Talent helps Andino rise past tough history

Talent helps Andino rise past tough history

Talent helps Andino rise past tough history
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Where Robert Andino is from, you don't go back for high school reunions or drop in to see your old Little League coach. The Orioles infielder, born and raised in South Miami Heights, can't pinpoint how many of his friends are deceased -- at least two have been murdered, including one this offseason. The last Andino heard, his childhood best friend had turned to theft, which along with drugs is one of the most popular routes in that neighborhood for a young male to get by.

Baseball has given Andino a one-way ticket out, an opportunity to raise his family without five locks on the front door and metal bars on the windows. It has afforded him the luxury of parking his car without fear of it being burglarized and thrown into a river, of sending his children to school with lunch money and jackets without worry of them being jumped by a local gang.

Baseball has saved Andino's life, but it hasn't been easy. First, the 27-year-old Andino -- who is slated to make his first career Opening Day start as the Orioles' second baseman -- had to learn how to let that happen.

"Let's face it, he was on his last leg at one time," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Andino, who cleared waivers in the spring of 2010 and spent the entire season at Triple-A Norfolk until Showalter made him a September callup one month into his managerial tenure.

"I remember people saying we had this guy down there that had a lot of ability ... but. And I was watching the other guys running around there, and they weren't describing them that way," Showalter said. "Robert gets all the credit; he's embraced what we've asked him to do. Guys like Robert, you have to earn their trust."

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It's an odd pairing: the no-nonsense, middle-aged Showalter and the outspoken, heavily tattooed Andino, who punctuates nearly every sentence with an expletive. But Showalter gave the former top prospect something he hadn't had in seven seasons in the Marlins organization: a promise. If Andino proved he could also play second base, he could stick in the Major Leagues regardless of the image and attitude problems that had previously held him back.

"I had been dealing with it my whole life," Andino said. "For [Showalter] to look past all that and give me a chance to play and put his trust in me, I can't, I have no words for it. Just, I really appreciate it."

The emotion is evident in Andino's voice as he reflects on Showalter's gamble, his voice dropping to a whisper as he rubs his eye and looks away. He asked for his release after the Orioles made him one of the final cuts in 2010, wanting to be done with baseball altogether -- it couldn't be trusted. One second, he was the Marlins' up-and-coming shortstop. The next, they traded for Hanley Ramirez, leaving Andino toiling for the next three seasons in Triple-A.

Andino was entering his ninth season in pro ball in 2010, sulking in Norfolk until Bobby Dickerson, one of Showalter's Minor League coaches in Arizona, showed up that August and gave him a harsh reality check.

"Bobby said, 'It ain't you against the world,'" Andino said. "[He] made me think about it and look myself in the mirror, and I was like, 'You're right. I still want to play.' And then Buck gave me that chance. That right there gave me a real wake-up."

"He's got guys that believe in him as a player, and an organization that believes in him as a person, too," Brian Roberts said. "I'm not sure he had that before he got here."

It was a concussion suffered by Roberts last May 16 that opened the door for Andino to assume full-time second-base duties last season. He responded to the challenge, setting career highs with 139 games played, 120 hits, 22 doubles, five homers and 36 RBIs, and he remains an integral part of the team with Roberts sidelined indefinitely.

Andino has gone from relative obscurity -- he was mistaken for Vladimir Guerrero in Toronto while wearing the future Hall of Famer's giveaway T-shirt -- to notoriety. His September surge included a walk-off single that eliminated Boston from the American League Wild Card race, prompting the local papers to dub the downfall "Curse of the Andino".

"He's making the most out of his opportunity, and he's making a name around the league," said center fielder Adam Jones, a close friend of Andino's. "Not a lot of people understand what he's been through."

Fred Burnside, Andino's guidance counselor and baseball coach at Southridge High, does. Burnside saw Andino's grades keep him off the team his first two seasons. Getting Andino to work hard was never a problem between the lines, with Andino's dad, Robert Sr., often hitting his son extra ground balls after practice. What was a problem was getting Andino to go to class, which was helped by Burnside putting him with the best teachers and solved for good after his mother, Rosa, showed up outside his classroom with a belt ready to chase her son around. The message was clear: Take school seriously or expect an old-fashioned whooping.

"I really believe if it wasn't for baseball, there's no telling what would have happened with Robert," Burnside said. "It kept him in school, it kept him focused and he found his destiny. There's no doubt baseball saved him."

And it saved those closest to him, as well. Andino's parents weren't about to let their son trade his golden ticket on the streets, not when Robert Sr. worked three jobs to keep them afloat. The family's one-source income wasn't a choice; Rosa had to stay home and look after their oldest child, Tony, who is severely handicapped. Andino's only sibling, Tony, now 35, has the cognitive ability of a 1-year-old and needs to be helped with everything from getting dressed to going to the bathroom. It is another daily reminder of Andino's extraordinary physical gifts, as well as the blessings they have afforded his family, who no longer live in the South Miami Heights area.

"If I didn't have kids, I probably wouldn't be here," said Andino, who is expecting his third child with his current wife, Renee. "I would have given up a long time ago. My kids are what keep me going. Every time I look at their faces, I feel like I can't let them down."

"I'm real proud of Robert, the teammate he is now, the father he is and the husband he is -- not in that order," Showalter said. "There's been a lot of things that have gone well to impact his life. I wouldn't be surprised [at his success], especially building on what he did that last month [of 2012]."

In a perfect world, Andino's talents would allow him to be the Orioles' super-utility player, taking advantage of his plus defense at three infield spots. But Roberts' injury has shifted his role considerably. One of the most popular guys in the clubhouse, Andino has shown up this spring motivated to outdo last season, and willing to do whatever Showalter and the Orioles need. This is a guy who loves the team, and who finally feels he is in a place that loves him back.

"He can play all three positions well, but can also play every day, and that's really hard to find," Roberts said. "We develop a rap or a reputation early as youngsters: You are just a kid and you are trying to grow up and try to find who you are. And fairly or unfairly, he had that in some shape or form.

"He's starting to break those barriers down, which is great. Those don't get broken down unless you are really making an effort to do things a little different than you did when you were 20. And that's what he's doing."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.