Sunday, August 06, 2000

Dessens just needed an opportunity


Reds saw potential early in his career

By John Erardi
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Elmer Dessens is 4-1 as a starter.
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        Last Wednesday in New York, surprising Elmer Dessens locked up with Al Leiter in an old-fashioned pitchers' duel. The Reds lost 2-1.

        But it was a heck of a game. Dessens will get another opportunity Tuesday at Cinergy Field, when he faces the Braves.

        Dessens' emergence as one of the Reds' stoppers — and his proclivity for throwing strikes — has made him popular with his teammates.

        Proof of it was a gag that awaited him in his locker when he arrived in the Reds clubhouse for Friday's game.

        Keep in mind Dessens is Mexican and speaks limited English.

        In his Wednesday start against the Mets, he hadn't drunk enough fluids. On his way to the team bus after the game, he fainted. He had to be given four bags of intravenous fluids.

        So what do you think was in his locker when he arrived Friday?

        A huge Thermos jug with two cups atop it and a piece of white adhesive tape upon which was hand-written the word Agua.

        Dessens laughed.

        It made him feel good.

        And that is perfecto, because Dessens is one of the feel-good stories on this year's Reds team.

        If the Reds somehow are able to catch the Cardinals in the National League Central Division, Dessens is one of the pleasant surprises who probably will be long remembered.

        He blossomed just about the time the Reds were trading Denny Neagle, seemingly giving up on the season.

        Dessens won four straight games before losing to the Mets.

        Asked what his “secret” was to finding the groove, Dessens shrugged and smiled.

        “Opportunity,” he said. “Everybody needs a chance. I've gotten that here. This club has confidence in me.”

        Dessens' English isn't as bad as some Reds fans might think. After Dessens' starts, the fans see him on TV — at his cubicle in the Reds clubhouse — answering reporters' questions.

        There is always a fellow Red at Dessens' side, translating.

        But one on one, Dessens doesn't need a translator. He's fine when his answers don't have to be quite so smooth and precise.

        “I've always had the belief I could pitch — I've always been able to throw strikes,” Dessens said. “But pitching up here, you really have to use everything you've got.”

        At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Dessens isn't a specimen.

        He and his buddy, Dennys Reyes, like to eat together at Jalapeno's, their favorite Mexican restaurant in the Tristate. They have been friends for almost a decade. In the early 1990s, they broke in professionally at Matamoros — on the east coast of Mexico, just across from the border at the tip of Texas — and were called up to the “big club,” Mexico City, together.

        “Elmer is an easy-going guy,” Reyes said. “He's quiet — shy, really — but he has fun. When he sees me, he hunches up his right shoulder higher than his left, making fun of this clavicle problem I have. He walks around like that. I laugh every time he does it.”

        Reyes envies Dessens' pitching style.

        “He has a moving fastball, a good slider, good change-up and a cutter — and he has good control with all of them,” Reyes said. “He can throw them anywhere in the count. He uses both sides of the plate and keeps the ball down.”

        There's a nice Latin flavor on this team. It's no clique, but there's a comfort level. Some of the other Latinos are Juan Castro (Mexico), Osvaldo Fernandez (Cuba), Benito Santiago (Puerto Rico) and Alex Ochoa (born of Cuban immigrants and fluent in Spanish).

        Dessens his four brothers and two sisters were raised by his mother. Elmer was the middle child. He was 10 years old when his father died of a heart attack at age 45. One of his older brothers played a lot of ball with him. His mother was the family's main breadwinner.

        “When I wasn't going to school, I was working,” Dessens said. “We all were. I washed dishes (in a restaurant) and waited tables. I played ball when I could. The money was important for the family.”

        Their hometown of Hermosillo is in Sonora province near the west coast of Mexico, not too far inland from the Gulf of California. It is about 250 miles due south of Tucson, Ariz. A blessing to Dessens was that there was a professional baseball team in Hermosillo. He was a batboy for them.

        Dessens' favorite position was shortstop. He played that position until he was 17, when he changed to pitching at the urging of one of his coaches. There's no disputing the record: A kid from Mexico's best way to make it to major leagues is as a pitcher.

        “We have good coaching in Mexico,” Reyes said. “We don't have the power to throw the ball 100 miles an hour.”

        In the early 1990s, Dessens attended a tryout held by the Pittsburgh Pirates in Mexico City. He played ball for two years in that city, before beginning his career in the United States at Double-A Carolina in the Southern League.

        He immediately showed the control that would distinguish him.

        He averaged only 1.06 walks per nine innings. His 15-8 record and 2.49 ERA led the league; even more impressive was this statistic: In 15 of his 27 starts, he didn't walk a batter.

        It was in Mexican winterball that Dmitri Young faced Dessens at the end of 1995. Dessens was only 23. He'd been pitching for only six years.

        “His stuff was sick,” said Young, giving Dessens the hitters' ultimate compliment for throwing pitches with movement. “I thought he was going to be the bomb with Pittsburgh after that, but he didn't get a full opportunity and he had some arm problems and they kind of gave up on him. We've got several guys like that here — guys who didn't get their opportunity until they got here.”

        At first blush, Dessens, 28, might seem to be late bloomer.

        But he may have bloomed sooner if given the chance.

        The Reds' Gene Bennett said he and Reds general manager Jim Bowden first noticed Dessens in spring training in 1998, when he was with the Pirates. Bowden tried in vain to trade for him.

        “I liked the fact that he had a good arm, a good breaking ball and he was throwing strikes,” Bennett said.

        The Pirates didn't put Dessens into their rotation until that September. By that time, he had been conditioned to working out of the bullpen. He didn't have the arm strength.

        Last year he pitched for the Yomiuri Giants in the Japanese Central League and some in winter ball in Hermosillo. When Bowden had a chance to sign him as a free agent this past winter — even though none of the Reds scouts had seen him pitch in 1999 — the Reds' GM jumped.

        Initially he received some criticism within the Reds organization for such a signing, but he at least had some third-party reports to go on. Of course, now nobody's complaining.

        “He's putting it all together,” Bowden said.

        “It's like Charlie Finley always used to tell me,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said. “When opportunity knocks, you open up that door and say, "C'mon in, Mr. Opportunity.' That's just what Elmer did.”

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