Uribe lifts team with bat, heart

In the annals of major league pranks, the “silent treatment” is a classic. When a batter hits an exciting home run, his teammates ignore him in the dugout, as if his feat was beneath their notice. Whoever invented the joke didn’t count on Juan Uribe.

After the infielder clubbed his first long ball for the orange and black on June 9 in Phoenix, he danced along the bench waving his arms and shouting “Hallelujah!” Bengie Molina cracked a grin, Uribe grabbed Pablo Sandoval, and the other Giants had to join the wild celebration.

With his spirited play and with his light heart, Uribe makes the Giants and their fans smile. In the same 9-4 win over Arizona, he managed to score on a botched suicide squeeze. Earlier in the road trip, Uribe cracked up the clubhouse with T-shirt sporting the words “Gun Show” and arrows pointing to his bulging biceps.

“That’s how I am,” the happy Giant says. “Whether I’m playing every day or not, I want to keep smiling. The teammates are great here. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to sign with the team.”

A 30-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, Uribe learned to play baseball from his uncle, Jose Uribe, San Francisco’s popular shortstop from 1985 to 1992. Juan Uribe broke in as the Colorado Rockies shortstop in 2002 and was traded to the White Sox following the 2003 campaign. During the next two years in Chicago, he set career marks in batting average, home runs and RBI, helping the Sox win the World Series in 2005.

“To play in the World Series was very special. Every player wants to make it there,” Uribe says. “It was one of those moments in my life that I’ll never forget.”

Suffering a hamstring injury, Uribe played and produced less in 2008, leading Chicago to break ties. Instead, Uribe entered the Giants camp in 2009 without a contract. He’s been climbing the team’s depth chart ever since.

With a strong spring, the unsigned veteran played his way into a job on the team’s 25-man roster, and spent most of April pinch-hitting and backing up the infield. When a strained elbow caused Sandoval to move from third base to first in May, the versatile Uribe has made the most of his chance to start at the hot corner and at shortstop.

As the Giants fought through a painful losing streak and offensive drought in San Diego and Seattle, Uribe turned the tide with a bases-clearing double against the Mariners on May 23.

“At that time we were really struggling, trying to get the big hit,” says manager Bruce Bochy. “You could see the tension mounting with the players. They all wanted to do something to help us get on the board. When Juan got that hit, it sent a sense of relief throughout the team. Everyone seemed to relax.”

Uribe played no small part in San Francisco’s hot streak that followed, like his clutch play on June 5 when the Giants had to wiggle out of a ninth-inning, bases-loaded jam. When Florida’s Jorge Cantu hit a ground ball toward the hole with trouble written all over it, Uribe made a terrific off-balance throw to first to clinch the one-run game.

“He’s got such quick hands,” says grateful closer Brian Wilson. “As soon as Uribe touched it, I saw the ball fly by me. It was bang-bang, and he got him, game over. He made a great play.”

While hitting in every spot from second to ninth in the batting order, the handy Uribe has begun to show his extra-base power and improved his average to more than .300.

“My nickname for him is ‘Different Sound,’ because when he hits the ball, it makes a different sound than most people,” says hitting coach Carney Lansford. “He’s so strong, the ball just jumps off his bat. Our offense has really clicked since he started being the everyday third baseman.”

For an infielder who’s mostly played shortstop, Uribe is happy to move around the diamond wherever the team needs him.

“I have always said that if you can play shortstop, you can play any other position on the infield,” Uribe says. “There is not a big difference to play third, short, or second. You just have to anticipate what’s going to happen and what you’re going to do with the ball.”

“It’s nice to have a player like Juan who can do a lot different things for you,” says Bochy. “What I love about Juan is the way he plays the game with a lot of enthusiasm. He has a knack for keeping everybody loose.”

Even as the skipper spoke in his office, Uribe celebrated a win at the clubhouse card table over Wilson, Sandoval and Edgar Renteria. “I won your money!” he sang, dancing around the room. “I’ll pay you in cheeseburgers… I’ll buy you a savings bond,” replies Wilson. Raucous laughter filled the room.

“It doesn’t matter if he was 0-for-4 or if he got a couple of hits, he doesn’t get down. He’s very, very upbeat,” Bochy says. “He pulls for everybody, they know it, and they feed off his energy.”

Uribe family adds to Giants history

On the night the Giants honored their 1989 National League championship club, Robby Thompson paid tribute to his longtime teammate and fallen friend. “Jose Uribe will always be remembered,” the former second baseman told the cheering crowd.

Certainly Juan Uribe remembers his Uncle Jose, the former San Francisco shortstop who died tragically in a December 2006 car accident near his hometown of Palenque in the Dominican Republic.

“From our town, the very first one to make it to the big leagues was my uncle,” Juan says. “My whole family was so proud. It was a big story. That showed the rest of the kids that if he did it, others could do it, too.

“I thank my uncle because he’s the one who taught me and the rest of the kids how to play baseball. I asked him, ‘What’s the most important thing to become a big leaguer?’ And he said, ‘The most important thing is to be yourself at all times.’

“The one thing that sticks in my mind about him is that he always played baseball happy, whether he was hitting or fielding. He was always happy and setting the example to show respect to your teammates.”

As Juan has started adding to his family’s history in the community that adored his uncle, fans who remember Jose have revived a favorite Candlestick chant in his honor: “Ooo… REEBAY!” The cheer makes Jose’s nephew smile.

“I’m very happy to know that they support me, and that they remember my uncle,” says Juan.

Giants Magazine, 2009