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Host family makes Liz feel at home in U.S.

Dominican right-hander to take mound at 2006 Futures Game
July 5, 2006
Right-hander Radhames Liz will technically be representing his native Dominican Republic when he takes the mound for the World Team this Sunday in the XM Satellite 2006 Futures All-Star Game at PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

But despite having been in the United States for just over a year, the Baltimore Orioles' top pitching prospect has already planted equally strong roots in Aberdeen, Md., where his "second family" lives.

Dr. Gary Johnson, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Aberdeen, his wife Karey, and their children Micah, 10, and Emilee, 7, started out as Liz's host family in 2005, giving him a place to live when he was sleeping on the IronBirds' clubhouse couch.

But the Johnsons and 22-year-old Liz, currently the ace of the Class A Frederick Keys, have since developed a bond that transcends baseball.

"We'd love him even if he didn't play baseball," said Karey Johnson. "If we met him anywhere we'd love him like part of our family. He is one of the most genuine people you will ever meet."

The fact that the Johnsons' lives have crossed with Liz is something of a story in itself.

Unlike so many Dominican baseball prospects, who began playing the game at an early age, Liz did not play baseball until he was 16. That's when his mother passed away and he quit school to go to work at the local sugar factory. It was his older brother Johnny, one of 11 Liz siblings, who was the baseball player in the family.

"He'd never played a day of baseball in his life," Gary Johnson related. "But the day came when his brother said 'You're not working in the factory anymore. I'm teaching you to play baseball.'"

And within a few short years, Johnny had helped his baby brother, Radhames, develop into enough of a prospect that when the Orioles signed him, he was able to use the bonus to buy an off-season home where he lives with Johnny, Johnny's wife and the couple's baby.

Liz, who stands at a rangy 6-foot-2 and 170 pounds with long arms that prompted Johnny to nickname him "Brasitos" (short arms), signed with Baltimore possessing just a raw but electric, mid-90s fastball.

He spent his first two pro seasons, 2003 and 2004, learning how to pitch in the Dominican Summer League. He posted a 3.18 ERA in nine games in his pro debut and a 2.62 ERA with 109 strikeouts in 82 innings the next summer, where he limited batters to a .177 average.

In 2005, the Orioles brought him to the United States and he started the season at Class A Delmarva in Salisbury, Md., where he posted a 6.00 ERA in his first six starts.

In his first taste of life away from his native country, he shared an apartment with several Dominican teammates. Together they adjusted to the new culture, the new food, the new language and the new lifestyle.

"At the beginning it was kind of hard and I felt uncomfortable," said Liz through an interpreter, Winston-Salem pitcher and fellow Carolina League All-Star Fernando Hernandez Jr. "But I got used to it, little by little."

Just as he was getting used to it, however, the short-season schedule started and the Orioles transferred him to the Aberdeen IronBirds of the New York-Penn League.

And although Liz had a spot in the IronBirds rotation, he didn't have a place to live. He spent his first few nights in Aberdeen sleeping on the couch in the clubhouse before Shorebirds coach Cesar Devarez stepped in.

Devarez had just met his host family, the Johnsons, a few days earlier. The family had been hosting Aberdeen front office interns for the first few years of the team's existence, but this season they had decided -- largely at the urging of their son Micah, a Little Leaguer himself -- to open their home to a team member.

They were matched with Devarez, a longtime member of the Orioles organization as player and coach.

"A few nights into the season we were at the park early, watching them warm up, and Cesar called Gary down to the field," Karey recalled. "He said, 'Is it okay if I bring a young Dominican player home with me, because he's been sleeping on the couch in the clubhouse.'"

The Johnsons didn't hesitate. That night, Liz came home with Devarez to the large family room in which the Johnsons had included a microwave, refrigerator and washer and dryer for their summer guests. Large and comfortable, it had a private entrance and opened up onto the backyard pool.

And to this day, he still calls it his home. Though he lives with several teammates in a house near the ballpark in Frederick, he usually spends his off days up in Aberdeen, a 45-minute drive away, with his American family.

Liz went 5-4 with a 1.77 ERA for the IronBirds in 11 starts, striking out 82 batters while scattering 36 hits over 56 innings and limiting New York-Penn League hitters to a .188 average. In one memorable game against the Vermont Expos, he struck out 15 batters in six innings.

The comfort zone he found with the Johnsons may not have been the only reason for Liz's remarkable second-half at Aberdeen, but it certainly didn't hurt.

Liz's face lit up into a huge smile when asked about moving in with the family.

"I was so happy," he said. "I had been lonely but when I met them they made me happy. I love them. They made me feel like they were my real parents."

Gary Johnson had minored in Spanish in college and his wife had studied foreign languages growing up, so while at first Devarez helped translate, it wasn't long before there was minimal need for a middleman, especially as Liz's grasp of English improved.

The Johnsons also bought a few pocket Spanish-English dictionaries, one for Liz to carry with him and one for them to keep handy.

Liz spent the offseason at his "other" home with his "Dominican family," concentrating on honing his change-up and curveball so he could use them to offset his blazing fastball.

As a result, he continued to accelerate his development and earned a spot in the Keys rotation this spring rather than returning to Delmarva to start the year, as most people had predicted.

"The purpose of being in the Minor Leagues is to step it up so I was little surprised but it was a good thing," he said of his assignment to Frederick. "Everything is going good. I worked hard in the offseason in hopes of being able to do what I'm doing now."

The Frederick assignment also worked out well for the Johnsons, who, less than an hour drive from Harry Grove Stadium, come to as many of Liz's home starts as they can. They were there on April 12, a midweek day game, when Liz made his first start of the season, tossing five innings of no-hit ball and striking out 13 batters. Three Keys relievers followed him to the mound en route to a no-hitter against the Salem Avalanche (Astros).

Liz ended up going 4-1 with a 1.65 ERA in the month of April. Overall, he was 6-4 with a 2.56 ERA and 91 strikeouts in 81 innings for the Keys.

Devarez has returned to the Shorebirds as a coach this season and returned to the Johnsons' family room for the summer as well -- a space he shares with two more young Dominican players, pitchers Fernando De Nabal and Wilfredo Perez.

Liz, however, had to clear them first. "Radhames is very protective of us," Karey Johnson said.

He's also been working on adding a few pounds to that rangy frame thanks to Karey's home-baked cookies, which she always brings to his games. But the Johnson family has provided him with more than peanut-butter blossoms and chew fudge brownie cookies. Karey Johnson points to one moment that sums that up.

Last summer, whenever Liz would come back from a road trip, the Johnsons would leave a welcome note for him and Devarez on the kitchen table. After the trip to Vermont where he struck out 15 batters, they wrote a note that said "We are proud of you" in Spanish.

They had to refer to that pocket dictionary to find the word "orgulloso," meaning "proud."

"The next day, he brought the piece of paper upstairs with him and said, 'This is a beautiful word. No one has ever told me that before,'" Karey said. "So you better believe we tell him all the time, 'We are so proud of you.'"

Lisa Winston is a reporter for