I have to start with a story.
We used to have this vending machine when I was playing rookie ball in Arizona in 1994. It was one of the fancy new machines. When you put your change in to get a soda, it would tell you on the screen how much money you were missing. So this one day, I see one of my young Dominican teammates standing at the machine, looking confused. He was missing 10 cents.
The screen said, “Please add a dime.”
In Spanish, the word dime means “tell me.”
So one of my other Dominican teammates goes up to this kid and says, in Spanish, “What’s up? What are you doing?”
The kid says, “I don’t understand what’s going on with this machine.”
He wraps his arm around the kid’s shoulder and points to the screen.
“Bro … you see that word there? Dime. Dee-may. It knows you speak Spanish. The machine is telling you to ask for what you want.”
The kid looks at the vending machine. Then he looks back at my teammate. Then he looks back at the machine.
He leans in real close to the coin slot and starts shouting, “A Coca-Cola! I want a Coca-Cola! A COCA-COLA!”
We were in tears. We were rolling around on the ground. The poor kid just kept shouting his order, looking all confused, until someone put a dime in the slot and a Coke rolled out.
These days in the Dominican, a lot of kids grow up learning English. Now you have satellite TV and social media teaching them the language at a really early age. But back when I was coming up in the ’90s, a lot of the Latin ballplayers coming to the States could only tell you 10 words. I was one of the lucky ones. I knew maybe 30.
You would hear stories about guys trying to order food and all the different things they did just to get by, and it was amazing.
This one time, I saw one of my boys in rookie ball trying to order a chicken sandwich at McDonald’s by flapping his arms like a chicken in front of the lady at the register. These memories are funny now, but when you’re hungry and you can’t really speak the language and all you want to do is get some food, it’s not so funny. It’s a real struggle for guys.
It was definitely a struggle for me, and that’s why I started by telling you this story. You know David Ortiz now. You know Big Papi. But when I came to this country, I was David Arias. I was a simple guy who was trying to have fun and make his dream come true.
People ask me sometimes, “Why do so many Latin players struggle early in their careers? Why does it take them a while to figure things out?”
And I just look back at them like, Are you serious?
You’re trying to do the hardest thing in sports — you gotta hit a 95-mph fastball every day. But you’re also completely new to a country and a language and a way of life. One day, you are able to laugh and joke and carry on conversations in Spanish, then the next day you get on a plane for the first time in your life and you come to a place where you can’t express yourself the way you want.
It’s different in America. The culture is different. The way of life is different. I’m so proud to be American, but it took me some time to learn things.
I went from rookie ball in Arizona, to Single A ball in Wisconsin. Cactuses to Christmas trees, bro. When I got there at the beginning of the spring, it was still snowing. I was 19 years old, and I had never seen snow in my life.
Now I hate snow, but I used to love it back then. It was magical to me. We were getting ready for opening day, and the snowflakes started falling from the sky. I thought it was rain at first. Then my boys Dámaso Marté and Joel Ramirez were making snowballs and throwing them around the field.
During that season, I stayed in an apartment that had three bedrooms. Only problem was, I had five roommates.
We slept two guys to a room. Every guy had a different job in the house. I wasn’t about to be cleaning, so I was the cook. Every Sunday, everybody would throw in $20 and we’d go to the supermarket. Back then, with $120, the whole damn store was coming home with us.
Papi was cooking up everything, man. We didn’t worry about the carbs back then. I was half my size.
The next season, I got traded to the Twins organization and moved up to Double A ball with the New Britain Rock Cats. This crazy guy named Torii Hunter was my teammate. To make you understand how broke we were back then, Torii had to sleep in his car outside the stadium for the first week of the season until we got our first paycheck. And the car was a rental. And he had a roommate — our teammate, Armann Brown, slept in the passenger seat.
I’ll never forget, I went to breakfast with Torii one morning and he said to me, “Man, I’m telling you — you’re going to play in the big leagues this year.”
I’m like, “Pssshht. You must be out of your damn mind, bro. I just got called up to Double A.”
He said, “You’re an unbelievable hitter. They’re gonna give you a chance.”
Torii had gotten called up to the Twins for one game already. I remember sitting there with my eyes all big, asking him, “What’s it like in the big leagues, bro?”
