As I write this, I am about to sign a deal to be the catcher for the Pirates for three more seasons. This is my dream come true and I can’t even begin to explain the emotions I’m feeling. This is why I never quit. This is why I always worked so hard. Nothing was going to stop me from reaching my goals.
Today, on one of the biggest days of my career, I have a message that I want to share, especially with kids who have big dreams. Don’t ever give up.
But in the middle of such an emotional day, I can’t help thinking about golf balls.
Yes, golf balls.
And softballs and tennis balls, too.
Back in 2014 when I was playing catcher for the Yankees, I would always do the same thing with Gary Tuck, the catching coach. Before every practice, I would sit in a chair — no glove, no nothing. Just me in a chair and Gary standing five feet away. Gary would reach into a bucket and toss me a golf ball. Sometimes he used tennis balls. We would do this for what seemed like forever, hundreds of times. If I said I was bored, he would make me do 50 more. It was part of my education as a catcher.
In 2003, five days before my 17th birthday, the Yankees signed me out of Venezuela. The way it happened was funny. I left my house that day to go watch a friend play. I was sitting in the bleachers when a scout came up to me.
“Can you throw one ball to second base?”
I wasn’t even wearing athletic clothes. I just followed him down to the field and he handed me a catcher’s mask and a glove.
I had never played catcher before. The glove felt too big. As soon as I squatted down behind the plate, the second baseman seemed really far away.
I just kept telling myself, Throw the ball into center field.
The first ball sailed over the second baseman’s head.
I thought I had failed. I looked at the scout and he was smiling.
“Do it again,” he said.
That day, the Yankees said they wanted to sign me — as a catcher. But I had never played catcher in my life, not even in practice. Joining the Yankees organization was a huge break for me, but it wasn’t like I was getting the big bucks. I was only getting paid a very small amount compared to what some of the other players on the international free-agent market were getting. I didn’t let it faze me. It just made me want to work harder. My goal was baseball, so I kept my eye on my big dream.
In 2005, I traveled to the U.S. to play rookie ball. I was a backup and I batted .190 with one home run in 50 at-bats. I was scared to death that I would get released. One day in 2005 two scouts came to my house to talk to me. I was home with my mom and dad.
“We like you, Francisco,” one scout said, “and we think you have a big future.”
“… as a coach,” the other one said.
They wanted to release me. I always loved my mom’s reply. She told them, politely, No thank you.
“Give him another shot.”
You can never thank your parents enough.
In 2008 I got invited to my first big league camp, but I broke my wrist in spring training in a home-plate collision and lost most of the season. That didn’t stop me. I made the big leagues in September.
I got a small break in 2009 and got some playing time in New York because of injuries to Jorge Posada and Jose Molina, but my time in the majors was brief. We won the World Series that year, but I wasn’t even on the postseason roster. That made me work harder than ever.
The following spring I got hit in the head by a pitch and suffered a concussion. I spent time on the DL but that didn’t stop me either. I came back and played a career-high 93 games in New York.
The 2011 season was supposed to be the one when I cemented myself as a big league player, but I guess God had other plans. I broke my foot in spring training and suffered another concussion in September. I was only able to play 43 games, and questions about my health became a real issue. That didn’t stop me. It made me work extra hard to prove the doubters wrong.
In 2013, I was suspended 50 games for making a bad choice. I also broke my hand in April and was out the rest of the season. It was the worst year of my life. I made a mistake. I learned from it and moved on. But it didn’t stop me.
In December, the Yankees signed my dear friend Brian McCann to a multiyear deal, which effectively ended my chances to become the starting catcher in New York. I was determined to keep going.
In 2014 I got injured again. I suffered a bad strained hamstring and I lost about 70 days on the disabled list. I didn’t understand why these things kept happening to me.
On November 12th, 2014, I got a phone call from my agent. He told me I had been traded to the Pirates. We didn’t know what my role was going to be — the Pirates were still trying to re-sign Russell Martin. I was confused, sad and scared, but at the same time I was also excited. This could be my chance.
Last but not least, to the fans: You guys keep me going every night. That’s amore.
I want to thank everyone who has stuck with me through this process. I thank God and my family. Everything I do is for them. I want to thank the New York Yankees for the 12 years they invested in me. I want to thank my mentors, Jorge, Andy, Derek, Mariano, and everyone else who has helped me on the field — you all know who you are. I also wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Julio Mosquera, my coach with the Staten Island Yankees. Julio is a mentor and a friend to this day. He’s a guy who paid attention to me when I felt like I was invisible to other people. To everyone back home in Venezuela, I’m thinking of you, too. To Luis Sojo, the coach who signed me to my first Venezuelan team, thank you for teaching me about hard work. I also want to thank my agents Rafael Nieves and Rick Thurman, two guys I call family.
I have fallen many times in my career. Sometimes I tripped myself and sometimes luck wasn’t on my side. But that’s life. I have always tried to get right back up and keep on going. That’s the message I want to send out today. No matter how many times we fall, we can’t lose sight of our goals.
I want to thank the Pirates organization for believing in me. Thanks to my teammates: I’m proud to call you guys brothers. And last but not least, to the fans: You guys keep me going every night. That’s amore. Pittsburgh is a city with a lot of love. When I arrived here, people didn’t know who I was. But it didn’t take long for me to feel the love and respect that the people of Pittsburgh have. That’s why I am coming back.
Thank you for not giving up on me. I promise that I will never give up on this team.