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Message loud and clear

In his native Colombia, Sox' Cabrera has answered call

CHICAGO -- A funny thing happened as Orlando Cabrera triumphantly rounded the bases after he knocked in Johnny Damon with his walkoff double off the Green Monster in Tuesday's 5-4 thriller over the Blue Jays. In the stands, Cabrera's wife, Eliana, noticed during the celebration her cellphone ringing. And ringing. And ringing.

One call after another, they came so rapidly as Cabrera's teammates mobbed him that Eliana couldn't possibly handle them. All she had time to do was tell from the caller ID the origin of the sudden outpouring: Cartagena, Colombia.

"The whole city went crazy," Cabrera said.

Cartagena has been a Red Sox town since another native son, Jackie Gutierrez, became the first Colombian -- and only one other than Cabrera -- to play for the team, in the early 1980s. But things have changed in Cartagena, a bustling tourist city on the Caribbean coast, since Cabrera joined the Sox in their blockbuster trade and succeeded Nomar Garciaparra, one of the greatest shortstops in franchise history.

For starters, the Cartagena cable television company promptly bought the rights to broadcast Sox games from NESN. As a child, Cabrera's exposure to the Sox was limited to visiting his idol, Gutierrez, with his father, Jolbert Cabrera, and staring in awe at the memorabilia in Gutierrez's home. But anyone with a television in Cartagena could watch with the rest of the Sox' international family of fans Tuesday while Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy provided the commentary as Cabrera ended his anxious and largely unproductive first two weeks in Garciaparra's long shadow with his magical game-winner.

"A lot of people from Colombia, especially from my city, were Boston fans for a long time," Cabrera said. "Now, there's a lot more."

After all, Cabrera is to Cartagena what Garciaparra was to Boston. Sure, Cabrera's countryman, Cardinal shortstop Edgar Renteria, is the nation's biggest baseball star, but Renteria is not from Cartagena. And Cabrera's older brother, Jolbert, plays for the Mariners, but he has never matched Orlando's accomplishments or wealth.

Cabrera, 29, whose run of success with the Expos included winning a Gold Glove and being described by former manager Felipe Alou as "the most dangerous clutch hitter" in a lineup that also featured Vladimir Guerrero, this year is earning $3.4 million. In Cartagena, he is a superstar and more.

In a nation rife with poverty, Cabrera has become both an inspiration for starry-eyed children and a target for desperately needy adults. As difficult as celebrity became for Garciaparra -- teammates said he often felt as if there were nowhere he could go without feeling as if he were in a fishbowl --he reaped nothing as weighty as the harvest of Cabrera's fame.

Garciaparra never opened the door of his home or gym in Boston to find 20 or more folks with their hands out, as Cabrera has done almost daily in the offseason in Cartagena. And Garciaparra never found himself handing out money so often to friends, acquaintances, and strangers that he finally needed to decide enough was enough and find other ways to help, first by encouraging them to look harder for work, then by planning to create an aptly named charitable foundation, Help Me. That's been Cabrera's life.

"You can't help everybody, but when they're poor and they struggle and they need help, they're going to ask you, even if they don't know you," Cabrera said. "At first, I helped as many as I could, but they just keep coming back and coming back because they always need money. What they really need are jobs."

Pressure? Cabrera has grown accustomed to confronting it on and off the field. So as pleasant as it has been to walk from his new apartment in the Fens to the ballpark without tending to the needy, he also has heeded the advice of teammates Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz, and former coach Tommy Harper, and has tried to ignore the outsized expectations many fans harbor in Garciaparra's wake.

Cabrera knows as well as anyone that while he may be a defensive upgrade from Garciaparra, he lacks the two-time American League batting champion's prowess at the plate. In one of his best seasons with the Expos, Cabrera hit .297 with 17 homers and 80 RBIs last season.

"I'm replacing a legend," he said. "What he accomplished here was unbelievable. People always expect somebody better to come along. That's been the toughest part, but I will never replace him because I am not the same type of player that he is. I've never hit .330 in my life. Maybe one day I can because as long as you're playing, you have a chance."

Cabrera has played in 288 straight games since Sept. 24, 2002, and has appeared in all but nine games since 2000. He began to show his durability soon after he arrived in the big leagues with the Expos in 1997 and replaced Mike Lansing at second base. He moved to shortstop a year later.

"I never knew why, but Felipe would play me every day but Sundays and then would put me in the game in the seventh inning for defense," he said. "Then the next manager [Jeff Torborg] told me he needed somebody to hit behind Vladdy, who played every day. He needed somebody else to play every day, and he said, `Cabrera is the only one who can protect [Guerrero] because he doesn't care, he'll just go out there and hit.' "

Cabrera's response?

"I said, `Let's go.' "

And off he went.

"I really like the fact that if you're not good one day," he said, "you can come back the next day and get revenge."

Whether Cabrera will come back next year remains in question. A free agent after the season, he would command a much larger salary than Pokey Reese, who is superior to Cabrera defensively but cannot hit nearly as well. Reese also is eligible for free agency.

Meanwhile, Cabrera is adjusting to a new team in a new city. He said his early impressions of Boston have been highly favorable. His wife and their two children, Othel, 9, and Mitchelly, 6, also loved it before they returned to Colombia Wednesday for the new school year. And if Cabrera continues to play like he has since his early struggles, Sox fans may embrace him as well.

There's only one minor problem. In Tom Brady's town, Cabrera is a huge fan of Peyton Manning (he wears a Manning jersey in the clubhouse). For one thing, Manning wears the same number Cabrera wore (18) before Cabrera switched to 44 to honor his father (Damon wears 18 for the Sox). Cabrera's father, who died in 2000 at age 50 of a kidney infection, was a longtime manager of the Colombian national team.

But Cabrera also likes Manning's game.

"I saw him play, and he's great," Cabrera said. "I met him, and he sent me the jersey. I'm a really big fan of his."

If all goes well for Cabrera, despite his allegiance to Manning, he may gain a lot more really big fans himself.

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