HOUSTON – Juan Jose Soto Sr. could barely contain the chills that overcame him Tuesday night when his son was introduced before Game 1 of the World Series. His wife Velkis Pacheco also was overwhelmed with emotion, especially each time her beloved “Juanjo” stepped to the plate against the Astros.
Although Juan Soto is only 20, he prepared for this moment for at least a decade. This was the Washington Nationals phenom’s destiny, Soto Sr. firmly believes.
“I had chills that I couldn’t explain,” Soto Sr. said after his son torched the Astros with a solo home run, a two-run double and three RBI to lead the Nationals to a 5-4 victory. “But it’s real. It’s what God had for us. It’s the promise that God had for us for a long time.
“I’m not saying because we already got here today. Since my boy was 10 years, God had promised us this, and he’s fulfilling it. We have faith. We live by our faith. And we’re believers, Christians and God has blessed us.”
Juan Jose Soto Jr. was sitting in his modest home on the west side of the Dominican Republic’s capital the first time his father told him that he would star in the World Series. He was 10 years old or perhaps 11.
Such is life when you have a birthday in the middle of the Fall Classic. It was either 2008 or 2009. The Nationals’ 20-year-old superstar cannot exactly remember. Either way, Juan Jose Soto, Sr., was quite prophetic.
“We were in the house watching a World Series and he said, ‘Listen, one day you’ll be in the World Series. You will be there,’” the younger Soto remembers.
Soto didn’t just make it to baseball’s biggest stage. He sprinted to the Fall Classic, leaving his mark against Astros ace Gerrit Cole, who had been the hottest pitcher on the planet entering Game 1 of the 2019 World Series.
Three days shy of his 21st birthday, Soto hit a majestic leadoff home run the other way. The shot caromed near the railroad tracks atop the left-center field facade, silencing the sellout crowd.
At 20 years and 362 days old, Soto began the contest as the second youngest player in 100 years to start a Fall Classic as the cleanup hitter. Only Miguel Cabrera, who was 20 years and 183 days old during the 2003 World Series, was a younger cleanup hitter during the World Series.
Soto became just the fifth player to homer in the World Series before turning 21.
“I don’t even look at him as young until you see his face,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said of Soto. “He’s got kind of the ‘it’ factor. He’s got the twitch. He’s got fast hands. He’s got no fear. I think that’s big for a young hitter.
“Early in his career to just kind of leave it out there. It looks like he’s completely in control of enjoying the moment. And he hit all sorts of different pitches. … He’s mature. Don’t let the age fool you.”
The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder definitely appeared quite in his element. His play didn’t betray any hint of his youth. It’s as though he was destined for this stage since he began playing baseball as a child in the Herrera barrio on the western edge of Santo Domingo.
Although Herrera is a relatively poor and humble barrio, the younger Soto is adamant that he never went without any essentials. There was always food on the table.
Despite living in one of the poorest barrios in Santo Domingo, Soto actually grew up with some of the comforts that children in America take for granted.
He admittedly didn’t know much about Major League Baseball in part because he was often busy playing video games.
He didn’t watch much baseball on television because he was usually glued to his video game console. He first became aware of professional baseball watching the Dominican Winter League. He’s a diehard fan of the Tigres del Licey.
“I remember when I was a kid the first game I saw on TV was a winter ball game in the Dominican,” he said. “I didn’t even know what it was. My dad told me that’s here in the Dominican.
“Then I started going to the field, and I feel really good. I started watching MLB baseball when I grew up. I played more video games. I played more baseball games and other stuff.”
The MVP Baseball 2005 video game was his favorite, and the Boston Red Sox were his favorite team.
As he learned more about baseball and began to watch more MLB games, he eventually became a fan. He looked up to Robinson Cano and Manny Ramirez.
He was sitting at his home one day when his dad noticed the calendar and realized that he would likely celebrate a birthday during the World Series.
“It was the fulfillment of a promise that we had said for a long time,” the elder Soto said. “My son was 10 years old when I told him that he was going to be a big leaguer and that he’d celebrate his birthday at a World Series. And we’re in two days (away from) that. That’s a promise from God, and he’s granting it.”
Soto debuted in the majors at 19 last season with the Nationals. He’ll turn 21 on Friday, which is when Game 3 is scheduled to be played at Nationals Park.
He signed with the Nationals as an amateur free agent at 16 years old for $1.5 million, helping his family move out of the Herrera barrio.
“I grew up in humble Herrera,” he said. “Thanks to God I never missed any food at our table, but it was a very humble area, a humble home. Thank God we could get out of there.”
His parents are a constant presence in his life. His dad famously tackled him after he helped the Nationals beat the Brewers in the NL wild-card game. Then the entire family prayed together on the field immediately after the Nationals eliminated the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.
“To me, it’s something that’s incredible because they’re the only two who have been there for me since the first day,” he said of his parents. “They were there without fail. In the good times and bad times, they were always there. To share a moment like this in the playoffs and to be in the World Series, it’s something incredible because it wasn’t just me. We all achieved this together.”
In the elder Soto, it’s clear where the Nationals’ young star inherited his poise and confidence. His mother is more reserved. She doesn’t like to do interviews.
Nonetheless, she’s just as enthusiastic as her husband and son.
That was evident as her son became the second youngest player to hit a home run in his World Series debut before becoming the first player in history to hit a home run and a double in the Fall Classic before turning 21.
“She doesn’t get tired of yelling,” the elder Soto said of his wife. “She doesn’t get tired of crying. In every one of Juanjo’s at-bats, she screams, she doesn’t get tired of supporting.”
The Sotos have had plenty of time to prepare even though the younger Soto is only 20, and they’re all obviously ready for the biggest stage of them all.
Featured Image: Jean Fruth / La Vida Baseball
Inset Images: Jean Fruth / La Vida Baseball