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Red Sox restock lineup by signing Renteria to four-year, $40 million contract

BARRANQUILLA, Colombia -- Sleepless from a night of trans-Atlantic phone calls with his agent and the giddy anticipation of a move that will change his life, All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria said yesterday what he "most wanted was respect and to be valued as a player," and was thrilled to be joining a Red Sox team that fought hard to sign him.

As important as the multimillion-dollar pay raise the Red Sox offered in a four-year, $40 million contract with an option for a fifth year, was the dogged determination with which Sox management wooed him away from St. Louis, the softspoken Colombian said in a lengthy interview in Spanish peppered with English here in his seaside hometown, where he spends December and part of January.

"When they want you and they try everything to get you -- it could be economic, it could be calling and showing a real interest in you -- that's what makes the difference," Renteria said, relaxing by his kidney-shaped pool fed by a mini-waterfall.

Still, the two-time Gold Glove winner acknowledged it was a difficult decision to make, above all for the emotional bond he feels with the Cardinals and St. Louis fans.

"I know the St. Louis team and fans wanted me to stay, but [management] didn't try hard to keep me -- that's what I felt in the negotiations," he said. Even with his mind made up before he went to bed Tuesday night, "I could hardly sleep. I played six years with St. Louis and I considered it my home. This is the first day I wake up and I'm not with St. Louis."

He expects to fly to Boston today to meet Red Sox management and formally sign his contract over the weekend, before returning to Colombia.

Having played hard against the Sox during the World Series -- "I wanted to beat them, but I couldn't," he said -- he is looking forward to joining the new champions. "I always like to play on a winning team," he said.

Renteria is well known in this Atlantic port town for his daily three-hour workouts at a popular gym, his dedication to intense dominoes games that last late into the evening on balmy weekend nights, and a New Year's Eve softball and egg-toss tournament with old friends, where the losing team pays for everyone's beer.

"What I've seen of the [Sox] team during the World Series is that they all get along well," said Renteria. "They may look crazy with their long hair, [but] they play hard and on the field they're professional, while off the field they're open and warm. That's the way I like to both play and relax. I like to enjoy myself, tell stories, hang out with friends in the clubhouse before playing. And then on the field, I concentrate 100 percent."

Renteria, 29, will be entering his 13th year in professional baseball. He signed with the Marlins organization when he was 16, and in 1997 at age 22, drove in the winning run for Florida in the 11th inning of Game 7 of the World Series against Cleveland. He has played on five playoff teams and is a four-time All-Star, the first Colombian to be an All-Star starter.

Asked whether he was prepared for life under a microscope in the sports-crazy, hothouse environment that is Boston, the 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound three-time Silver Slugger award winner said he welcomed the scrutiny and attention of passionate baseball fans, and wasn't worried about the legendary pressure.

"I want [the fans] to like me, and the way to do that is to respect them by playing hard," he said. "The Boston fans are great -- they love their team and that excites me to play better."

As to the public curiosity that is bound to arise over a newcomer to the Sox dugout, Renteria said with a laugh that he's "not going to give 100 interviews after every game. I don't like to talk more than I should."

Displaying a mix of curiosity and apprehension, Renteria asked if Boston was "a nice city," and winced when informed it was much colder than St. Louis. He said he was attracted by the fact that "there are many Latinos there," and said having Fenway Park as home field was exciting. "It's one of the oldest, where everyone wants to play," he said.

Now that the Sox have signed Renteria, his countryman and fellow shortstop Orlando Cabrera must seek employment elsewhere, and rumors have circulated that he may replace Renteria on St. Louis's roster. Cabrera has himself said Renteria is a stronger overall player, but Renteria declined to answer when asked why the Sox would have preferred him over Cabrera. "I'm not taking anyone's job and he's not taking anyone's job. We're just two players who play the same position," Renteria said.

As to their friendship, which dates to when the two played against each other as teenagers -- and to when Cabrera's father signed Renteria with the Marlins, Renteria vowed, "It won't change anything between us."

Renteria figures the biggest change for him will be the different style of play in the American League. "I have to learn the pitchers and the fields," he said. "I have to physically and mentally prepare myself. It's good to have change."

Renteria is looking forward to taking part in the Sox' annual battles with the Yankees. "I watched the playoffs with the Yankees and it made me really emotional when [the Sox] won," he said. "I think it can be like that every year."

The youngest of 14 children, only eight of whom survived, Renteria is recognized in his hometown for improving his circumstances, but not straying too far from his humble roots. His father died when he was a baby, and his mother supported her brood, who lived four to a room, as a street vendor. Today, Renteria has a house in Miami's South Beach and a two-story, six-bedroom home here with a neo-classical interior of marble nudes, Italianate frescoes, and a rock-faced indoor grotto. The whole family celebrates the holidays together in his mother's own well-appointed home nearby, but every Christmas for the last eight years, Renteria has donned a Santa's cap to deliver hundreds of presents and food to needy children. Last year, his chosen charity was for children with AIDS; this year he will take toys and aid to local flood victims. His dream is to set up a foundation to help street children.

Renteria and his elder brother Edinson, who played with Houston's Triple A team and was an infield coach with Atlanta, set up a baseball academy for Colombian youths about five years ago, with the hope of raising the profile of the sport in a country dominated by soccer fans. There are only three Colombians playing in the major leagues -- Renteria, Cabrera, and Cabrera's older brother, Jolbert -- but Renteria hopes to change that with future graduates. For now, the school is not-for-profit, but Renteria envisions a day when he will be able to sign promising players with top scouts.

Another aim of the academy is to improve the image of Colombia as a country "not just of drugs and violence," but also of world-class "sports, music, and literature. I want people to understand that like any other country, Colombia has good and bad things," he said passionately.

Renteria said he is looking forward to "learning to speak the great English they speak in Boston, getting to know the universities," and making new friends in the Sox dugout. He knows Manny Ramirez, who was once a neighbor in a Florida apartment complex, and David Ortiz from playing against him in the Dominican Winter League one season.

Asked how he will say farewell to St. Louis, Renteria replied, "by thanking them. My time in St. Louis was some of the best years for me, for the support of the team and the fans. It's an experience I won't forget." 

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