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Pirates Pirates' Simon is a sweet guy who doesn't see many pitches he doesn't like

Sunday, May 11, 2003

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

There is a word in his native Papiamento that pretty well describes Randall Simon. He's a contento dude.

From his free-swinging style at the plate to his cooperativeness after Pirates games, win or lose, Simon is straightforward and usually upbeat. To find out why, you have to look beyond the first baseman's positive presence in the locker room, beyond the walls of PNC Park or the streets of Pittsburgh or even the country's borders.

Randall Simon, acquired in the off-season from the Detroit Tigers, was an instant hit in the Pirates' clubhouse. "He's one of those guys you want to be around," said Jason Kendall. (Photo illustration by Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

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Where he's from

Simon grew up in paradise, a sliver in the southern Caribbean called Curacao, a serene and diverse little universe next door to the popular party island of Aruba. He is the youngest of 11 children in a family that appreciates the beauty of the island fringed with sunny, sandy lamas and that supported his penchant for sports.

"He's very religious, very sweet, very calm, very respectful," said Zagrah Eddine, a sophomore at Point Park College who is from Curacao and knows Simon. "He loves talking."

The Pirates quickly picked up on his personality.

" 'Interesting' is a good word," Manager Lloyd McClendon said with a soft laugh.

"He's happy-go-lucky," catcher Jason Kendall said. "He's one of those guys you want to be around."

Free swinger

It's easier, of course, to want to be around a guy who is one of the Pirates' most consistent and productive hitters, especially on a team that needs all the offense it can get.

Simon, who came to the Pirates in a trade with Detroit four days after Thanksgiving, was batting .293, second on the team, going into a weekend series against Arizona. The thick 6-foot, 240-pounder was hitting .345 with runners in scoring position, had a .424 slugging percentage, two home runs, 11 runs scored and was tied for first on the team with 18 RBIs.

A left-handed hitter, he is starting against right-handed pitchers, which means most games, in a platoon with Kevin Young at first base. Simon, who has been batting cleanup most of the season, is 3 of 14 (.214) against left-handers and is hitting .308 against right-handers. For his career, he has batted .245 against left-handers, .321 against right-handers.

Besides power and production, Simon brings a certain entertainment quality to his at-bats. He approaches the plate the same way he approaches each day: Appreciate what's offered and swing away and see what good things might happen.

He takes a cut at just about everything, usually makes contact and comes out ahead when garbage pitch meets sweet spot.

"I just try to hit the ball someplace," said Simon, who through 29 games and 92 at-bats had just 11 strikeouts and four walks because he swings pa bai dilanti.

"I think it's difficult for a lot of pitchers because I hit everything. Sometimes I can't even tell you how I do it."

Neither can General Manager David Littlefield, who is amused by and impressed with Simon's cuts.

"He is a guy who hits it in different parts of the ... I don't want to say strike zone because sometimes it's outside the strike zone," Littlefield said. "Part of it is an uncanny hand-eye coordination to be able to put the fat part of the bat on pitches all over the place. It's really a talent, even though some people make fun of the fact that he hits them all over the place."

Pirates hitting coach Gerald Perry couldn't help but smile and shake his head when he watched a tape of the home run Simon hit April 10 against Milwaukee. Ben Sheets' delivery was ticketed for China, but Simon golfed it into the right-field seats.

"The catcher was about to block it," said Perry, who has taken a light-touch approach to working with Simon. A couple of weeks shy of his 28th birthday and now getting established in the major leagues, Simon probably wouldn't benefit from an overhaul of his hitting style.

"He is what he is, and it's pretty darn good," said McClendon, who has never seen a batter less selective. "The fact is, he's a bad-ball hitter. From time to time, we've had guys who were bad-ball hitters or hackers, so to speak, and it's not going to look pretty. But when it's all said and done, his numbers at the end of the year are going to be good.

"He can bring a lot of energy, a lot of positive energy. And he's a player, more important than anything."

Even though Simon was named the Tigers' MVP last season after hitting .301 with 19 homers and a team-high 82 RBIs, the Pirates gave up only minor-league pitcher Adrian Burnside and two minor-leaguers to be named to get him. Detroit considered him expendable after obtaining young first baseman Carlos Pena from Oakland in July. After that, Simon didn't play in the field.

Maybe Simon would have been better suited as a designated hitter with an American League team, but the Pirates don't see him as a huge liability at first base, even though Young is often used as a late-game defensive substitute. Simon has made one error this year.

"He's certainly not as bad as the reports we got," McClendon said of Simon's defense. "I like his hands and I think he moves well. He needs to work on his first step and positioning in the National League."

Baseball education

Jadira Simon only recently became a baseball fan, mostly because the sport finally has been very good to her and her husband.

