Uribe clears name, and his head
Shortstop ready to focus on baseball, not legal issues
TUCSON, Ariz. -- A messy and frequently confusing offseason involving Juan Uribe took on far greater clarity Friday morning, as the White Sox shortstop reported one day late to Spring Training and apparently free of any possible charges involving a reported shooting incident with a pellet gun in the Dominican Republic.
During a hearing in the Dominican earlier this week, it was decided that Uribe no longer was required to arrive every 15 days to sign in and that Uribe has no requirement to be back in court. Martin Arburua, Uribe's agent, was relaying the message from Maria Luisa Guzman, Uribe's lawyer, in Santo Domingo.
Uribe seems free and clear, at least, for the moment.
"The legal process and procedure in the Dominican Republic is a lot different than it is here in the United States," said Arburua, who made two trips personally to the Dominican to help Uribe with the twists and turns of this ongoing case.
"It is more complicated and more convoluted from my experience there," Arburua added. "I've been a lawyer in the United States for 20 something years, and I've never seen anything like this before."
Arburua explained further how the Dominican legal process allows "supposed accusers to appear in court and make accusations over and over through their counsel or on their own." Antonio Gonzalez, a Dominican farmer, is the accuser in this instance, with Uribe and his brother, Elpidio, being the target of what Uribe explained Friday was a basic case of blackmail. In fact, Uribe said he received letters via messenger asking for payoffs ranging from 30 million Dominican pesos ($932,624) at the start to 300,000 pesos ($9,326).
Looking in much better physical condition than he did at the end of the 2006 season and flashing a familiar smile, Uribe expressed relief over being part of the team again and being able to focus on the game that he loves. Uribe also spoke of how fame brought his name into this case, once again claiming that he was home and nowhere near the scene of the alleged crime on Oct. 13 in Juan Baron.
"My name was mentioned because, obviously being from the Dominican Republic, I am a public figure and people were going to go after me," said Uribe, through translator Oney Guillen. "I'm just glad I waited it out, waited it out and in the end, it turned out to be all better.
"All they wanted was money and that's why my name was thrown in the hat -- because I'm the only one that had it. At the time, I was shocked because I was glad I was at home. I was just as surprised as everyone."
Despite this troublesome five months, which did not appear to be of Uribe's own doing, Arburua would not recommend a complete move out of the Dominican for Uribe. Arburua pointed out how Uribe has a large family in his home country, a family with which he maintains close ties, and it would be difficult to ask anyone not to return to their family.
That opinion was basically shared by Uribe, with a word of caution contributed by his manager, who knows about dealing with the price of fame in Latin American countries.
"A lot of people talk about how dangerous my country is, but I can't live without Venezuela," said Ozzie Guillen, speaking shortly after Uribe addressed a throng of media members. "Every time the season is over, we like to see our family. Over there, you are a hero and people look up to you. You have to be careful where you go and who you hang out with. That issue can happen to anyone. It's a message to every Latin player. They have to be more careful than anyone else."
"I'm very grateful to the United States," Uribe added. "That's where I've progressed my career. I'm very close to my family and country and I like going over there, but you never know what the future holds."
Hiring security when Uribe returns to the Dominican is an option, but simply being careful in regard to the company he keeps could be the most prudent choice. Uribe actually knows the farmer making the accusation, adding that they weren't close.
"I was surprised, especially him being at my house, that he would do this," Uribe said of Gonzalez. "But he's a human being, he made a mistake and that's the reason I'm here right now."
With the legal woes looking to be behind Uribe, he can focus on hanging on to his starting job. Uribe, who turns 28 on March 22, is in the last year of his contract, although the team has a $5 million option or $300,000 buyout for 2008.
Guillen doesn't expect Uribe to lead the American League in walks, but he does expect his on-base percentage of .257 from 2006 to rise in 2007. The White Sox manager also wants better range shown defensively by Uribe, a change that could be derived simply by Uribe reporting in better shape.
"I could have been in better shape," Uribe said of the 2006 season. "I've been working hard this offseason, as everyone can tell, and I'm feeling better. I'm ready to go."
"Working with [bench coach] Joey [Cora] every day and make sure he stays in shape, you are going to get that thing back," added Guillen of Uribe regaining his range. "He lost one step just because he was overweight, but he should be back to playing the normal shortstop like he always played."
There are plenty of positives to be derived from Uribe's talent, with his 20-home run, 70-RBI potential shown off since joining the White Sox in 2004. But the greatest positive personally for Uribe is that this legal case that wouldn't go away now is behind him.
"They can bring up his name at any time, I can't control that," Arburua said. "The authorities over there control that. Whether it will be viewed as substantial or worthwhile accusations, it looks like this case has taken its course."
"Sooner or later, I knew the problem was going to blow over. I never thought about not playing," added Uribe, referring to an offseason article that said he might sit out the 2007 season until the issue was resolved. "I just want to take care of the situation back home and then come with a clear name back to the United States. I knew justice would prevail."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.