2004 and has only been healthy enough to play in more than 100 games in a season twice during the last six years, battling back and elbow injuries.
But Furcal says he’s healthy now and said being around such a young team makes him feel young, too. He said he has also played second base nearly every winter and doesn’t see it as much of a challenge.
New Marlins catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia — the other player on Miami’s roster with a World Series ring — said having Furcal in the clubhouse will be huge for the team. They were teammates when Saltalamacchia was in the Braves’ farm system.
“Once you reach a certain age everything goes through your head,” Furcal said of retirement. “But I’ve always said as long as I have the strength in my body, and I feel good I will keep playing.
“When I came here there were other teams interested in me. I’ve lived in Miami for five years, and now I can be with my kids, my wife, my family and playing next to a player who is going to be a superstar.”
Mike Hill, president of baseball operations, said Saturday the Marlins have “other quality guys” in Donovan Solano and Ed Lucas who can fill the void as the backup shortstop and just want Furcal to focus on staying healthy and being the everyday second baseman.
“We were looking for the speed component and a leadoff hitter so we could push [Christian] Yelich to a more a run-producing position in our lineup,” Hill said. “He takes care of himself, his body. It’s less stress on his body at second base. It’s not a huge jump to think he could do it. He just had to be ready to do it.”
Hechavarria said he lives close to Furcal, and the two have already spent the last couple of months talking frequently about among other things, “where he likes the ball on double plays and where I like them.”
Furcal hit .264 with five homers, 49 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 121 games his last healthy season in St. Louis in 2012.
“I was sold the second I sat with him,” Hill said. “Tremendous, infectious personality, a proven leader, [nine] years in the playoffs out of a 14-year career. He’s going to do wonders now not just for Hech, [Marcell] Ozuna and [Jose] Fernandez, but he’s going to be great for all of our guys.”