By César Augusto Márquez
Born in Colombia, nurtured in the Dominican Republic and polished in the United States, Luis “Pipé” Urueta represents the changing face of béisbol.
Just 37, he is debuting this season as a major league coach, hired by Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo to help out with player development, especially with Latino ballplayers.
But he is no token figure expected to serve as a translator and little else. Urueta sports too unusual an international baseball pedigree for that.
In the last 12 months, he has managed Colombia in the World Baseball Classic, served as Arizona’s minor league field coordinator, worked as third base coach for the World Team in the All-Star Futures Game and took the Tigres del Licey to the Dominican Republic winter league finals, losing in seven games to his Puerto Rican counterpart Lino Rivera and the Águilas Cibaeñas.
But at one point, he dreamt of being a soccer goalie, much like his childhood hero Óscar Córdova, Colombia’s national team netkeeper during the country’s “Golden Era” of the ’90s.
“It’s not easy to play baseball in a country where everyone lives and breathes soccer and the national team has played in six World Cups,” Urueta said in Spanish in a recent telephone interview with La Vida Baseball.
The Rentería route
All that changed on the night of Oct. 26, 1997 — arguably the most important date in the history of Colombian baseball.
That was when Édgar Rentería — the pride of Barranquilla — flicked a soft liner over pitcher Charles Nagy’s outstretched glove that landed behind second base in the 11th inning during Game 7 of the World Series, giving the Florida Marlins their first title.
“I still get goosebumps when I think of that moment,” Urueta said. “That night changed my life. Seeing Édgar — someone I rooted for so many times in the Colombian league — seeing our idol get the hit that wins a World Series inspired me to make baseball a career.
“A bunch of my friends had gotten together to watch the game on TV and we began jumping and hugging. It was a dream come true for all of us to see that happen. Not just in my case — I think that Rentería influenced many youngsters in Colombia. Because I admired him, I would walk the streets of Barranquilla looking for him. And, thanks to baseball and life, we are now friends.”
Only 20 Colombians have reached the major leagues, which is why Rentería remains so revered in the soccer-crazed nation. A five-time All-Star shortstop, he played 16 seasons, hit .286, won three Silver Slugger Awards and two Gold Gloves.
And Rentería got not one but two World Series-clinching hits, recording his second one in 2010. He hit a three-run homer in Game 5 that year to lift the San Francisco Giants over the Texas Rangers and earn himself a series MVP award.
“Édgar opened the doors for us,” Urueta said. “And we put him right up there on the pedestal next to the soccer heroes of the era, like Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama, Faustino “El Tino” Asprilla and Adolfo “El Tren” Valencia.”
Goalie turned first baseman
Back in the fall of 1997, Urueta was 16 and filling out into a 6-foot-2 goalkeeping prospect. His father, Alejandro Urueta, was a renowned physical education professor. Baseball, and its nuances, were for them a foreign subject. To help in the transition, Luis found himself a teacher, Gary Schemel, a Colombian with family in the United States.
Because of his size, Schemel suggested that the goalie become a first baseman. Scouts immediately took notice.
“He was a good first baseman, with some pop in the bat. But most of all, he had the right attitude and the will to play. He was determined, that’s what I saw in him,” Jorge Urribarrí, the scout who signed Urueta for the D-Backs who now is the sports manager of the Venezuelan club Tigres de Aragua, said in Spanish in an interview last week.
Urueta’s hometown of Barranquilla is on the northern, Caribbean border of Colombia, between the mouth of the Magdalena River and Venezuela. While Colombia is very much a South American country, Barranquilla and its neighboring city of Cartagena definitely look to the Caribbean for inspiration and culture.
Which explains why, when Urueta signed as a pro in 1998 and started the next year in a Dominican summer league, he felt right at home. The definition of Latino is based on more than just country of origin, but also on shared experiences.
Arepas over mangú
“I think that I’m very much from the Caribbean,” he said. “Of course, I’m proud to be Colombian. But when it comes to baseball, I have a huge Dominican influence. It’s like my second home.
“I can identify with a lot of things here. For example, if you ask me to choose between two of my favorite foods, which are arepas and mangú, I think that the winner will be a nice plate of mangú with salami.”
The Dominican influences even extend to his choices in music. As a teenager, Urueta took up percussion and learned to play the Dominican tambora, a two-headed drum used to keep the beat in merengue.
“Of course, I know how to dance, though I go out much less now,” Urueta said. “But I used to dance a lot. I loved to play the tambora and Dominican merengue. Now, you have to keep up with the new trends.”
Urueta’s playing career, while short, was almost as varied culturally. He played in minor league destinations like Missoula, Mont.; Augusta, N.J.; and Jupiter, Fla. A mediocre hitter, he never progressed past high Class-A and spent his last three seasons playing for Bologna in Italy, hanging up his spikes after the 2006 season.
A new climb
The D-Backs summoned him in 2007 and he started his climb through their minor league coaching ranks, eventually becoming their minor league coordinator. All the while, he managed elsewhere, helming the Leones de Montería in the Colombian winter league from 2010 to 2016. His Dominican connections opened the door for him to join the staff of the Tigres del Licey as bench coach in 2016-17, where he ended up as interim manager, leading the team to its 22nd championship.
He came back this winter as the Tigres’ full-time manager. After overcoming a slow start and the usual criticism of passionate fans, he led the team back to the finals.
Urueta’s style is clearly new school, steeped in analytics and clear communication. He’s articulate in English, Spanish and baseball. But his desire to manage has its roots in soccer.
“I played goalie because of my height and also because of my personality,” Urueta said. “A goalie has to take command of the game because he has the best view of the field. His leadership is similar to that of a manager in baseball.”
As he gets ready for his first season coaching in the d won majors, Urueta sees his future clearly.
“My immediate goal is to win a championship in the Caribbean,” he said. “Then continue growing as a dirigente. And finally, become the first Colombian manager in the major leagues.”
If that were to happen, it would be, in Urueta’s lingo, ¡un golazo! — an amazing goal.
Featured Image: Alex Trautwig / Major League Baseball