"I appreciate baseball because it got us here in the States and a good life," said Jadira, who likes the friendliness of Pittsburgh and does not want to say ajoo to the city. "I hope he will get an extension of his contract."

Negotiations over Simon's salary this season were fairly simple. The two sides avoided arbitration when he agreed to a one-year contract worth $1.475 million, with incentive clauses that could bring another $100,000.

It's Simon's first fat contract. It's pretty good plaka no matter where you live, but it's astounding if you consider his background.

Curacao (to pronounce it, think if a veterinarian who goes to a farm to tend to an ailing female pig: cure-a-sow) is part of The Netherlands kingdom. Islanders speak English, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento, a dialect spoken in the street. Simon also became fluent in baseball at an early age.

Even before his mother -- who raised 11 children as a single parent -- and his five sisters pitched in to buy him his first glove, Simon would play with his brothers and others from one side of Willemstad, Curacao's only city. They would go against a group from the other side of town. Sometimes, games were on dirt lots using whatever equipment was around, including broomsticks and bottle caps. Soccer also was popular with the kids.

"Randall was not that fortunate in the beginning," Jadira said. "They were very poor."

Eventually, Simon became a good player in organized baseball. His brother Oswen, 48, who lives in Holland and made his first trip to the United States last month to visit Randall, said all the Simon brothers were good.

Simon signed with Atlanta as a non-drafted free agent in 1992 and worked his way through the Braves' minor-league system before getting a September call-up in 1997.

He spent most of the next four seasons in the minors, and his biggest moment in the majors came when Braves reliever John Rocker went on his famous tirade of intolerance and called Simon a "fat monkey."

Simon was released by Atlanta, Florida and the Yankees. He played in a lot of minor-league cities and winter leagues before finally getting a break with Detroit. Although a lot of players go through long, frustrating periods before they stick in the major leagues, the tan-ten process was torture for Jadira Simon.

"I, even as his wife, stopped believing that we could make it further," she said. "There were so many times he would be up and down. He would be playing OK and they wouldn't give him a chance.

"There were times when I lost it. I would be crying. But he's the kind of person that you could never bring down when it comes to baseball."

Famous in paradise

Randall and Jadira Simon return to Curacao in the winter, usually just in time for the annual festival, Carnival.

They are a celebrity couple on the island that is 38 miles long and a few miles wide with a population of about 150,000, which is considerably less than the Pirates' paid attendance so far this season. Randall Simon is hailed for his baseball career -- he is the second yu di Korsow to make the majors, after Atlanta's Andruw Jones -- and Jadira for being his wife and for her background.

Jadira was once the island's Miss International and represented Curacao at a pageant in Japan. She also served for a few years as the island's Sports Queen. One of her duties was to greet famous visitors at the airport. Even though the island is small, she had never met Simon before greeting him at the airport once.

The celebrity thing isn't taken to an extreme, though.

"Everybody is proud of him for what he's doing, but I don't approach him as just the baseball player," Eddine said.

The Simons are happy to go to the lama after church on Sundays, spend time with their families and eat their mothers' home cooking -- "I always tell him he can eat as much as he wants as long as he hits hopi bon," Jadira said. Randall Simon sometimes plays bongos in some friends' calypso band during Carnival.

At a time when people's differences are being underscored with terrorism and war, in Curacao there is an enviable harmony. Some 50 or more cultures and ethnicities and several religions mingle happily in the dushi climate.

"You have all different cultures, different people, but people still keep their identity," said Mark Griffith, a Curacao native who earned degrees from Point Park and Duquesne and now works for Bayer Corp.

"One day you might go to a bar mitzvah, and the next day maybe it's a confirmation. Everyone gets along. [Simon] is like that. He's got a good heart."

To many on the island, Simon is still Chulo, the nickname his sports buddies gave him when he was a youngster.

It means "tough," according to Simon and his brother Oswen.

It means "cool," Griffith said.

Jadira Simon was more forthcoming about Chulo. "It means 'pimp,' that's what it means," she said. "I never liked that. I tell him, 'Don't think that you can get all the girls in the world.'"

Simon was just one Pirates off-season acquisition that sparked optimism, but unlike some of the veterans, he could just be hitting his stride, not reaching the end of his career.

"It seems like he's in the prime of his life," Griffith said.

If he keeps swinging pa bai dilanti and spraying hard line drives all over the field and hikes more balls over the 21-foot wall in PNC Park's right field, Simon could settle in for a long time with the Pirates -- or at least as long as they can afford him.

"He's a young man," McClendon said. "He's only going to get better."

Those off-season trips to Curacao help, too.

"Me, as a player, my strength is in my people," Simon said. "It's a beautiful thing when you go down there and you see how much they appreciate you. Then when you come back the next year, you're more pumped and confident."

That's when biba bon. Life is good.

Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.

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