New Mariner Andino will help team with versatility

TUESDAY, FEB. 26, 2013, 10:09 P.M.

Infielder overcame tough upbringing to reach majors.

PEORIA, Ariz. – His abilities at multiple positions give the Mariners the freedom to use new utility player Robert Andino all over the field.

And those same skills gave Andino the freedom to finally live the life many have wished for him to have away from the ballpark. Andino, 28, grew up poor in crime-ridden South Miami Heights, longing for the types of things others take for granted.

“When you grow up with bars on your windows,” Andino said. “It’s not a place you want to be.”

Andino, traded by Baltimore to Seattle for Trayvon Robinson in November, was still living in the South Miami area in 2008 when he hit his first big-league home run with the Florida Marlins. He was celebrating postgame in the clubhouse when his wife, Renee, sent a terrifying text. A man had tried to force his way into the home where she and the couple’s two young children were.

The man left when police arrived, but the incident left Andino unnerved. Only months before, Andino’s middle-school classmate, NFL All-Pro safety Sean Taylor, had been fatally shot by robbers inside his home in the same part of Miami.

Andino, who attended Taylor’s memorial service, moved his young family to Palm Beach soon after.

“It wasn’t a good place,” Andino said of his previous neighborhood. “I’ve got kids. Anyway, that’s all in the past now. I try to look ahead and not think about it.”

Those who mentored Andino as a high-school player raised amid poverty consider his big-league status cause for celebration.

“He’s a sweet kid and he’ll definitely give you all he has to give you once he gets to know you a bit,” said Laura Harlow, the secretary at Miami’s Southridge High School when Andino played there.

“He did his thing and stayed on the straight and narrow. A lot of the kids he grew up with went the other way. They couldn’t make the grades, couldn’t stay in school. They just fell through the cracks.

“Robert didn’t do that. Robert made it.”

Getting through high school wasn’t easy. Andino’s father, Robert Sr., worked menial jobs while his mother stayed home caring for a disabled older brother.

Between odd jobs, his father would rush over to the high school for extra on-field sessions with Andino after regular baseball practice ended.

“He kept me in line,” Andino said. “He was always pushing me to do this and do that. Play sports. Anything to stay off the streets.”

Fred Burnside, Andino’s baseball coach at Southridge, remembers chasing the pair off the field many times as his father hit grounders with a fungo bat until nightfall. That extra work made the slick-fielding Andino, a natural shortstop, into a versatile player who can play second base, third base, left field or center field in the major leagues.

But his father couldn’t always be around. Burnside and others tried to fill in the gaps.

“He definitely needed a lot of structure as far as school was concerned,” Burnside said. “I had to pull Mom and Dad in a couple of times. I’m kind of an old-timer. Part of my deal is trying to impart a lot of life skills through baseball. I tried to do that with Robert because I think we all wanted to see him succeed.”

Burnside said Andino was “a quiet kid that had a strong work ethic” willing to do what it took to improve. The more he played baseball, the less he had to focus on life away from it.

“Robert didn’t have two nickels to rub together,” Burnside said. “He came up in a rough neighborhood and he didn’t have anything.”

Harlow agreed, saying Andino’s parents did their best but never had much. Her son played baseball with Andino, and she invited him in for chats in the school’s office, or made sure he always had a ride home, or a proper lunch.

“There were kids that didn’t always have lunch money, so you do what you can for them,” she said. “They didn’t always have shoes to play baseball in, and Robert was one of those.” Harlow still refers to Andino as her “stepson” while he has called her his second mother.

When Andino later met his future wife at the school — she was a student athletic trainer — Harlow bought their prom tickets.

“He wanted to make sure he had the full prom experience and he didn’t have the money,” she said.

Andino led Southridge to a 34-2 record and the state championship game his senior year in 2002. The Marlins drafted him in the second round that June and he debuted with them in 2005, at age 21, touted as their “shortstop of the future.”

That changed when Hanley Ramirez was acquired in a 2006 trade with Boston. Andino bounced between the Marlins and Class AAA until Florida traded him to the Orioles after 2009 spring training.

Andino was a backup infielder for two years until his big chance in 2011, when he took over for an injured Brian Roberts in May as the team’s second baseman. He hit .263 in 511 plate appearances and became a fan favorite for his hustle, teaming for the first time with Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy.

Hardy taught him not to hurry a throw to first base on a fast runner.

“The first thing you’ve got to do is catch the ball and then throw it,” he said. “If he’s safe, he’s safe. Your ability is going to dictate that. But just catch it first.”

The final two weeks of that 2011 season, Andino secured immortality in New England with three key hits – including an inside-the-park home run – that led to three losses for the Boston Red Sox and sealed their epic September collapse. Andino delivered the game-winning, walkoff single that eliminated Boston on the season’s final day, earning him the nickname “The Curse of the Andino.”

He began last season as the Orioles’ second baseman. His season was soon slowed by injury and struggles at the plate, though he partook in the Orioles’ improbable playoff run.

Mariners manager Eric Wedge believes Andino can play more than a typical backup. Andino’s versatility will also enable the Mariners to go with just one extra infielder, allowing them to carry two extra outfield bats.

Andino sees no reason why the young Mariners, with veterans added to the mix, can’t make a surprised playoff run like the Orioles.

He recently talked about exactly that with veteran teammates Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse.

“We all agreed it could happen here,” Andino said. “I mean, why not?”

The oddsmakers may differ. But, then again, Andino has overcome tougher odds before.

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