Little Bee by Chris Cleave

On the one hand, Jose Uribe makes absolutely zero sense as a bookmark for Little Bee. On the other hand, it’s pretty remarkable I haven’t used an Uribe card or written about him already.

Little Bee is about a Nigerian refugee seeking asylum in London. As it is split between Nigeria and London, there isn’t an obvious connection to anybody in baseball. And since this is the second hard copy book in a row with a Nigerian connection, I’d already run out of my Africa ideas. So early in the book I rifled through a stack of cards sitting nearby to use as a bookmark temporarily and settled on Jose Uribe. My best excuse is if you don’t know how to pronounce Uribe, the “be” at the end could be justified as sounding like Bee. And Mike Krukow said at the time of Uribe’s death, “Everyone loved that little guy.” So there’s a “be” and “little.” But that’s it. That’s all I got.

Well, that and the fact that Little Bee is not exactly a happy book. It’s very good, very well written, but happy it is not. And despite Uribe’s reputation for always being happy – Giants owner Peter Magowan said, “When you saw Jose on the field, he exuded happiness and pure joy for the game and life” – his story was not always a happy one. In 1988, his first wife, Sara, died giving birth to their third child. After the team meeting to share the news, Will Clark burst out into a room of waiting reporters saying, “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.” The next offseason, he was arrested and held for three days on a rape charge that was later dismissed by a judge for having no merit. And his life ended too soon after a 3am car crash in his hometown in the Domican Republic (How many ballplayers have died in car crashes in the Dominican? Off the top of my head, Yordano Ventura, Oscar Taveras, and Andy Marte all also died in car crashes in the Dominican during off seasons.)

This is my best recollection of how Jose Uribe became my favorite player. After a year (several?) of saying I didn’t want to join a baseball team, I finally decided I wanted to play. Before the first practice I asked my dad what position I should play. He suggested shortstop. Jose Uribe was the Giants shortstop at the time. Jose Uribe was automatically my favorite player.

It was easy for him to stay my favorite player, though, because he was fun. Will Clark said, “He was always happy and had a smile on his face – he found a way to make you laugh.” He regularly threw off the wrong foot to first. When he’d come to bat, half the Candlestick crowd would yell out, “Ooooo,” and the other half would respond, “Ribe.” And you could just tell that he and second basemen Robby Thompson liked each other. Mike Krukow said of the pair, “They didn’t really have the ability to converse because Robby didn’t know Spanish and Jose not too much English, but there was good karma between those two.”

Uribe was a very good defensive shortstop, too. He had no chance of ever winning a gold glove since he played at the same time Ozzie Smith was winning 13 straight gold gloves and piling up the highest defensive WAR in the history of the game. But he was good. By defensive runs above average, he had four seasons well above league average. One interesting thing we see now with some of the advanced statistics is that just like offensive off years, a player can have a down year defensively. After being average or well above average defensively for his entire career, Uribe cost the Giants 11 defensive runs in 1990. The following two seasons, though, he was back on top, saving 9 then 10 runs.

As well-liked as he was in the Bay Area, Uribe was loved back home in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic. He owned several businesses there, including a club during his playing days, and a hardware store and restaurant called,”El Shortstop” after he retired. He even ran for mayor of his hometown of Juan Barron. As the first to make it to the big leagues from the area, he was looked up to by all the players that followed, Vladimir Guerrero and Francisco Liriano among others. When Uribe died, the future Hall of Famer Guerrero lead a crowd of approximately 3,000 through the streets to the local field where Uribe’s casket was laid out for mourners to pay their respects.

I can only imagine the people from Juan Barron argue to this day about who was better, Uribe or Guerrero.

Uribe was a part of a period of transition for the Giants. He arrived in a trade for Jack Clark in 1985 when the Giants lost 100 games, and was part of the turnaround, going to the postseason against Jack Clark’s Cardinals in 1987, then to the World Series in 1989. He never won a World Series, but four years after his death, the “Oooo – Ribe” chants returned to San Francisco in 2010 when his second cousin Juan Uribe helped the Giants to their first World Series parade since 1954. (During the preseason Bay Bridge Series played before the season opener, Juan Uribe wore Jose’s number 23 before switching to 5 for the remainder of the season). Jose Uribe’s legacy carries on in his native Dominican as well with his “at least 14 children.”

The Jose Uribe story did not initially look like it would be a success. He was signed by the Yankees but released before playing a single minor league game. Three years later, he was signed by the Cardinals under the name Jose Gonzalez, but as he said, “Two or three guys playing with me on the same team had the same name. All the time, someone would yell ‘Hey, Gonzalez,’ and everybody’s turning around.” He was traded to the Giants as Jose Gonzalez, but by the time he arrived he was Jose Uribe, the ultimate “player to be named later.” Despite his weak hitting, he found a way to stay in the lineup. Despite speaking broken English, he found a way to bond with his teammates. And despite personal tragedies, he found a way to always keep moving forward and creating new opportunities. The lesson of his life and career was best summed up when he said, “The most important thing is to try. If you try, you can do anything.”

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