It’s just a little before five in the evening, and I’m standing in the home dugout of the San Antonio Missions. The temperature is reaching into the 90s, and despite the shade, I’ve worked up enough beaded sweat to let my sunglasses slide down my nose if my head isn’t angled just right. Having only been in a minor league dugout one other time, I can’t help but admire the sounds of batting practice and a slight breeze, which is very much appreciated.
A few players begin to trickle in, done with their warmups for the game, and I look around, realizing that face to face, they look a little different than the blurry camera angle I get on my phone from MiLB.tv. Baseball players look different in dri-fit shirts and basketball shorts anyways.
Glancing down at my notepad, I feel a little embarrassed that it’s just the size of my palm, but it was the only thing I could find at the Dollar General across from the Wolff Stadium parking lot. I had mistakenly left my questions and notes in another, normal sized, spiral-bound back at my house, right next to the camera I had also planned on taking with me.
As I’m sweating and trying to look like I belong in a minor league dugout, I hear cleats trotting down the cement stairs from the field. I glance up and see Luis Urías, the Missions second baseman, saunter down the steps. At least I think it is. Again, everyone looks so different out of a baseball uniform.
“Where did you get that hat?”
I’m startled that he even looked my way, let alone spoke to me, and I glance around to make sure he’s not trying to converse with someone else. I’m the only one here.
“That hat. Where did you get it?” he asked again.
I quickly remembered that I was wearing a dark gray Águilas de Mexicali hat, and respond, in Spanish, “Oh, este es mi equipo. Me lo trajo un amigo mío.” (This is my team. A friend of mine brought it to me)
He stares at me for a second, a little surprised that the person before him is a) wearing the hat of a Mexican winter league team and b) responding to him in decent but not overly fluent Spanish. I try to fill in the silence.
“You’re Luis, right?” I stammer, switching over to English. He nods his head. “Your brother played for the Águilas before he was traded to Los Mochis?” He nods his head again, smiling, but turning to continue his path towards the clubhouse. I tell him that I think he’s having a great season, and he thanks me, continuing on his way.
The rest of the players begin to file off the field, and the visiting Midland RockHounds start taking grounders and shagging fly balls. Rich Weimert, the very accomodating media guy for the Missions, begins to round up a few players to talk to. I chat a few minutes with pitchers Brett Kennedy and Trey Wingenter, the latter of whom is almost a foot taller than me; though, both were equally gracious and generous with their time.
As I sit and wait for Rich to bring out somebody else, I go over what I might want to talk to Ty France, Franmil Reyes, or Jerry Keel about. The list I emailed to Rich was seven names long, wanting to cast a large net, in case someone wasn’t available (it turns out that AJ Kennedy, one of the Missions catchers, had been demoted to Single-A that day). Urías was at the top of that list, and I began to believe that I wouldn’t get a chance to speak with him. I can’t say I was too upset – in terms of interviewers, I’m pretty low on the totem pole.
I continue to sweat as France comes out to interview with the Missions radio team, and Wingenter returns to talk to a camera crew on the field. I feel very low-tech, equipped with an iPhone and a voice recording app that I had downloaded a few days beore. At last, Rich emerges from the tunnel, with Urías in tow.
Rich seems happy and dismisses himself, as he has other things to do. He knows that he’s delivered big time. We had discussed the team earlier, before they exited the field, and talked about how well the team was doing (they were in first place in their division at the time, and would go on to win the first half championship). The Missions pitching in the first half was dominant, and we agreed that it would only get better as some of the big names from High-A Lake Elsinore moved up. The only person who was “irreplaceable”, he said, was Urías.
I’m immediately surprised by how muscular Urías looks. We’re about the same height, but he seems much bigger than he does on my fuzzy camera. He’s wearing a dark blue shirt that says “Alamo City” across the front in bold, white letters, with the Missions’ logo underneath. It strikes me as a very proud-seeming shirt for someone who has only been with the team for less than two and a half months. The way he carries himself, it appears that Urías knows that San Antonio is just another stop on his way to reaching the big leagues, just as Lake Elsinore and Fort Wayne were, and any number of towns before that.
I re-introduce myself, and ask him if he’d rather do the interview in English or Spanish. In my travels, I’ve found that some people are too proud to have you speak their language, and would rather they be the ones accommodating you. Urías grins and shrugs, saying whatever I’m comfortable with is fine, and I decide that we’ll go with Spanish. We’re on his home turf, after all.
