Two Different Roads to Baseball
Thirty years ago, spring training was a time when players would begin getting into shape and preparing for the season. Now the players come to camp in tip-top shape, and they use this time to fine-tune their skills, conduct drills for certain game situations, and — for many — try to make the team. With more than 50 bodies from all over the world at the beginning of camp, the early days are filled with the coaches and teammates learning names, and nervous newbies trying to show what they can do. As you get deeper into camp, some guys are shipped off to minors; others even get the heartbreak of being sent home, learning that their dream might never become reality. As the team gets closer to their limit of 25 members, you can sometimes see personalities emerging, a chemistry forming, and a special bond beginning to gel.
One player I kept my eye on this year was Aaron Hicks, who was the favorite to win the center field starting position. Hicks was the Twin’s first-round draft choice in 2008. He is fast as lightning, can hit for power, and is just a young (23) natural athlete.
In talking to Aaron, you can tell he has a good head on his shoulders. He has a true passion for golf, and played it regularly from ages 4 to 14. That is when his love for baseball took over. He is probably tied with Darin Mastroianni as the fastest Twin. I asked if he had ever run track. He looked at me proudly and said, “No. But my dad was a track star, so some of those genes must have carried over to me.” At that moment Mastroianni ran by and Hicks commented, “Darin’s really fast. You can tell by the way he runs as he racks up the stolen bases.” Aaron appears to be in such fine shape, I asked him if he had a special diet, and he said, “Yes, I always try to eat right. Sometimes it’s hard when you’re on the road. But I definitely try to keep a good diet; I feel better, I’m ready to go! That’s what you have to do to be able to play this game.” He works out near his home in Huntington Beach, California, all winter, and he said he’s always trying to get stronger and faster. “I try to incorporate my weightlifting with baseball.” I asked if playing outfield on a major league team has always been his dream. He said, “Of course it’s been a dream of mine, and as we get closer to opening day, it’s even more exciting. But then again, until I get the word that I’m starting center fielder, I’m going to keep grinding.” Then he thought for a second and said, “Whether I get it or not, I’m going to keep it up. This game is all about competing, not only for starting center on opening day, but for starting throughout the season, and to help your team to get some wins. I love this organization; it’s a class act! But they’re not going to give you an opportunity if you’re not ready. You’ve got to go out there and prove it. That’s what I love about it. “
Having a life consumed with baseball, does Aaron have time for any outside interests? With no hesitation and a passion in his eyes he said: “Golf! For me, it’s a way of relaxation.” Then he laughed and said,”Many people think of it as quite the opposite, especially if they’re not that good. But for me it’s definitely a stress-reliever.”
Another guy I kept my eye on was infielder Ray Olmeda — not for his ability on the field, because he was usually on the bench, but it was for his big heart, his huge smile, and the support he shows to his teammates. Oh, yes…his entertaining personality, as well. He can be seen dancing often; one day he was acting like he was throwing the guys out of the dugout as they ran onto the field. Kicking and throwing his finger toward the field, he shouted, “Go on, get outta here, all of ya!” Then he laughed at his own joke and took the bench.
Ray will be 33 years old, and has been with more than a dozen teams in the majors and the minors in as many years. Ray has been in 218 major league games, but has nearly 5,000 minor league at-bats.
Ray told me how baseball is his life. “I started playing when I was 4 years old. I’ve always appreciated my mom, because she always took care of me. She took me to the baseball field, and also she would throw BP (batting practice) when we were young. I played a lot of sports, but I focused mostly on baseball because that is the most pronounced sport in Venezuela. I see so many players like Omar, Davey Concepcion, all those guys, they are my heroes. I want to make the team. We try. I think I am doing a pretty good job in spring training now, but it’s not anything I can control. We’ll see what happens. Whatever happens, I’m going to feel really excited because I feel like I do a good job.”
You can tell he loves life, especially around baseball. I told him I love his smile and positive demeanor, and he said, “That’s my personality, I will always be happy. I like to joke with everybody, and have energy, and relax for the game. That’s the most important thing. I’ve been on many different teams, but it’s all just baseball.”
I asked Ray if he had a special diet, and he said: “No. I eat everything. At home (Venezuela) I eat arepas (corn cakes). Many American guys, when they go there to play, they love to eat them, too. But here I love pizza. Sometimes when I’m really hungry, the first thing on my mind, what I really want…is PIZZA!”
I hope I’m wrong, but Ray probably won’t see much major league action this year. But do you know what? Baseball could use more Ray Olmedos. Actually, the world could, as well.