Tavarez relishes postseason

Tavarez relishes postseason roller coaster

ST. LOUIS -- Ten years ago, after Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, Julian Tavarez sat in the Cleveland dugout unable to translate his pain into English.

Tavarez had spent most of his life in his native Dominican Republic, and he knew just a handful of English phrases by that time, his rookie season.

Atlanta had just won the World Series, defeating Cleveland, 4-2. Instead of relaying his pain to the media or coaches, Taverez sat in the dugout and cried. The pain wouldn't let up. Tavarez couldn't hold its weight off his heart.

So he continued to cry.

Just hours earlier, the lanky, 22-year old right-hander had been on a month-long high that was all natural. He had never experienced anything like it before.

He whizzed through the 1995 season, going 10-2 as a relief pitcher, with a 2.44 ERA. Tavarez was named The Sporting News' American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year. His 10 wins led all AL relievers, and the 85 innings he pitched were tied for third. He felt every bit the contributor to the success of that team. His five appearances and 4 1/3 scoreless innings against Atlanta in the World Series spoke for themselves.

So forgive Tavarez for not sleeping much during those playoffs. He was simply too wired. Forgive him for wanting to be seen around Cleveland and enjoying being stuck in all the traffic before and after games. He wanted to feed off the energy of the fans. Forgive him for showing up early to games and not wanting to leave the ballpark. He craved baseball.

"I don't know [why], but for some reason, when I go to the postseason, I change what I eat and when I sleep," Tavarez said. "I'm just so wound up. I can hardly sleep. It's so much pressure and I just don't want to have to go home."

Ten years later, Tavarez is a man. He can keep his emotions in check better, and has learned to accept the wave-like experience of professional sports. Maturity helped ease the crash, but it couldn't dissolve the hurt Tavarez felt again last season when his current team, the Cardinals, was swept in four games in the World Series by the Red Sox.

"This past year I couldn't wait to get to Spring Training, to get another shot," Tavarez said. "I'm not looking to be the division or National League champion. I am just looking to be the World Series champion. That's what I am looking for now with my older age. Hopefully, it will happen this year."

This year the Cardinals have set themselves apart as heavy favorites to return to the World Series. If they do win it, Tavarez will likely play a key role, just as he did in getting Cleveland to the '95 World Series. After re-establishing himself as a quality reliever with the Pirates in 2003, he has emerged as a critical bullpen piece in two seasons with St. Louis. Tavarez is used as the key setup man before closer Jason Isringhausen.

These days Tavarez has no trouble speaking English. He clowns around the clubhouse with other teammates and rarely shies away from media.

Be wouldn't be the person he is today if it weren't for other Latino teammates who embraced him when he was a rookie.

Tavarez came to the United States in 1992, a fragile young pitcher with a big-league fastball. He pitched for two years in Cleveland's Dominican Rookie League before moving on to Rookie ball in Burlington. At the time, Tavarez spoke no English.

"A week after I came from the Dominican, I wanted to go back because I didn't understand," Tavarez said.

Since he was unable to speak English, Tavarez had trouble with simple tasks such as ordering food from a restaurant or shopping for himself. Jose Mesa, with Cleveland at the time, was the first of several in the organization to take the young Tavarez under his wing.

"He's a guy who keeps everybody loose," said Mesa. "I loved playing with him. We used to come in every day early and run. We used to hang out on the road and go out to eat a lot. Me, him and Manny [Ramirez] were the guys who hung out a lot together."

And Tavarez will forever be thankful to Mesa for his big-brother-like kindness.

"I don't even know how to thank Jose Mesa for all that he has done for me," Tavarez said. "He has done so much. When I came to the United States he really took good care of me. He bought me clothes and all this stuff. He would drop me off at the Minor League camps on his way to the Major League camps, every day.

"Just a lot of memories, you know? But Jose Mesa has been such a great guy to me. I really appreciate him. He's a great man, a great guy. The man has a big heart."

Tavarez worked his way through the Minor Leagues in three years. By 1995 he was a regular in the Cleveland bullpen. Several other Latino teammates --- Carlos Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Alvaro Espinoza -- were there to help ease him through the transition.

"Every time we play the Nationals now, I give [Baerga] a hug and a high five," Tavarez said. "He always asks if I can go out to eat and order for myself yet."

Tavarez said he could speak about five percent of the English he does now.

"I could say things like, 'Hi, how are you doing? What's your name? See you later. I got it. I'm hungry. Thank you.'

"I used to say 'I love you' to everybody.' A lot of times people would say 'See you later,' and I would respond, 'I love you.' The guys had to tell me you don't say that word to just anybody. It wasn't my first language so I didn't know any better, I just said things that I know, whatever came to my mind."

In 1995, it had been 41 years since the Indians had gone to the postseason. Fans and players were enjoying their first season playing in Jacobs Field as Cleveland racked up 100 regular-season wins.

The Indians stormed through the regular season, winning the American League Central Division by 30 games. They swept Boston in the Division Series and defused a determined Seattle ballclub in six games in the AL Championship Series, earning a chance to play in the World Series for the first time since 1954.

"Oh my gosh, the town went crazy," Tavarez said. "I've never seen anything like that in my life. It was hard just getting in and out of downtown. There would be 40,000 fans outside the stadium waiting to get in hours before the game. You couldn't even drive in the city sometimes. It was crazy."

In the World Series, Cleveland's bats were matched by Atlanta's arms. Atlanta won the first two games but Cleveland won two of three at home to force a Game 6. In that game, Glavine held Cleveland to just one hit over eight innings, striking out eight in a 1-0 win. Tavarez got two outs in the eighth inning, walking none and did not allow a hit.

His performance didn't matter. The ride was over. The season had betrayed him.

"I cried right after Game 6," Tavarez said. "I wasn't strong enough to stop the tears. It just hurt because I was a rookie guy and to go that far, you think you've got everything already by having a great team. I felt like OK, we got it. Now we're going to beat the Atlanta Braves. It wasn't that way. I was weak about [losing]. ... I couldn't eat for three to four weeks."

Despite all of that, he still calls Cleveland home.

"(When) I go to the mall and out to eat, people still recognize me," Tavarez said. "Every Sunday, when I go to church, they recognize me and look at me like, 'Gosh what is he doing here? He doesn't play for us anymore.' People tell me, 'Why don't you get away from here, it's too cold. I say, 'No, it's the only place I know my way out and my way in.'"

His three-year old son, Trent, lives there with his ex-girlfriend, whom he remains friends with. His other son, five-year-old Jay, lives in New York City.

The next time Tavarez goes back to Cleveland, he wants to go back with a World Series ring. He still has a tape from the '95 season that he watches often.

"Every time I look at the tape -- at how skinny and how little I was -- it brings back those memories," Tavarez said. "I played with some great guys that year in Cleveland. It's kind of tough to put it away."

There remains a large part of that skinny, non-English speaking rookie in him. At 32, Tavarez is still addicted to winning and addicted to baseball.

"It's like when the [Cardinals' 2004] season was over and we lost, I was hoping Spring Training would start in three days to see if we could turn the page, instead of a four-game sweep," Tavarez said.

"But here we are right now, you know? It's a long season. Yes it is. But as the days go by, once you get to the postseason, it starts to get better. You're getting more prepared now, your mind changes a little more, you're taking more care of yourself and you just can't wait for the next game."

Stephen A. Norris is a contributor to MLB.com. Ed Eagle contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.