Ernesto Frieri was a bright spot for a Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim team that fell short of expectations. The 27-year-old right-hander stepped into the closer role after being acquired in a May 3 trade with San Diego Padres. In 56 games, he had 23 saves, a 2.32 ERA and a 13.3 K/9. He also didn’t allow a hit in his first 13 innings in an Angels uniform.
Frieri talked about his journey from South America to big-league stardom during a late-summer visit to Fenway Park.
Frieri: “I come from Colombia and the number one sport there is soccer. We don’t play baseball in all of the country. We only play it in four or five main cities, on the coast of Colombia. I’m from Cartagena, the same city as Orlando Cabrera. Cartagena is a bigger city for baseball. The best baseball players come from there. Edgar Renteria is from Barranquilla, which is two hours from Cartagena.
“Why I got in love with baseball is because my family are baseball fans. It was also hard for me to get any opportunity in soccer, because everybody played soccer and if you are going to play you have to be really good. That’s why I stopped practicing soccer.
“I got in love with baseball when I was 12 years old. I was watching the 1997 World Series — the Marlins against the Indians — and Edgar Renteria was playing for the Marlins. It was Game 7, the bases were loaded with two out, and Edgar Renteria was at bat. He got the base hit to win the World Series. I see my family jumping around and the everybody was talking about it. Edgar Renteria was all the news. Everybody was excited and happy about what he did, and I was like, ‘Wow! I like baseball now. I want to practice baseball and be like Edgar Renteria. I want to make it to the big leagues and make my family feel proud of me.’ Now, here I am, playing the best baseball in the world.
“At that time, my grandma made tamales. This is going to sound like crazy, but my grandma was making tamales and she made it with corn. I was the one who grinded the corn in a grinding-corn machine. I woke up every morning at 4 a.m. and worked. I helped my grandma for an hour-and-a-half, grinding the corn in a corn-grinding machine. It made my arm strong.
“The first time I picked up a ball and threw it, the coach said like, ‘Wow, you have a good arm. Hey, do you want to take this seriously? Do you want you come every day and practice?’ I said, ‘Sure, let’s go.’
“I was getting better and better. I also played first base and the outfield, but I was more successful when I pitched. I was striking out everybody, because I threw harder than any of my teammates. I figured out that I wanted to work hard and give myself a chance to play at the big-league level.
“I was 14 years old when the Padres saw me. The Padres have an academy in Cartagena and they invited me. They said, ‘Hey, do you want to come to our academy and start working with us?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?” I was 15 when I went to the academy and two-and-a-half years later they signed me. I was 17.
“When I first signed, I went to play in Venezuela, in the Venezuelan Summer League. That was in 2003. In 2004, I went to the Dominican Summer League. Then, 2005 was my first year here in the United States. I played at the all the levels, from rookie ball to Triple-A — one year at each — and in 2009, I made it to the big leagues.
“Before I signed, I never played anywhere [outside of Colombia]. I come from a really small town. Nobody knew who I was. Like I said, the scout from the Padres came to my town and saw me. He gave me a tryout and told me, ‘Do you want to come to Cartagena, to our academy, and see what happens?’
“When I signed, I threw 91-92 and topped out at 93. I don’t remember if he didn’t want to sign me because of my mechanics. I had the same mechanics the very first day I threw a baseball. I hide the ball over here and step across my body. He’d always say, ‘You’re going to get hurt; your arm is going to get sore all the time.’ I never see my arm sore before. I always throw hard and never ice my arm. I just play catch, work out a lot and stay healthy.
“If I played soccer, would I be more famous? I’m going to say yes. People in Colombia follow soccer a lot. But do you know what? I’ll take this. I don’t want to be too famous. I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh, my God, you are a huge soccer player, or a huge baseball player.’ No. I just want people to treat me normal, like another human. I am another human. I don’t want to be way up here; I want to share with people and I love when they treat with me with respect and like they’re talking with a friend. If people think I’m something super huge, they’re wrong. I’m like everybody else.
“Did baseball seem easy [during the hitless streak]? Never. I was lucky to have that streak, man. I was really enjoying it, but I was also preparing in my mind that I was going to give up a base hit, and that I was going to give up runs and home runs. When it happened, I was going to stay the same. That’s what I did. I didn’t put my head down. I just worked hard — and the next outing, I pitched good. That’s one of the beautiful things that happens in baseball. Sometimes you do really good and sometimes you don’t.”