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Rays' new third baseman Aybar trying to put troubling year behind him

ST. PETERSBURG — There are players, Atlanta Braves general manager Frank Wren says, who can be anonymous in the clubhouse.

They smile, but remain soft-spoken. They play with passion, but are rarely part of a team's typical pranks and tomfoolery. Some of it is shyness. Some of it is due to a language barrier. To outsiders — and even some teammates — they remain a mystery.

To Wren, that's Willy Aybar.

The Rays, however, feel they have a more carefree Willy.

Aybar has relished a fresh start — a "chance of a lifetime," his agent calls it — as the Rays starting third baseman, a job that is now guaranteed after the team sent Evan Longoria to Triple-A Durham on Monday.

The 25-year-old is trying to overcome a troubling 12-month span, during which he was suspended by the Braves for failing to show up for two games while rehabbing an injured right hand, spent three months in a substance abuse facility and was jailed in the Dominican Republic on domestic violence charges before his wife of seven years, Yessenia, withdrew the complaint.

Aybar later apologized for what he called a "big mistake."

To friends and former coaches, the problems are surprising. Those close to Aybar describe him as a smooth-swinging switch-hitter, as a fun-loving fisherman and as a devoted dad to three children who built a two-story home in the Dominican for his parents and several relatives.

They talk about his toughness and determination, from learning how to switch hit as a teen to batting over .300 with the Braves while nursing a broken finger.

Aybar declined to talk about what sparked last year's struggles but said his problems are behind him. Rays first baseman Carlos Pena said Aybar is now surrounded by "the right people, right environment, right team" to thrive.

"For every Dominican player, when we have a fellow Dominican player having trouble, we're going to worry," Pena said. "But to see him so refreshed, so happy, so enjoying himself, and playing baseball, it's awesome. We're going to be there for him. There's no reason why he shouldn't come out here and be a big part of this."

Wren thought Aybar could have been a big part of the Braves' future, too, when they acquired the touted Dodgers prospect in 2006 as a backup for Chipper Jones. But everything changed in Aybar's Braves debut on July 30.

Fresh off a plane from L.A., he jumped into the lineup and racked up four hits. On his first, a double, he broke a finger sliding into second. Braves manager Bobby Cox said Aybar tried playing with the injury for a week but had to shut it down — as he did the following spring after hurting his wrist.

Wren said teams kept inquiring about Aybar, a .292 lifetime hitter, even after he left the team and entered rehab. Wren calls him a "good kid" who "owned up to his responsibilities and did a real good job of trying to get things right."

Rays manager Joe Maddon said Aybar has been "great" so far and said he has made a conscious effort to make more daily contact with him. For some young Latin players, Maddon said, it's important to show them they're wanted.

So far, the feeling is mutual.

This is a chance of a lifetime," said Luis Valdez, Aybar's longtime agent. "He's more mature. He knows what he wants. This is going to be a fun year."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com.

>>Fast Facts

Meet Willy Aybar

• Began his career as a shortstop, a position he learned from childhood friend Miguel Tejada, who is from Aybar's hometown of Bani.

• Enjoys hunting and fishing in the Dominican Republic.

• His brother, Erick Aybar, is an infielder for the Los Angeles Angels; the two talk or text message nearly every day.

• His favorite foods include chicken and rice, his favorite music is merengue.

Rays' new third baseman Aybar trying to put troubling year behind him 03/25/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2008 10:08pm]
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