Chavez gaining appreciation of fans, teammates

NEW YORK -- When Ronnie Belliard's sinking line drive first left his bat, all left-field replacement Endy Chavez could think was, "Atras! Atras!" ("Back! Back!")

Chavez, who had entered Game 1 of the National League Championship Series for the injured Cliff Floyd in the third inning, soon realized his instincts were wrong. And he quickly corrected himself, moving forward (Adelante!) and diving for the catch in the fifth inning of Thursday night's 2-0 win over the Cardinals.

"I wouldn't have caught that ball," said Floyd, who re-injured his left Achilles' tendon.

It was a pivotal play and were it not made, there would've been runners on first and second with one out. The crowd, realizing both the catch's impact and beauty, started chanting Chavez's name. That type of play, from that type of player, was no surprise to Mets fans.

Chavez, a 165-pound castoff and utility player his entire career, had never been appreciated until this winter, when general manager Omar Minaya, remembering Chavez when he played for Montreal from 2002-04, signed him for $500,000.

The return has worked out for both men. Chavez provided a valuable left-handed bat off the bench, and then served as a steady and reliable sub when Floyd missed time this season. And he becomes even more important now that Floyd is out of the NLCS indefinitely with his Achilles' injury.

"You appreciate him because he does a lot of great things for your team," Floyd said. "It's about confidence, and he has it."

Chavez, originally signed by the Mets in 1996, hit a career-high .306 and played spectacular defense this season. Of his four home runs this year, three tied or gave the Mets a lead. He even hit .375 in the Division Series and started Game 2, going 2-for-4 with a run scored.

Chavez, while a relative unknown nationally, is no stranger to attention.

"I think their fans here know all about him," said Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein, who at 5-foot-7 is three inches shorter than Chavez. "The fans start chanting his name and they love him. I don't think he's underappreciated here or within Major League Baseball."

Nor in his home country of Venezuela. Four years ago during the Caribbean World Series in Caracas, fans realized a unique opportunity to show their love for Chavez, while also using him to their political advantage.

Each time the svelte outfielder stepped to the plate, Chavez -- who'd already cracked the big leagues by then but who'd also been a Rule 5 pick and released twice -- heard an enormous roar from the fans.

"I think when you try to do your best, and you play with your heart a lot of positive things can happen."
-- Endy Chavez

"Endy, si! Chavez, no! Endy, si! Chavez, no!"

Chavez has the coincidence of sharing the same last name as his country's leftist, controversial president, Hugo. And the fans at first started chanting his last name until they improvised on the fly. When asked about it after Thursday night's game, Chavez bowed his head and laughed, quietly repeating the chant as the memory came back.

"The people wanted to scream that because I know they wanted to support me, but not because of my last name," Chavez said. "They were not happy with Chavez, but happy with Endy."

It's hard not to feel an affinity for Chavez, a player who always greets people with a huge smile and warm, brown eyes. With his locker in the clubhouse bordering Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado, Chavez often is dwarfed by the two superstars, and he's usually spotted before games sitting alone playing golf on his handheld Playstation video game.

Teammate and catcher Ramon Castro, who was playing for Puerto Rico four years ago in the Caribbean World Series, witnessed how the fans embraced Chavez. Castro said it's because Chavez always plays hard, is aggressive, and is one of those guys who "likes to get dirty and dive, steal a base and everything."

Long before his name was chanted at Shea Stadium on a cool October night, his countrymen recognized the reason why it was so easy to cheer for a small man with a wide smile.

"I think when you try to do your best, and you play with your heart," Chavez said, "a lot of positive things can happen."

Amy K. Nelson is a writer/reporter for ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.