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Every player from the Dominican Republic has a story about how he ended up getting signed … and, of course, pretty much everyone thinks his story is the best.
I’m no different.
Because even though I’ve heard some good ones, I feel like mine’s gotta be right up there. It involves Pedro Martínez and Big Papi and a skinny, 5-foot, 120-pound shortstop named Carlos.
Here’s how it went down….
I was 16 years old and playing at Boston’s Dominican academy in El Toro. I’d been a shortstop for my entire life up to that point, so I just naturally jogged out to short when the game started that afternoon. I remember it was sort of chaotic, with lots of people milling around the field and players shuttling in and out. No different than any other day, really.
But after a few innings, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, someone yells out to me.
“Carlos. Carlos! Get on the mound. Hurry up. Let’s go.”
So, you know, I just kind of do what I’m told and hustle over to the rubber. Then I begin swinging my right arm in a big circle to get it loose as quickly as I can. There wasn’t time for me to do much more than that. It was kind of just, go, Go, GO.
When I start pitching, I’m very, very nervous, but I’m just trying my best to focus on the catcher and stay as calm as I can. I throw a pitch that seems O.K., and someone says “92” loud enough for everyone to hear. Just the number “92,” nothing more. Then another pitch … and again, “92.” Then again: “92.”
For whatever reason after that third 92, I kind of take a breath and look behind the backstop — right behind the fence — and I see this big guy back there laughing and smiling.
I immediately realize it’s Papi.
My heart basically jumps out of my chest.
I look a little closer and notice that he’s talking to Pedro.
Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP Images
I mean, Are you kidding me?
Papi is, well … Papi. And Pedro had been my hero from when I was a little boy. Every fifth day during the baseball season would basically be “Pedro Day” where I grew up in Puerto Plata. We’d all rush home from school to do our homework and then meet up at this café that would show his games. There would be 50 of us huddled in there around that TV screen screaming our lungs out for him.
Pedro was my idol. Both of those guys were. So now, of course, I’m even more nervous.
But I’m also like … I don’t know … inspired. Just seeing those two guys, those legends … it made me throw harder.
After my next pitch, the man with the radar gun yelled out “93,” and from there it just kept going up and up. The next inning, after I really had time to process that Pedro and Papi were watching me pitch, I was somehow up into the mid-90s.
I still remember that guy yelling out “96” … and not really believing my ears.
I was a shortstop. And I was tiny. But somehow, on that day, in front of two of my baseball idols, I found a way to step up to the mound and throw a baseball 96 miles per hour.
Harrison Hill/The Players' Tribune
After the game ended, Pedro and Papi caught up with me. It was unreal. They wanted to talk, but I mostly just listened.
I can remember that conversation, word-for-word, even all these years later.
Papi spoke first.
“My brother,” he says, “You could be a future Pedro Martínez.”
What? Come on.
But Pedro’s standing right next to him, nodding.
“You gotta stop playing shortstop right now, though. Stay as a pitcher and keep working hard because your skills are exceptional.” Right then, Pedro pulls me aside and says to me, “If you stay humble and work hard, you can go far in this game as a pitcher.”
I never forgot that advice. I stopped playing shortstop. And soon after that conversation, I signed my first major league contract.
I think back to that day in El Toro often, but you know what? How I found my way to St. Louis, as a pitcher for the Cards, may actually be even crazier than that story about how I got signed.
I come from a place known as El Avispero, “The Wasp’s Nest.” It’s one of the poorest sections of the Dominican Republic.
My mom died when I was eight months old, and I never knew my dad, so it was my grandma who raised me. She’s who I knew as Mom or Mommy from as early as I can remember.
Our house was made of cinder blocks, and it had just two small rooms. So it was me, two of my brothers, an uncle, the wife of another uncle, and my grandma and grandpa all crammed into those two rooms. And we were very, very poor. We ate only once each day, at dinner. We couldn’t afford breakfast or lunch. And our dinner would usually just be yuca, which we’d fry up and eat by itself. It’d be either that or spaghetti with rice, or spaghetti with bananas.
Where we lived was almost like a neighborhood in an alley, and our home was at the bottom of a hill. There was a drain up the hill from us that people would throw garbage into, so each time it rained that drain would overflow and all the dirty water would run down into our little house. Everything would be flooded.
It was awful. And it was always so sad to watch how the rains affected my grandmother. That would break my heart.
Before it would even begin to rain, she would start going around the house and picking everything up off the floor. It would just be getting cloudy outside, and she’d already begin preparing for the damage. Over and over again, she would do that.
Sometimes the rains wouldn’t even come, and she would have spent part of the day moving things around in our house. And when the rain did fall, I just remember her … crying. Just standing there, helpless and crying, as a stream of dirty, polluted water flooded into our home.
When the rain stopped, there was some relief, but we all knew that it was only a matter of time before the same thing would happen again. It was such a miserable way to live, and every day as a young boy I thought about what I might be able to do to help my family.
