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DENVER – The average person loves, and needs, comfort and routine.
Try to imagine leaving your home, as a teenager. Leaving your friends, your family, and your country to chase a dream you know won’t come true for at least four years and will do everything it can to crush you in the meantime, all while the odds stack more against you the further you get.
Thousands of gifted and brilliant athletes over the history of this game have been chewed up and spit out by that grinding machine, never to even reach Triple-A.
The total population of people to have ever played a single second of Major League Baseball is not enough to fill up a moderately-sized basketball stadium.
But, in 2013, two years after signing with the Colorado Rockies organization at just 16-years old, Raimel Tapia had to leave his old world behind and enter a new one full of promise and pitfalls.
“I was very excited,” he remembers. “It was a good experience. I was coming up a level in baseball. But being in the airport and saying goodbye to my family, and my grandfather was crying, and I knew I was going to be gone for a while.”
Though they do watch on TV, now, he says, with the exception of a trip up to see him near the end of last season, he has only seen his family in each offseason since that first airplane ride to Grand Junction, Colorado, over five years ago.
That’s where I first met the now 6-2, 160-pound 24-year-old from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. It was immediately clear that Tapia plays with charisma, electricity and of course, mucho swagger.
It was also evident that he was a unique player with his own style and approach; one that would cause much debate throughout his MiLB career but there were many early converts including one of his teammates that first year in the United States.
Starting pitcher Jon Gray was the main attraction that year in my hometown, but Raimel Tapia stole the show.
“The first thing I noticed was just how unorthodox this guy is,” Gray says. “The stance, his form and everything. Everything’s a little unorthodox, but he’s just a guy who’s completely locked in, and he’s out there trying to do something cool. He loves to play the game. You can tell. It’s obvious. It’s fun to watch. He’s got a quick bat. You don’t really see the threat while he’s up there, but man, it’s loud when he hits it. He’ll surprise you, yeah, he’s got some power. So many tools.”
Maybe the left-handed hitting and throwing Tapia is unorthodox because he grew up a righty. Maybe his love for the game is so pure that it results in a new interpretation of how it should be played.
“My first glove, my sister gave it to me as a gift, and it was a right-handed glove,” Tapia said laughing. “So I grew up throwing right handed, and then I finally started throwing with my left hand and realized I could throw a lot better with my left hand, so I made the switch.”
The Cradle Of Shortstops
It is a place where baseball is in their blood.
“I grew up in San Pedro di Macoris. When I was a kid, I would play with the other kids, play outside, we’d play baseball with my brothers and my brother now has a league out there. I just grew up playing outside on the patio with all the kids.”
That’s a story that sounds familiar to millions.
San Pedro di Macoris isn’t known as the “Cradle of Shortstops” for nothing. It’s become almost legendary in how many talented ballplayers seem to grow there like the peaches in Palisade.
It is a place that worships baseball, and it’s history with the game.
Alfonso Soriano and Robinson Cano are the two who have inspired Tapia the most.
“Soriano lives close to my house so I would go over to his house and I would work with him, and he would teach me,” Tapia says, noting that he has known Soriano since he was 13-years old. “He was kinda like my second dad. He really helped me with my game. Cano, I see at spring training, and he’ll tell me ‘keep working hard, keep playing your game, keep doing what you’re doing'”
All that talent and inspiration can also make it that much more difficult to stand out. Everyone out there can play and having big dreams isn’t exactly uncommon
“Yes, there’s a lot of competition out there,” Tapia recalls. “There’s a lot of kids playing. We would play baseball every day. On Sundays, we would go to the other side of town. We’d get up at 5 A.M., and we were really excited to go play. My brothers are older than me so they would teach me. I would strike out, and I would cry because I was younger and I struggled. But there was a lot of competition, and we played baseball all the time.”
His brothers, who still run baseball camps and leagues back home, have been among Tapia’s biggest inspirations.
“They have been huge help for me,” he says. “They’ve always told me ‘if you love what you do, keep working hard at it, never give up, and even if you do well one day, don’t stay in that comfort zone, keep working hard, keep pushing yourself to do better. Love what you do and do your best.’ I’m really close with my brothers.”
It is a place where baseball is in their blood.
For Family And For Home
Tapia fought and scratched through nearly four more years in the Rockies system, getting more hits than games played in at every single level. All told, he played in 577 minor league games, accumulating 2,540 plate appearances in the organization before making his MLB debut in September of 2016.
He says he has grown a bit more accustomed to life in America, “Especially the differences in food.”
And he’s got even more brothers than before. He mentions a group that includes Carlos Gonzalez, Vinny Castilla, and first-base coach Tony Diaz, who worked with Tapia in GJ in 2013, that have been instrumental in his transition to the big time. “They give me a lot of tips and advice,” he says. But more than that, “They give me a lot of confidence.”
And one of the few people who has seen him through the long haul, couldn’t be happier to see where he is now.
“To see someone like that who has worked as hard as he has at every level and been great at every level, it’s awesome to see him up here and doing that,” says Gray. “I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s a guy that deserves to be out here, having fun and playing the game.”
He certainly does that. And the most fun he has had so far in his still remarkably young career, came last Friday night against the Arizona Diamondbacks when he crushed a decisive grand slam against arch-rival Archie Bradley.
And what got him to that moment? What allowed him to survive the long bus rides across the deserts of Utah and Western Colorado? How did he persevere through the cultural and linguistic barriers, the unique approach in a game that loves tradition, the doubters, the (very few) slumps, the high probability of failure, and even his difficulty in sticking at the big leagues?
“The biggest thing is my family,” he says. “They’ve always given me their support. They’ve always been there for me.”
Then, with a slight pause, he flashed his trademark smile. “Also, I love what I do. I love going out there and playing baseball every day for the fans. I love doing what I do.”
At that, I began to hold out my hand in thanks, but the young Dominican wanted to add something more. “I also want to help my country and help people who may not have a house,” he said. “Or may not have anything. I want to have the ability to be able to help others back home.”
He says he wants to be a role model. “And not just for my country. And not just as a baseball player. I want to be known as a good person.”
For his grandfather he left in tears all those years ago, for his brothers who instilled the spirit of the game in him, for his new brothers helping him understand the game at the highest level, for his parents and his “second dad” and for his hometown, the exhilarating young Major Leaguer is making them proud, and doing his part to make sure that the next kid from the Cradle of Shortstops will grow up wanting to be the next Raimel Tapia.
A special thanks to Colorado Rockies Communications Assistant and Spanish Language Translator Abby Sanders