MESA, Ariz. – When the rain comes down in October on the lush hills surrounding Bonao in the Dominican Republic, it drives in suddenly on a warm wind and falls hard.
It usually stops just as suddenly, leaving behind the faint, fresh scent of hortensias on the rising Caribbean heat and a thin steam over the mud-softened trails.
This is where Cubs closer Carlos Marmol rides away.
Away from the never-ending fight with his pitching mechanics. Away from the ninth-inning sound and fury of Wrigley Field. Away from Ryan Theriot, Carlos Zambrano, $20 million questions and those 10 blown saves of last season.
When he rides one of his horses into those hills around his home in Bonao, Marmol is no longer a closer or even a Cub.
‘‘It’s gone,” he said. ‘‘Everything’s gone.”
He needed that as much last fall as he did in any offseason of his career. He led the majors in blown saves last season during the Cubs’ second consecutive fifth-place finish. That came on the heels of signing a three-year, $20 million deal as the Cubs’ closer of the future.
On these days, though, he is only a farmer, a rancher and, mostly, a father to his three young daughters, who are with him during the offseason.
His oldest daughter, 5-year-old Carla, has her own horse and often joins him on slow rides between the palm trees and hibiscus, up into the hills, some 60 miles inland from the coastal capital of Santo Domingo.
‘‘She’s learning,” Marmol said. ‘‘I’m not going to say she’s a great rider, but she’s not scared. I love going for rides with my daughter.”
Marmol, who has built his late-inning career on one of the most knee-buckling sliders in the game, said he’s starting over this spring, forgetting about all that went wrong last season and feeling refreshed. His 1-2-3 inning in his spring debut last week suggested he might be on to something.
His rough outing a few days later – a hit batter, a three-run home run, a blown save – suggested he still has a lot more work to do with new pitching coach Chris Bosio to get back to where he was in 2010.
Where Marmol goes from here might have as much to do with where he comes from as it does on the new emphasis on his fastball this spring.
‘‘When I’m out on my farm, I don’t think about anything else,” he said. ‘‘My family’s there. My daughters are there. I enjoy my life when I’m there. It’s helping me a lot [mentally].”
To Marmol, the best thing about signing his big contract a year ago had nothing to do with luxury Gold Coast condos or buying a custom Rolls Royce, like teammate Alfonso Soriano did. Not his style, he said.
The first thing Marmol did with the money from his new contract was to buy the 2,000-acre cattle and dairy farm – with most of the family’s 700 head of beef and milk cows – his father spent working much of his adult life to support their family.
Marmol also owns three smaller farms in the area, with a combined 40 horses and about 200 chickens for eggs and poultry among the four properties.
‘‘I grew up with it,” he said.
And he one day will retire with it, he said.
‘‘I could support my family doing that,” said Marmol, whose contract all but guarantees that’s the last thing he’ll have to do. ‘‘I am not going to be a coach; I’m going to work on my farm.”
For Marmol, 29, the decision to finish where he began is easy. If he wasn’t sure about that early in his career, it hit home a few years ago during those offseason trips to New York, where he and his wife at the time would visit some family members.
Any possible visions or curiosities about uptown penthouses or Scottsdale mansions disappeared quickly for a guy whose first home remains his only home – family and peace surrounded by horses and palm trees.
It’s part of what puts the pressure and heat of one of the most important spring trainings of his career in perspective, the only thing that effectively cleared his head and put him into what he considers the right frame of mind to regroup and recapture the magic of previous seasons.
‘‘The bottom line is his fastball command,” manager Dale Sveum said. ‘‘He got it to 94, which I didn’t see last year when he pitched against us [in Milwaukee]. It was more 90, 91. The bottom line is, he needs to be able to get back in counts and get ahead with his fastball, stay away from the walks. You’ve got to do that with your fastball.”
The bottom line, Sveum said, is to keep hitters from sitting on his slider, like Francisco Rodriguez did when he made the same adjustment with the Brewers last season and started surprising hitters with fastballs for strikes when they were expecting sliders.
That’s probably all true, and Marmol is buying in. But he knows that’s not really the bottom line.
For him, it’s where he goes to find strength, peace and self. That’s where it starts for Marmol. That’s the bottom line.
‘‘It’s a new season,” he said.