He just said, “You’ll see.”
A couple weeks later, I got called up to Triple A in Salt Lake City (mountains! I’m seeing everything). I was there for about a month when the manager called me into his office and told me that the Twins were calling me up to the big leagues. They sent him a fax! Hahahaha!
He said, “You know where they’re playing right now?”
I said, “No, where?”
“Daaaaaaaamn, for real?”
There was no email back then. No texting. I had to get a calling card to call my family back in the Dominican to let them know, but the card was all the way back at my apartment, and I had to go pick up my ticket at the airport and go.
Thankfully, my girlfriend (who’s now my wife) was with me, so she threw a bunch of clothes in a bag for me and bang — I was on a plane to Chicago.
Wrigley Field is a place that every player can’t wait to visit. Playing there is like the first time you see snow. It’s just magical, man. When you grow up in the Dominican … snow? Wrigley Field? That shit is only on TV.
I walked into the Twins’ clubhouse before the game and I didn’t say a damn word for three hours. Now if you see me, you can’t get me to shut up. But when I first got called up, I knew I had to chill. I didn’t speak unless somebody asked me a question.
I remember sitting in the dugout when the game started and seeing my boy Sammy Sosa playing in right field. That was crazy. He put on a show.
Later on in the game, I got to pinch hit, and I hit a weak fly ball for an out. But the following day, I got in the game again and hit a double to right field.
Guess who was chasing it down? My man Sammy Sosa.
Living the dream. Living the American dream.
The following year, my boy Torii got called up again. I was so happy for him, because I knew he was going to be special. He was a football player. So it took him a minute to figure baseball out, but he was an amazing athlete. He was actually the best athlete I’ve ever seen on a baseball field.
He had his struggles at first, but he went on to have an 18-year career. You know how many coaches along the way said he wouldn’t be anything? Torii is my brother. I love that guy.
Those first few years with the Twins, I was still trying to learn English and understand American culture — mostly through movies, to be honest with you. So I used to play poker with Torii, Corey Koskie, Eddie Guardado, Matt Lawton and some other guys on the team. It was like a fraternity. Everybody was 20, 21 years old. One year we had like 14 rookies on the team.
So it was crazy. I would say a lot of expressions the wrong way, and these guys thought it was the funniest thing ever.
One of my teammates, Jacque Jones, used to get real quiet when he was getting his ass beat in poker. If he was winning, he would be tripping. He would be talking and messing with everybody. But as soon as he started losing, it was over. He wouldn’t say anything. He looked like he was gonna cry.
So you remember the movie The Silence of the Lambs? It was a horror movie, but the poster of the movie had the lady’s face with a moth covering up her mouth. You could tell she was trying to say something, but she couldn’t. She looked real sad.
So Jacque is playing me in a big hand, and he’s talking all kinds of shit. He thinks I’m bluffing. So he pushes all his chips in, and then I push all my chips in.
We flip the cards, and I bust his ass.
I stand up and point at him and yell, “Silent was the lamb!”
Man, everybody was on the floor crying. It was the last thing they were expecting from me, but I had just seen the movie the night before.
Matt Lawton was laughing so hard that I think he pulled a rib cage.
That’s how we were. We were kids having fun. I just saw Eddie Guardado the other day, and we were reminiscing about how much fun we used to have in Minnesota. Those are my boys. When I got married in 2002, we had the ceremony in Fort Myers during spring training so my teammates could be there.
With most of my family living so far away, those guys became my other family in America.
This week is my last series with the Twins. So I want to thank the fans in Minnesota, because they were really good to me and my wife. My career didn’t work out the way I planned with the Twins, but I don’t have anything but love for the people there.
What was great about Minnesota was how nice everybody was to me during my time there. If we went out to a restaurant early on, when my English pronunciation wasn’t so great, everybody was super nice to me. Nobody ever made me feel like an outsider, and I’ll always appreciate that.
When I had that breakfast with Torii Hunter back in the day, we were two broke-ass ballplayers with a dream. The Twins made those dreams come true, and I got to see Sammy Sosa chase after my double.
If it all ended there, I still would have been happy.
Thank you, Minnesota.