I would pray so much in those days. But it never seemed to help. I remember that when I was a kid I used to cry so hard each New Year’s Eve. For me, that holiday just meant another year had passed where I wasn’t able to help my family rise up.
All around my town people would be celebrating and dancing in the streets and hugging one another, and I’d be inside, alone … weeping.
“Lord, when are you going to help me?” I’d say aloud.
So I’d just cry and cry and cry.
But I never stopped praying — never stopped calling out for God’s help. I did everything I could to maintain some hope, and my faith was always part of everything I did. It was central to me. And even though I’d played baseball on a small field near our home since I was four, and dreamed of becoming a professional player in America someday, for most of my life before that baseball showcase in El Toro, I actually thought I was going to grow up to become….
via Carlos Martínez
Yup, that was really the plan. I was going to be a priest.
At first, it started out as a mistake.
I made my first communion with a group of about 100 children when I was 12, and after the mass the man who had led the service looked down at us from the altar and asked who among the group wanted to study to become a priest.
I kept my hands at my side, but my best friend at the time was standing right next to me, and he raised his hand.
So the priest sent someone over to take down the names of the people who raised their hands and … my friend pulled a fast one on me.
“It wasn’t me,” the boy said. “It was him.”
I immediately protested.
“No. Wait. It wasn’t me. I didn’t raise my hand at all. He’s just saying that.”
But right then, in that very moment … something weird happened.
During the back and forth, this thought popped into my head out of nowhere. Like, You know what? Why not? I want to try this out.
Next thing I knew, I was on my way to a weekend retreat where I was one of the kids selected to move from my home to the seminary in Monte Llano so I could study religion.
I spent the next four years there, just studying and learning as much as I could. It was difficult being away from my family, and not playing baseball, but I knew it would all be worth it in the end.
Then, when I had one last test to go before I was done, they told me I could no longer continue because of some problem with my birth certificate.
I was so close to being done. I didn’t think anything could stop me. But the head teacher brought me in and told me they needed proof of who I was. And at that point, I didn’t have it. My mom never registered my birth before she died, so my uncle had used a birth certificate of his step-child when anyone asked for my papers. When the seminary found out that was not me, and that I didn’t have a valid birth certificate, they said I couldn’t continue.
That moment was one of the lowest points in my life.
It was like I wasn’t even a person, and my thoughts were all so sad.
I have no mom. I have no dad. I have no record that I exist. I’m no one. What am I even doing here in this world?
I moved back in with my grandma. I had no other choice, really.
Jeff Roberson/AP Photo
Back home, I got better and better at baseball, but things hadn’t improved for my family.
I tried to work odd jobs shining shoes or washing cars or doing construction, but it felt like I was a burden more than anything else. We just never had enough, and I was one more mouth that needed feeding. I never wanted to eat because I knew any food I ate could’ve gone to my grandparents or another member of my family. So when the manager of my team started offering housing to players who lived far away, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life.
I packed up all my things and moved into an apartment with seven or eight other players so my family would have more food to eat.
I made a vow to myself at that point that I would not return until I was signed by a major league team and could help support my family members. And I stuck to it, too. When all the other players living there left to go see their families on December 25, I just remained in that apartment, dreaming of the day when I could return home with some money in my pocket.
I was very disciplined. I kept praying. And a few months later is when I met Papi and Pedro and got signed by the Red Sox.
Coming back home after that, and bringing the good news with me, is something I’ll never forget. I was so happy.
But the signing bonus never came. I kept waiting and waiting, but it just never showed up. Weeks passed, and … nothing. Then, one day, someone from the team came to me and said that the contract wasn’t valid.
Because of my birth certificate.
And they told me I was being suspended by Major League Baseball for one year.
It was like I was cursed — like these papers that I didn’t have were out to make my life miserable.
I was really sad not to be able to play for Pedro’s team, but I just kept telling myself that God must have a plan for me. And I kept training and getting better after I received that bad news. I didn’t let it break me. Before long, I was throwing in the mid-’90s with no problem, and many more teams were showing interest in me.
I ended up having to use DNA testing to show that my mom really was my mom — that I truly was who I said I was — and it took much longer than I wanted to get cleared. But eventually everything got worked out, and that’s when the Cardinals swooped in and signed me and changed my life forever.
I didn’t know a ton about St. Louis before I signed my contract with the team and became a member of the Cardinals family.
I’m kind of ashamed to admit it, but it was pretty much Albert Pujols and … well that was kind of all I knew about the team.
The fans, though, I had heard all about.
Everyone I talked to, if I mentioned St. Louis, I’d always hear the same thing.
Great fans there!
They love their baseball.
Those people are … passionate.
Of course, I know now that everything people told me back then was an understatement. From the moment I got to town, people in St. Louis recognized me. And they always stop to say hello, or to wish me the best of luck. It makes me smile every time, and I always love talking and joking around with our fans and just having fun together.
They are a part of the team, as far as I’m concerned. And their enthusiasm is unmatched. Every time I take the mound, I’m reminded of just how lucky I am to be playing in front of Cardinals fans.