“After winning the MVP of the California League last year, you’ve had a successful start to this year as well. What are some of your goals for this season?”
He answers quickly. “Aside from my personal goals, I’d really like to help my team make the playoffs. We’ve been playing well, things have been clicking for us, and I’d like to reach the postseason with this group of guys. As far as personal goals, I’d like to keep fighting at home plate and keep putting myself on base, which is also going to help my teammates have success.”
I notice that, with every person that I’ve spoken to in the organization, they talk about winning as if it’s the end all, be all of minor league baseball. While MLB fans from afar are worried about development, everyone here is thinking playoffs. It’s their team, and tanking doesn’t hold the same appeal that it does to the current crop of Padres fans, so they like seeing more runs for the home team than the visiting team. Urías is fully bought-in.
“I have noticed that many pitchers have been pitching around you more since the beginning of the season. Have you had to change your approach to find good pitches to hit?”
When I asked him that, in my head, I was thinking of his hot start to the season, when he was among the leaders in the Texas League in OPS, and then, all of a sudden, he started walking a ton. The memo had been sent out to the league to watch out for the short guy playing for San Antonio, and while his OBP continued to soar because of the walks, he was hitting a little bit less every week.
“I’d say yes, I’ve had to make changes. Obviously, the pitchers here are at another level, with more experience, and I respect them a lot. I’d say that last year (in the California League) and in this league, I’ve always had to make adjustments at the plate. Maybe one day they pitch you in a way that makes you change your plan, and you have to adjust to them. All the pitchers are so different, adjusting to them is something you have to do every day.”
“You’ve split time at second base and shortstop this year. Which one do you prefer, and where do you feel most comfortable?”
I can immediately tell that he’s gotten this question before. With well over 100 games in the minors at second, he’s gotten less than half of that at short, and most of those have come this year. He’s diplomatic about it though, professional.
“Truthfully, you get action at both, and I like them both a lot, but obviously I’ve spent more time at second, and that’s where I have complete confidence in my abilities.”
“What kind of experience was it to play for your country (Mexico) in the World Baseball Classic?”
“I believe it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had in my career, to this point.” This is the first time during our brief conversation that he’s let out a convincing smile. He can’t help it. “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to represent my country, and I give thanks to God. It was a beautiful experience.”
Trying to think of a question that he’s likely never been asked, or at least not asked frequently, I reference the hat that I’m wearing, from the team that his brother played for last year in Mexico.
“I’ve had the chance to watch your older brother Ramón play in the Liga Mexicana del Pacífico. Could you give us a scouting report as to what kind of player he is?”
“I think he’s a great player. Much of what I know and what I’ve learned is because he taught me. He’s three years older than me. I respect him a lot as a brother, as a person, and obviously as a player. He’s a great player with a lot of talent.”
I waited for him to say something like, “He’s a glove-first shortstop with a plus arm who needs to add some pop”, but I guess you try to be more complimentary of family. I also went back to look at Ramón Urías’ Baseball Reference page, and found that after OPSing .651 in 20 games with my Águilas, he upped it to an impressive .907 with the Cañeros de Los Mochis (in 21 games), so I might’ve been wrong about him as well. At this point, I was ready to wrap it up.
“I haven’t come across many interviews of yours, is there anything you’d like your fans to know?”
“No,” he responds. “Just “saludos” to all the fans in Mexico, and I guess everywhere. Obviously I’m representing those from my country, from Mexico, to Mexicali (gestures to my hat), to Sonora, to Magdalena.”
I hit stop on my iPhone and thanked him for his time. We shake hands and he compliments me on my Spanish before disappearing back into the tunnel.
It was interesting to me that, when asked about his “fans”, he mostly mentioned the people back in Mexico who were rooting for him. While it’s true, the people of Magdalena de Kino (population 25,000) may be his biggest fans, there are many MLB fans (mostly situated in San Diego, but also spread out across the country) that are heavily invested in his performance as well – checking box scores, watching blurry feeds on cell phones.
Urías would do what he usually does that night – lead off the game with a hit, come around to score, and provide solid defense up the middle. He looked like someone to be pretty excited about, who had bigger stadiums to play in than the one in the Alamo City.