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Renteria: breath of fresh air for Colombia

He's a simple man of few words. But Edgar Renteria's achievements _ he had the winning hit for the Florida Marlins in Sunday's Game 7 of the World Series _ have thrust him reluctantly into the spotlight.

In the world of baseball, he is not just an outstanding shortstop. He's fast becoming an ambassador for a sport that has seen better days in his home country of Colombia.

Fans go wild over him both here and in Colombia.

The Colombian Consulate in Miami was mobbed Wednesday night when he made a brief public appearance, signing baseballs for schoolchildren. Police were called to bring the crowd under control.

Thursday he flew home to more scenes of adulation in Barranquilla on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Like Brazil's Rio de Janeiro, Barranquilla is Colombia's carnival city. The fiesta began after Sunday night's game to the tune of traditional cumbia music. The rum has barely stopped flowing since.

Renteria's success has given a big boost to baseball in a nation where, except along the north coast, the sport is a poor second to soccer. In recent years professional baseball in Colombia has languished. But now baseball fever is sweeping the country again. Scores of children _ would-be Renterias all _ have shown up in recent weeks for Barranquilla's Little League. Even in Bogota, the chilly Andean capital, interest in baseball has picked up.

Now Colombian baseball fans are hoping to pull off a national coup by bringing back American Major League Baseball. But in the world of baseball diplomacy, that's not so easy.

Colombia has a long baseball tradition. North coast Colombians are especially proud that the game was not imported by Americans, but developed at home by Colombians returning from abroad.

In the 1970s Colombia enjoyed a strong professional winter league, supported by American Major League Baseball. The University of Miami toured there every season. Colombian fans got to see the future stars of the American leagues _ players like Cecil Fielder, Mariano Duncan and Willie McGhee _ get their start in the game.

But Major League Baseball pulled out of Colombia after the 1984 season. Colombian baseball commentators say no official explanation was given. "They never told us the real reason," said Jorge Benedetti, baseball commentator for a Colombian radio station in Miami. Some said it was because of a lack of talented players and a poor baseball infrastructure. Others pointed an accusing finger at the country's rising drug problem.

"It was the drug issue," said Milton Jamail, an expert on Latin American baseball who teaches international relations at the University of Texas. With the rise of Colombia's drug cartels Major League Baseball worried about exposing the young American prospects to Colombia's "narco" culture. "A lot of guys got strung out on drugs," said Jamail. "They were 17-year-old kids, and drugs were available everywhere and at all times."

Jamail said major league scouts also became worried about their own personal safety. Leftist guerrilla groups in Colombia with close ties to the drug cartels have partly financed their operations by kidnapping foreigners and demanding million-dollar ransoms from their employers.

Despite several efforts to revive it, professional baseball never recovered. However, amateur baseball survived in the working class barrios, where small children play the game barefoot and with cardboard catching mitts.

The Renteria family was typical. Edgar Renteria was one of 14 siblings, six of whom died soon after birth. The eight who survived shared four beds in one room. Before Edgar's first birthday, his father was dead, too.

Edgar's older brother, Edinson, 29, made it to the minor leagues before being hired as a coach by the Atlanta Braves. At age 16 Edgar already was playing Class A baseball for Kane County (Ill.).

"There's more talent there (in Colombia)," said Edinson, interviewed Wednesday night at the Colombian Consulate while his brother was being mobbed. "People want to see professional baseball return."

This winter, players from Major League Baseball will join teams in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Other countries _ Panama, Cuba and Colombia _ have requested they be included.

But, thanks to the Renterias, Colombians now argue they have a special case.

"Every country has a problem with drugs and violence, but the north coast of Colombia is the most peaceful part of our country," said Ernesto Martinez, a Colombian businessman in Miami whose brother played baseball back home. "The fans are still there, and we have to capitalize on the new interest."

But Colombia still has a rocky path to climb. As many Colombians were enjoying Renteria's exploits in Game 7 Sunday, the rest of the country was experiencing the bloodiest local elections in recent history.

Colombia's sporting image has also been tainted by a series of recent events.

In 1994, days after a Colombian soccer player, Andres Escobar, accidentally scored an "own-goal" against the national team during a World Cup match, gunmen assassinated him outside a discotheque in Medellin.

On July 20, another member of the national team, Anthony de Avila _ who plays Major League Soccer for the New York-New Jersey MetroStars _ further disgraced the sport when he publicly dedicated a World Cup qualifying game to the jailed bosses of the Cali drug cartel.

That makes the rise of Renteria all the more refreshing. "It's good for the country with all the negative things people are used to hearing," said Edinson.

And it only gets better. Renteria soon will have the chance to raise Colombia's case at the highest level. As World Series winners, he and his Florida Marlins teammates will be rewarded with a traditional visit to the White House.

That's something even Colombia's president, Ernesto Samper, hasn't been able to manage. Samper got his U.S. visa withdrawn last year because of charges he took $6-million in drug money for his 1994 election campaign.

Back home, Renteria hopes he has lifted some of the cloud over Colombian sports. "My performance in the World Series showed the United States something positive about my country," he said.