From bottle caps to the big league

The annual rite of baseball's spring training has become much more interesting for locals ever since Sacramento's River Cats team inked a deal to be the San Francisco Giants' minor-league AAA team. In mid-March I traveled to Scottsdale, Ariz., to interview, in Spanish, some of the Giants' Caribbean-born players about their journey to the Grandes Ligas.

Some of those players have since been dispatched to play for the River Cats, but some will likely be called back up to the Giants as the inevitable injuries, trades or low performances require fresh replacements.

The story of their travels to the minor league and beyond is one of adventure and ambition.

Venezuelan-born back-up catcher Guillermo Quiróz explained that as child, “We played with whatever, broom handles, rocks … We would take bottle caps or crushed aluminum cans and fling them—you could get a lot of crazy movement with those things,” he said with a grin.

Likewise, Giants closer and Dominican native Santiago Casilla fashioned a glove out of cardboard, cutting holes for his fingers. He even whittled his own bats.

Venezuelan infielder Ehire Adrianza noted that “where I come from, life was not easy.” Starting at the tender age of 2, however, he and his little friends found playtime an escape, making balls out of wadded-up paper or plastic.

By 7 or 8, most baseball-loving kids joined organized leagues, or at 13 attended special baseball academies. The Venezuelan-born Yusmeiro Petit—an MLB record holder for most consecutive batters retired (46, set last year)—said that he wanted to quit school just to play baseball. His mother protested, saying, “If you don't go to school and get good grades, you can't play baseball.” And so he passed all of his classes (“Saqué las notas necesarias”).

Joaquín Árias, a key utility infielder for the Giants during the last two of the team's three World Series championships, is the youngest of 21 children (no, that's not a misprint). He didn't get his first mitt until he was 10; before, he mostly just played bare-handed. He signed with the Yankees at age 16 with a $300,000 bonus and he still sends a lot of his money home, buying new houses for family members (seven and counting for Árias).

None of the players I interviewed spoke English when they arrived in the United States. That could be problematic, especially if as a pitcher, your catcher's first language is English. “It was really hard at first,” noted pitcher Jean Machi, who arrived in the U.S. at 17. Bilingual coaches and other players have helped with communication.

Finally, I asked why so many Caribbean-born players dominate in the major leagues. The answer was universal: hard work, dedication and the joy in playing: “Alegría para el juego,” said opening-day backup catcher Héctor Sánchez. Grinding poverty, and the absence of distractions like video games and social media, meant that kids still always played outside (a culture that disappeared here 30 years ago). Seeing other Caribbean players on the TV was a very real stimulus for most kids. Or, as Sanchez explained, “You sacrifice everything to achieve your dream.”