Lugo can teach a lesson in surviving (and style)

Published April 3, 2005

Julio Lugo knows how to dress, has a model-quality six-pack and cherishes his Dominican Republic roots. But the 29-year-old Devil Rays shortstop also has witnessed murder. Baseball, in his hometown of Barahona and at Brooklyn's Fort Hamilton High, and a strong-willed mother steered him away from trouble and down the right path.

Every Rays player I spoke to said I have to ask you about your sense of style.

Since I was young I always like to dress nicely. I like to be presentable. It's one of my things. I always thought that being in the big leagues you have to look like a big leaguer, so for me that's the way to go.

What are your favorites?

I like to go with the style. Whatever is in style and popular for the moment, that's what I'm going to go with. A lot of different colors for the summer, clothes that fit me to my body.

Who else in the clubhouse is a good dresser?

I think (pitcher) Rob Bell. He combines his colors well and he always looks presentable. We have different styles. He likes to go with the pinks and the more passive colors. I'm more out there.

Who on the team is a candidate for What Not To Wear?

I like to keep that to myself.

You are the lowest draft pick (43rd round in 1994) to make it through the Astros organization to the majors. What does that say about you?

I'm a real strong-minded person. When I step out there, I feel like I'm better than anybody. I don't care if you're a first-rounder, last-rounder, it doesn't matter. You go out there and compete. It didn't mean a lot for me to be drafted in the 43rd round. I just wanted to play. I love to play.

Why do so many shortstops come out of the Dominican Republic?

It's in our genes. Everybody plays baseball. That's one way out of the country, one way out of the island, you make some money. We come from a poor country and baseball is one of the main resorts to get some money and get your family taken care of.

But why shortstops?

I guess because of the years of Rafael Santana, Tony Fernandez. That created that competition. It's something I can't explain, but it's a big thing for us to be a shortstop.

What was tougher, growing up in the Dominican Republic or New York City?

I don't think being tough is a rough neighborhood. Being tough is having nothing to eat, when the people around you don't have enough to dress, don't have shoes, don't have things that everybody else has in the United States. When you don't have three meals in your house, I think that's tougher than being in a tough neighborhood. So for me, it was tougher to be over there.

What was it like in Barahona?

I can't tell you I was real poor. My parents were able to feed the family. But I lived around people who didn't have much, people who now I look back and try to help. It was tough to see someone who didn't have food or nothing to eat, kids with no shoes and barefoot. You see a lot of that in Dominican, people asking for money. It's not like they want to ask for money, it's because they need.

Your mom was a high school teacher in the Dominican Republic, but when you were 11 she moved to Brooklyn for a better job.

She came to New York, she worked in a factory and a couple of years later we came to the United States. You know, it's tough for a lady to come here by herself. She didn't know English. She worked two jobs. I think that's where my strength comes from. We lived in a small apartment in New York, and my mom had an alarm clock that rang every day at 6:20 in the morning when she had to get up. That drove me through the minor leagues and college. It used to drive me crazy. I was like, "I've got to take my mother out of here." Now I bought a house for my mother (in Orlando). I did my job.

What was the biggest difference between living in the Dominican Republic and New York?

The biggest shock in the United State is you learned people judge you by your color, not by who you are or what you have. In the Dominican, we don't judge people by colors. Either you're rich or you're poor. Here, it's different if you're white or black. I couldn't understand that. I will never understand that.

Any gang problems?

A lot of my friends were in gangs, a lot of friends who went to jail and got killed. But they always drew me out of it, supported me. They always wanted me to play and used to watch me play. You see all these guys in the stands and people would ask, "Why are you hanging out with them?" I was like, "I don't know, they just come to watch me play." They would say, "But they're bad guys." But they never did anything to me. They protected me.

So you were never in a gang?

I've never been. I was friendly with everybody, Puerto Rican, black, white and Dominicans. Everybody knew me. I never had a problem. I was never jumped, never been robbed and never had anything happen to my cars. When I was in the big leagues, I parked my car on the block, nobody ever touched it. They knew it was mine. I was the only one out of there that ever made it.

Ever think about joining a gang?

Not really. You join a gang because you want to feel support, and I had support from all of them. I never was into that lifestyle because it was rough. Sometimes you couldn't walk down the street without being hit, jumped by other gangs. So I never wanted it. It wasn't for me.

Ever see anyone killed?

Yeah, a couple of times, people getting stabbed, people getting robbed right in front of me where I couldn't do anything. You never forget that. It stays in your head for the rest of your life, and knowing you can't do anything. What can I do? You can call the cops, but watch out if they find out. You or somebody in your family is going to get it. They don't care. They don't care.

Okay, let's lighten this up. What is the music that plays at the Trop when you step to the plate?

It's merengue. The artist is Tonio Rosario, my favorite singer in the Dominican Republic. It's called Mi Morenita. It reminds me of my girlfriend. It inspires me. It's a good song. It says, "The way she looks, the way she dances, it drives me crazy." That's what he says. She picked it for me and I played it.

I bet you can dance.

I listen to a lot of Spanish music, reggae, hip-hop. I can get it on there.

You are a workout fiend. How proud are you of your physique?

I take pride in my body. This is my temple. This is where I make my living. A lot of people say, "Oh, you're skinny, you're skinny." But after I take my clothes off or my shirt off, they understand why I hit the ball.