Magazine cover stories and political pollsters have declared this "the year of the Hispanic." George W. Bush and Al Gore both include some Spanish in their stump speeches, but so do many major-league managers. As baseball's postseason begins, fans will be keeping an eye on three players who played big roles in their teams' trips to the playoffs. Texas Rangers
Rangers catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez is a strong candidate for the American League's Most Valuable Player award. At age 27 he already has captured seven Gold Glove awards for being the best fielder at his position, and he regularly throws out over half of those who attempt to steal a base; the average catcher struggles to throw out 30 percent. He's been doing that for eight years. Even then teammate Will Clark, now with Baltimore, said, "When people get on first base, you might as well drop anchor. There's no use even trying to run." But these days Mr. Rodriguez is known for his hitting as well as his defense; on Sept. 20 he was batting .331 and was close to becoming the only catcher with more than 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in one season. Former greats such as Yogi Berra are calling Mr. Rodriguez the best catcher ever. Short and stocky as a child, "Pudge" watched and played as much baseball as he could from the time he was seven, often going to sleep in his uniform. He grew up in the poor town of Vega Baja in Puerto Rico, started his professional career at age 16, and returns home with his wife and two children during the offseason. He plays softball for his family's team La Familia, and gives it his all, like stretching the occasional bloop single into a triple. Arizona Diamondbacks
Last spring, left fielder Luis Gonzalez tired of all the attention he received with his family in public, so he did something about it: He got rid of the triple stroller. Although he'd been in the major leagues for eight years, the Gonzalez family drew stares at the supermarket because of their 15-month old triplets rather than dad's baseball prowess. "Every time we go somewhere it's like a sideshow," he said. Now Megan, Jacob, and Alyssa are split into a single and double stroller on family outings. Mr. Gonzalez, 32, was batting .329 on Sept. 20, as he became an unexpected source of offense for the Diamondbacks' first successful run to the playoffs. He had four double-digit game hitting streaks (including a 30-gamer), and belted a game-winning two-run homer on Sept. 18 to give him 100 RBIs for the first time in his career. The native of Tampa was born to parents of Cuban origin. His mother, Amelia, came to America with her family in 1956 when she was eight years old. Her parents worked in a cigar factory while she learned English as a youth, and she taught elementary school for 30 years. He used to focus his work ethic on baseball, but other priorities have arisen. When he's at home he usually gets up at about 6 a.m.-not for batting practice, but to change and feed the triplets. "I feel I have the best family in the world," he said. "I'm thankful every day of my life." Cleveland Indians
Growing up in Venezuela, Omar Vizquel couldn't escape the constant presence of pick-up baseball games-not that he wanted to. From the time his father taught him to play in the streets of Caracas to impromptu games with a stick used as a bat, young Vizquel shared the desire of his mates to play the position mastered by their national heroes: shortstop. Omar Sr. taught his son about the history of great fielding Venezuelan shortstops such as Chico Carrasquel and Luis Aparicio, who starred for the Chicago White Sox in the 1950s and '60s. His dad would hit Omar hundreds of ground balls without verbal instruction, allowing the boy to figure out plays on his own. Now the Cleveland Indians shortstop dazzles fans with acrobatic plays and barehanded grabs that have earned him six consecutive Gold Gloves. Mr. Vizquel's penchant for improvisation on the field does not carry over to his overall lifestyle, however. "He's a disciplined person in life," said Indians infield coach Brian Graham. "This guy has a plan in what he wants to do." He worked last winter to make himself a more disciplined hitter, and this year is batting over .300 for the first time in his career.
-Paul Chesser is a freelance writer from Burlington, N.C.