Ernesto Frieri is a refreshing, old-fashioned type of guy. He values friendships and honors them with a pledge of loyalty. Most folks within his inner circle in this country know him as “Big Ern.” In his hometown of Sincerin, Colombia, Ernesto’s humble sincerity as a big league ball player has made him a local hero of sorts.
Last month, Frieri, a 26-year-old relief pitcher, experienced a career-changing event: He was traded to the Los Angeles Angels by the San Diego Padres. Now, most guys would be doing Ozzie Smith back-flips to play for a team that was a contender rather than a pretender.
Not “Big Ern.”
“I was in shock,” admitted Frieri. “I mean, the Padres were the only organization I ever played for, and I knew I would miss all my friends and teammates.”
What Ernesto didn’t realize until later was he’d been given a golden opportunity, and the baseball gods were about to line up in his favor.
Frieri signed with San Diego in 2003 when he was only 17, and would become the longest-tenured Padre player. Originally groomed as a starting pitcher, he had decent numbers over three seasons of minor league ball, including a combined 3.10 ERA.
In 2010, however, Frieri was thought to be better suited for the bullpen. He responded by racking up 17 saves at the triple-A level, and was promoted to the varsity. Unfortunately, he lurked in the shadows of Heath Bell and Mike Adams, as well as other relievers favored by longtime Padre pitching coach Darren Balsley. While always impressed with Ernesto’s strong arm, Balsley often tinkered with the South American’s unusual delivery, an experiment that ultimately failed.
“They (the Padres) thought I was going to hurt my arm,” explained Frieri about his side-winding pitches. “But I’ve thrown that way all my life, and I’ve never been sore.”
Angel’s General Manager Jerry Dipoto, a former Arizona Diamondback executive, was always impressed with Frieri’s electric stuff, and had been knocking on San Diego’s door since spring training ended.
“Frieri misses bats,” Dipoto simply puts it, “and we really liked his makeup and energy.”
Thus far in Anaheim, Ernesto has been virtually unstoppable. As of this post, he has thrown 13 consecutive scoreless innings while striking out 27 of the 49 batters he’s faced. In addition, Frieri has racked up three holds and three saves, hooking up with veteran southpaw Scott Downs to give the Angels a reliable combination to close out games.
“We’re so happy to have Ernie,” confirms Downs. “He’s such a hard worker and a really nice kid.”
Frieri believes his success stems from a strenuous chore he performed in his youth, grinding up corn for his grandmother’s tamale stand.
“I turned the crank on the grinding machine for about two hours a day,” he recalls. “I hated that job, but now I thank my grandma for my arm strength.”
Frieri is so thankful, in fact, he recently arranged to build his grandmother a new house, the most handsome structure in Sincerin. And he’s flying his mother over for a series this month, because “she’s never seen me pitch in the states.”
Now that he’s settled in with the Angels, Frieri is making new friends and having fun. What’s more, he has proved worthy of an important role on a winning team.
“I’ll always be a Padre in my heart, but I’m grateful that the Angels have trusted me to pitch deep in games,” notes Big Ern. “I’m blessed to have that chance.”