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Tampa Bay Rays utility man Willy Aybar's persona goes beyond his stats

“Everybody is happy” when Willy Aybar, above, is in the lineup, Jason Bartlett says.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

“Everybody is happy” when Willy Aybar, above, is in the lineup, Jason Bartlett says.

Willy Aybar's teammates take turns trying to explain how he does it.

They talk about how amazing and "unheard of" it is that the Rays utility infielder can be so effective coming off the bench, hitting .278 and matching a career high with 10 homers in just 43 starts. His production has manager Joe Maddon saying Aybar will get in the lineup more down the stretch, either at second base or designated hitter.

"Willy," starter James Shields said, "is a clutch player."

Ben Zobrist, who knows quite a bit about producing in a reserve role, says Aybar, 26, is special because he's so even-keeled. Maddon points out how Aybar stays ready and is mentally into the game while on the bench. Shortstop Jason Bartlett said Aybar keeps things simple, not overanalyzing. Aybar said through an interpreter that a key is preparing as if he's going to play every day.

But Carlos Peña, also from the Dominican Republic, and Dioner Navarro, his friend for many years, dig a little deeper.

"He knows that he's family here. Everyone in this ballclub loves him like a brother," Peña said. "I think he feels so comfortable here. It's allowed him to feel at home. When you feel at home, that is huge. There's no judgment passed on you ever. All he gets is pure love and people caring for him."

Peña points out how Aybar has overcome personal struggles. He spent three months in an alcohol treatment center while with the Braves in 2007 and in January 2008 was arrested in the Dominican Republic; although his wife of seven years later withdrew her domestic violence complaint.

Aybar apologized publicly, calling it a "big mistake" and has said his problems are behind him with the Rays offering him a fresh start and support system. As a result, Aybar is rejuvenating his career and revamping his image.

The same Aybar who was considered reclusive with the Braves, who mysteriously failed to report for treatment for his hand injury and was later suspended, has become a favorite in the Rays clubhouse. He danced during last year's postseason champagne celebrations despite being a year removed from his time at the alcohol treatment center.

There's the different handshakes Aybar has developed with several Rays, typically seen in the dugout after home runs or key moments. Shields said Aybar gives him a forearm plus fist bump; others are more elaborate. Bartlett said players joke that when Aybar is in the lineup, "everybody is happy."

"He has such a good personality, a great teammate, great person," Navarro said. "He hasn't changed a bit. He's always happy, always messing around. That's why we love him so much. I've always thought Willy is a big, big kid."

Navarro and Aybar were in the Dodgers system and lived together in Las Vegas. He said Aybar hasn't forgotten his roots, growing up poor in Bani. That's why, Navarro said, Aybar often gives back to kids there and has built a large building for the homeless as well as a home for his family.

Aybar's family with the Rays always knew he could hit. It was just a matter finding the right fit.

"I think it's the environment that he's in," Navarro said. "I think he feels wanted. He feels we care about him, about what he's feeling and what he's doing. He doesn't have to be worried about, 'What are they saying? What are they saying?' He feels comfortable here. And that's big."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith @sptimes.com

Tampa Bay Rays utility man Willy Aybar's persona goes beyond his stats 08/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009 12:02am]
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