Snakes Rattle and Roll

They made it into October. Can José Valverde and the Baby Backs close the deal?

No one can quite figure out how the Arizona Diamondbacks made it to the playoffs. Some say it's the team's versatility, and resiliency. Some credit manager Bob Melvin's confidence in using players other managers might not. Others say it's because the Diamondbacks are truly a team; because not even Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds can carry a team on his shoulders for an entire six-month season.

The one thing almost everyone can agree on is that the D-Backs' National League Western Division title is a surprise, given the team's collective youth. And low price tag. This isn't a franchise that has bought a fancy roster. Only four teams in all of major-league baseball had a lower player payroll for the 2007 season than the Diamondbacks, and none of those teams (Florida, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Washington) came close to the playoffs.

In contrast, Arizona's $52 million payroll is about half of what first-round playoff foe Chicago has paid its ballplayers this year and pales in comparison with the $115 million that the New York Mets doled out. Even casual observers of the game are aware of the historic collapse of the Mets at the end of this season, which left the East Coast squad sitting on the sidelines as their relatively poor brethren here in the desert play on.

José "Papa Grande" Valverde
AP/Wide World
José "Papa Grande" Valverde
AP/Wide World

Relief pitcher José Valverde gives the credit for the team's meteoric rise from baseball's ashes (the D-Backs won just 77 games two years ago, compared with 90 in this year) to someone not even on the roster: his 6-month-old daughter, Montserrat.

Considering the fact that just last season, he was unceremoniously shipped back to the minor leagues after struggling with consistency for months, it makes sense that his daughter has become such a good luck charm.

"All my family said the baby saved my life," he says. "Some old lady told me, 'You have a young girl in spring training [and she] will change your season."

Valverde has had an amazing season, and it's fair to say that the D-Backs wouldn't be sitting where they are right now without him. He captured 47 saves this year, the most in the major leagues. Right now, there is no one better at his high-pressure job, or anybody more entertaining to watch, than "Papa Grande."

The 28-year-old from the Dominican Republic is a notoriously superstitious player, even in a game where superstitious routines are the norm. Take retired relief pitcher Turk Wendell, whose thing was to chew four pieces of black licorice, spitting them out every inning to brush his teeth. Valverde has followed his own routine every day of his career as a closer for the Diamondbacks.

After the fifth inning, he refuses to talk to anyone. As he steps into the bullpen, he always pops a piece of gum into his mouth and says a prayer.

"I say, `God bless you,' and I go into the bullpen. Then I don't talk to nobody. I have to focus. I don't think too much. When I have the ball until the last out, I don't think," he says in his thick Dominican accent. "The best thing is when I get the last strikeout."

As he approaches the mound — all 6-feet-4, 255 pounds of him (they call him Papa Grande for a reason) — he stops for a moment and bends down to theatrically tie his left shoe. Every time.

"When I tie my shoe, I say, 'Thank you, God, for everything. You have to do it tonight. It's you and me. Not only you and not only me. We have to do it together.'"

If he's having bad luck — which means getting behind in counts, walking batters, not feeling the command a closer must feel to succeed — he'll ask the umpire for a new ball.

And he never uses the same ball as the previous pitcher.

Why?

"Superstition," he says, shrugging and looking a little bashful.

A devout Catholic, Valverde says God is with him on the mound during every game. Hey, he might make $2 million a year these days, but at heart he's still just a good Catholic boy from San Pedro de Macorís, right down to the silver crucifix that was hanging from his locker in the visitor's clubhouse last weekend in Denver.

Whether it's God or luck, superstition or talent, there's no doubt Valverde has taken several giant steps forward this season. He proved it for the 47th time when he struck out the Rockies' Kaz Matsui last Friday night, winning a wildly entertaining game that clinched the D-Backs an improbable spot in the playoffs.

"I struck him out. It was cool, but it was like a normal game," he said the day after the clincher, struggling a bit in his second language, English. "Then, you know what? I walk in the door and all these guys say, 'Congratulations.' I say, 'For what?' They say, 'You win today.' And everyone goes so crazy."


Yes, they do.

Champagne is dripping from the ceiling of the Arizona Diamondbacks' clubhouse at Coors Field in Denver. In less than a week, the team will be deep in battle with the Chicago Cubs, in the National League Division Series. Tomorrow, they'll take an ultimately meaningless 10-run beating by the Rockies, who have a lot of fight and baseball life left in them.

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