In a lot of ways it reminds me of home, because when I play in St. Louis I feel like I’m playing in the Dominican Republic. There’s that same fire and energy and love for the game that I saw every day as a kid growing up in the D.R.
And sometimes when I’m out there on the hill doing all I can to get a win for this city, everything comes together at once … and I’m reminded of my roots.
Jeff Curry/Getty Images
When we went to the World Series in 2013, during my first year in the big leagues, and I found myself facing Big Papi for the first time ever, in front of the world, with a runner on first and Game 2 on the line, that was just … incredible.
I’m pretty sure I stopped breathing for a few seconds there.
I was scared. Like, not just nervous … scared.
But the crazy thing is that when I was standing there getting ready to deliver that first pitch to him, I thought back to something Pedro told me all those years ago when he and Papi saw me pitch for the first time.
“Always remember, you are the one who has the ball. You are in control. And you have to make that clear to the batter and everyone else. It doesn’t matter who is in the batter’s box: your little brother, your son, your mom, your uncle, it makes no difference. Anyone you’re facing … they’re your enemy. And you are the one with the ball. You have to have the cojones to say, ‘I’m going to destroy that guy, I don’t care who he is.’ In order to have a shot, you must keep that level of confidence.”
So, in that moment, facing Papi in the World Series, I just tried to do everything I could to follow Pedro’s advice. And, with all due respect, I just said, “You may have seen me as a kid, but we’re on the same level now. And I have the ball. So you are going down.”
It was great.
I did everything just like Pedro said.
Then Papi … got a hit on the very first pitch I threw him.
It was an infield hit, nothing smashed, and no runs scored that inning. But when I look back on it, that experience makes total sense. Simply telling myself I was going to strike him out wasn’t going to make it so.
I was still a kid at the time. And Papi was, well … Papi.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI/Getty Images
Those two guys, those legends, Pedro and Papi have meant the world to me over the years. When I broke into the majors, they both came up to me and talked about how they remembered seeing me pitch as a kid on that afternoon at the academy. We’ve kept in touch ever since.
In the offseason, Pedro invites me down to Miami to go fishing and the two of us spend all day talking baseball.
Sometimes I feel bad, because it’s usually just me asking question after question about things like his mental approach, or what he would do in certain situations that can give me trouble. But that guy … he’s just so nice. He never complains or tells me to stop. He just shows patience with me and helps me with whatever I need.
Both those guys are so much more than great baseball players. They’re wonderful people, and they’re all about doing everything they can to help others. That’s definitely been inspiring to me.
Now that I’m a few years into my career, and I have reached a point where some younger guys look to me for guidance, I always remember how wonderful Papi and Pedro have always been to me. That’s how I want to be for younger players every chance I get. And when I’m not playing, I try to follow in their footsteps when it comes to giving back and helping those in need. With my Tsunami Waves foundation, I’ve been able to help hundreds of underprivileged kids and poor families, both in my home country and in the city of St. Louis. We provide food and clothing and emergency medical care. Our motto is “Helping the Ones Who Need the Most.” And we’re growing every day.
Those two guys carved the path for me, and now I’m just doing my best to follow through.
I mean, if anyone knows the importance of a helping hand at the right moment, it’s me.
One of the first things that came to mind when I found out that the Cardinals were going to sign me to that contract back in 2010 was….
It’s time to buy Mommy a house.
After everything became official, I remember telling her to start looking for a new place, and she basically began searching for homes that were in the same neighborhood where she lived, the place where I grew up.
The Wasp’s Nest.
It was all she’d ever known. So it made perfect sense.
You know … upgrade some. Maybe find a place that has another room, or one that won’t flood each time the heavy rains come.
But I wasn’t going to let things play out like that. She deserved peace of mind — finally, after years and years and years of struggle and worry.
So I found her a nice place away from the neighborhood, in a residential community, and I took her by there one day to surprise her.
“Look, Mom,” I said, pointing to the new place. “That’s your house. That one. Right there.”
She started to cry.
And then, of course, I started to cry.
It was so wonderful.
via Carlos Martínez
After she moved into the new home, I came over one day and found her rearranging everything that had been set up. She was moving everything around to places that didn’t seem to make any sense.
I had no idea what was going on.
Then it hit me.
It had just started raining.
Mommy was moving the furniture to higher ground because, well … that’s all she ever knew.
Like, when it starts clouding up … you move things off the floor so the polluted water does not ruin every single thing you own.
Tears started streaming down my face at that point.
It was just so sad to me that she had been programed to always expect the absolute worst out of life.
“Mommy,” I said, “you’re here in this nice place now. The water isn’t going to come in. The water cannot get you any longer.”
She quickly remembered where she was, and smiled. Then she took a deep breath and sat down on the couch and we talked about how everything was going to be better from then on.
She just kept hugging me. She couldn’t stop smiling.
And we’ve both pretty much been smiling ever since.