'Comedulce' a hero in his country

'Comedulce' a hero in his native country

Susy, those delicious cookies with the chocolate-filled center, are famous across Venezuela and so tasty that the mere mention of them is enough to make Philadelphia right fielder Bobby Abreu close his eyes, smile and hum in delight.

Mmm, mmm. Deliciosos. Venezuela is famous for its chocolate.

Abreu, affectionately known as "Comedulce" (the candy-eater) in his country, has a reputation for enjoying the sweet things in life and is quite proud of it. He says nothing would be sweeter than to win a World Series championship, but he stops short of making any predictions about his future. Abreu is not one to force the issue, any issue.

It is this laid-back attitude and humility that many say are his most endearing qualities. Others say they are his biggest enemies.

"He's been underrated for years because of the fact that the Phillies have not been in the playoffs, and that's what happens in baseball," said Mets third base coach Manny Acta, who coached Abreu in the Minor Leagues while both were in the Astros organization. "He's also a low-key type of guy, so he does not draw a lot of attention. He may not get it all here, but let me tell you, he is a god in Venezuela. He can't go anywhere without being mobbed -- anywhere."

Abreu doesn't want to be mobbed in the U.S., but he would appreciate more recognition. He wants Americans to know he is more than just the 2005 Home Run Derby champion. He's just too modest to say it.

Home sweet home
Abreu now lives in Caracas, but he was born in Maracay, the Garden City of Venezuela and a place tailor-made for a tourist brochure.

Located in the Aragua Valley and surrounded by the mountains of the Henry Pitier National Park, the city is famous for its baseball Tigres and La Avenida Las Delicias, the beautiful tree-covered avenue that serves as the signature monument of the state of Aragua.

Cesar Giron, the best Venezuelan bullfighter in history, is honored at the La Plaza de Toros Cesar Giron in Maracay. The arena once played host to the best bullfighting competitions in the world and still does every now and then.

Near Maracay are three famous beaches, the Ocumare de la Costa, the Cata and the Choroni. It's a decent drive from the middle of town, but it's worth the trip.

The city also is home to the reigning king of Venezuelan baseball, former Reds great David "El Rey" Concepcion, and the prince, Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera.

The locals love its candy and its most famous candy-eater. In Venezuela, "Comedulce" is a rock star with a group of paparazzi on his trail that would make Paris Hilton jealous -- or angry. He made big headlines for dating former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, who also is from Maracay, and even bigger headlines when they broke up. His dress, usually a tight shirt with unique designs, and his style, almost always sporting a backpack, sunglasses and headphones, are mimicked across the country by boys and men alike.

In Venezuela, he is Bob Kelly or Kelly the icon. In the United States, he is known to many simply as Bobby, that pretty good outfielder who plays for Philly.

"Can you name me a baseball superstar in this city besides Mike Schmidt?" Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. "People think [Philadelphia] is a big market, but it's not when you are between Boston and New York, then Chicago out west. That's who we are really competing against. Bobby does what he does in New York, like he has been doing all this time, and he's a superstar. But in Philly, he's just Bobby Abreu. That's too bad."

"I don't know why I am underrated and my name does not ring here the way it does for other players. I have the same numbers every year."
-- Phillies outfielder
Bobby Abreu

This season, "just Bobby Abreu" is "just" hitting .288 with seven home runs and 46 RBIs. In six out of the last eight seasons, the two-time All-Star has hit for a batting average higher than .300. He is a two-time member of the 30-home run/30 stolen bases club and has at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases during the last seven consecutive seasons. Abreu set a record for home runs during the 2005 Home Run Derby, but "Comedulce" admits the experience was a bit bittersweet. The sweet part: he was proud to get the attention and the chance to represent Venezuela. The bitter part: Why was he not getting attention before?

"I don't know why I am underrated and my name does not ring here the way it does for other players," Abreu said. "I have the same numbers every year. I don't understand it. It's a difficult question to answer. I don't know why. My numbers are always the same."

Humble beginnings
As a child, Abreu dreamed of playing for his hometown team, the Aragua Tigers, but the organization was not impressed with him as a teenager and dismissed him. The team from the nearby state of Carabobo also turned him down, eventually leading Abreu to a career with the Caracas Lions.

He signed with the Astros in 1990 and spent two years at the club's academy in Venezuela under the guidance of academy director Andres Reiner and staff. His academy teammates during the early 1990s read like a list of Who's Who among Venezuelan Major Leaguers. Raul Chavez and Melvin Mora, along with Richard Hidalgo, Freddy Garcia, Johan Santana and Carlos Guillen all passed through the Astros academy. Overall, the academy has produced more than 130 professional baseball players since 1994.

"I learned how to play the game when I was there," Abreu said. "It was good. They show you how to be responsible. They show you how to act; they show you discipline."

The Astros, Acta in particular, also showed him how to be an outfielder. Abreu signed as a shortstop, but he was moved to the outfield during the middle of the Class A season in Nashville. Acta spent countless hours hitting pop flies to Abreu after workouts and after games in those days. The hard work paid off.

Abreu won a Gold Glove in 2005.

"He's always been able to hit, but he had a really rough time playing in outfield for the first time," Acta said. "Every time they hit the ball out there in a game, it was an adventure. I don't think he had ever played under the lights before then, and to move to the outfield was tough. He worked hard and he made himself a good outfielder."

Abreu also made a friend for life in Acta. When they see each other, the two chat more about their families than baseball. But on occasion, the two will talk about how the Astros did not protect Abreu during the 1997 Expansion Draft and ended up losing him to Tampa Bay. The Devil Rays traded Abreu to Philadelphia within minutes of his acquisition for infielder Kevin Stocker.

The Astros chose to protect Derek Bell and Hidalgo over Abreu. Bell retired in 2001. Hidalgo is out of baseball.

"A lot of us felt we should have left Bell out because we did not feel that Tampa Bay would take a chance because he made a lot of money and Tampa was not going to be ready to compete," Acta said. "Some felt it was a gamble because Bell was part of the Astros, but they left Bobby off and lost him. It was quite a loss for the organization. It would be a big loss for any team."

Venezuela's son
These days, Abreu spends more time at his home in Caracas than Maracay, but he still calls Aragua home.

He always will.

"I was born and raised there. It's a state that loves me a lot," Abreu said. "I learned how to play there and I grew up there. I have all my family there, and I love my state. I still go there a lot."

Abreu's father was a noted cyclist who also starred on the softball field. He was known as the original "Comedulce," and still is to the old-timers who remember him when he was alive. Abreu's mother rarely leaves her son's side. She can be spotted at all the major events and likely will be at the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh with her son if Bobby is selected to the team.

"Family is the most important thing to me," Abreu said. "I know my family is proud of what I have accomplished in this game. They love me no matter what I do in this sport."

He's right. "Comedulce" just wants a little more sugar from those outside of Venezuela now.

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.