El Profe: A Tigre Realizes his Childhood Dream

We all have our dreams. Aspirations for what we want to accomplish in life. As kids playing baseball, whether in city streets or open fields, in the United States or somewhere in the Caribbean, we often imagine ourselves playing in the major leagues — the World Series, even. Bat in hand, we imagine being at the plate at a pivotal moment with the game on the line. Or, ball in hand, we see ourselves standing on the mound, in control of a team’s destiny, ready to close out the series-clinching game.

Those imagined scenarios rarely come true. The overwhelming majority of those who dream of becoming a major leaguer never reach that goal.

My own boyhood dreams of playing in the majors were quickly dashed. Sure, I loved playing the game. I played in high school and in college. But I already knew. The line between being a prospect and potential major leaguer was already established in my case. I wasn’t playing to become a major leaguer, but to enjoy the game I love.

That line is much hazier for those Venezuelan and Dominican teenage boys who are scouted by major league organizations. Those who are signed enter the minor leagues on a quest to realize their dreams, transform their families’ futures, and make good on the promise to those who supported them, prepared them.

Dreaming Big

Signed at the age of 16, Venezuelan and Dominican prospects typically start playing professionally in a summer league in Latin America. If they make the grade, they get promoted to a rookie league in the United States. That’s when their journey takes on a whole new reality.

Teenage Dominicans and Venezuelans migrate to the States as professional players, expected to be men. Yet most of what surrounds them is new. They are in an alien country, in the midst of a different culture, with a language barrier. It can be alienating, disorienting, depressing. The baseball field is their safe place where they can do what they know best: play ball.

That was the path Ildemaro Vargas, a native of Caripito, Venezuela, chose to pursue when he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008 at age 16. Becoming a big leaguer was his dream; signing was his first step.

Playing America’s Game

Our paths crossed in 2015 while Vargas was playing for the Kane County (Ill.) Cougars, then a minor league affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. I arrived at the Cougars’ ballpark as part of a crew filming a documentary on Latinos in baseball. Vargas was among the Cougars’ Latino players who agreed to speak with us about his journey in the minor leagues.

The fresh-faced Venezuelan infielder spoke to me in Spanish about the vital role his mother had played in his becoming a professional ballplayer, how she had first encouraged him to play baseball at the age of 7.

Vargas was no longer a young farmhand. Then 24, he was in his eighth season in the minor leagues. The infielder had spent the 2015 campaign primarily with Kane County, a Midwest League Single-A team just outside of Chicago.

The previous season, Vargas had briefly made it up to the Cardinals’ Double-A minor league team after spending most of 2014 with Palm Beach in the Florida State League.  But in March of 2015, the Cardinals released Vargas.

During our late September interview, I could sense he realized that he was at a significant point in his professional career. Like many other minor leaguers, he knew that October could be the cruelest month. It is time in a minor leaguer’s career in which an organization makes an assessment of whether a player truly has a shot to make it to the majors or if it’s time to release him.

He was quite aware that he received a second chance in 2015. Most minor leaguers, especially Latino ones, don’t get signed by a second organization, simply becausethere is a ready supply of young prospects 16 and 17 years old ready to replace the 22- and 23- year olds who had not advanced ‘enough’ up the minor league system. But after being released he played with the Bridgeport Bluefish, an unaffiliated team in the independent Atlantic League. His performance in 30 games there convinced the Arizona Diamondbacks organization to give Vargas a chance.

Stepping Up

The Venezuelan enjoyed a splendid 2015 season, batting .321 with an .823 OPS while playing a steady second base. He looked optimistically toward his future.

My goal is to keep working hard, finish well, taking advantage of the opportunity and the great moment that I’m living right now,” Vargas told me. “And the future is, like every player, to make it to the major league and maintain myself in the major leagues.”

After strong showings at the AA and AAA levels, the Diamondbacks called up Ildemaro Vargas to join their big league squad. On June 29, 2017, nearly 26 years of age, Vargas realized his childhood dream after a decade of seasons in the minors. That day, he dug into the batter’s box with bat in hand, making his major league debut against the St. Louis Cardinals — the organization that had given up on him, no less. He didn’t get a hit that initial at-bat, but he had made it.

Featured Image: Jennifer Stewart / Getty Images Sport