Raised in Cajun Country in Louisiana, New York Mets right-hander Seth Lugo always joked that he was “Quarter-Rican,” a nod to his paternal grandfather, José “Ben” Lugo.
It took the 2017 World Baseball Classic for Lugo to realize that the definition of Puerto Rican, and of Latino, for that matter, has nothing to do with percentages or curveball spin rates and everything to do with family and self-identity.
“I kind of had the expectation that I would be looked at like not as a Puerto Rican, but as an American,” Lugo said in a recent interview with La Vida Baseball at the Mets’ spring training complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
“But I showed up [for training camp] in Arizona with the team and they welcomed me just like everybody else. It was a pleasant surprise. It really made it possible for me to go out there and play comfortably and be part of the team.
“I kind of got the same thing when I used to go spend time with my grandpa. He would treat anyone like family. That’s what [Team Puerto Rico] did for me,” Lugo added. “It was the best baseball experience I can really remember. It was really incredible.”
Treated like familia and readily embraced by his teammates and dozens of cousins on the island that he had never met before, Lugo pitched like an ace. He started and won games against Venezuela and the United States in the preliminary rounds before falling short in a finals rematch against Team USA.
Overall, the experience of bleaching his hair blond and representing Puerto Rico inspired him this past year to delve more deeply into his boricua roots.
Those roots start with his grandfather, who passed away last November. Ben Lugo was born in San Germán, a small town in southwest Puerto Rico famous for Porta Coeli — “Gateway to Heaven” — one of the oldest churches in Latin America. He joined the Air Force, traveled the world, married a woman from Arkansas named Cherry and retired in Shreveport, La.
“By the time we were growing up, my grandpa didn’t have any other family in Louisiana, so he never spoke Spanish around us,” Lugo said. “He definitely had a Spanish accent in his English. So, growing up, the culture side was strictly food, culinary-based.”
Herein a corollary to the definition of who is a Latino. Just like the White Sox’s José Abreu ensures that Yuli Gurriel or any other visiting Cuban player gets home cooking whenever they visit Chicago, Grandpa Lugo made certain that he taught his Puerto Rican recipes to his wife and children, who then passed it on to the next generation.
Not surprisingly, in a state known for its savory Cajun and Creole cuisine, the Lugo clan readily added sazón, sofrito, adobo and other Caribbean condiments to the menu.
“I ate plenty of Puerto Rican food,” Lugo said with a smile. “That’s always been my favorite food — rice and beans, roast pork and all that good stuff.
‘There’s a lot of Lugos’
A year after the WBC, the 28-year-old Lugo has reconnected with family in Puerto Rico, smiling a lot to bridge the language barrier. In fact, he and his wife Amanda planned to marry on the island in November, but Hurricane María forced them to change locations.
“I got to meet probably a couple of dozen cousins, aunts and uncles,” Lugo said. “There is a lot of them down there. There’s a lot of Lugos in Puerto Rico.”
And all of them, it seems, are willing hosts to their Stateside cousins and extended family.
“With anybody who visits Puerto Rico, they’ll make sure that they leave with a suitcase full of frozen food to take back to the States,” Lugo said. “That’s how we get most of our food.”
When it came to baseball, Lugo learned from both sides of the family. His father Ben taught him to throw curveballs. The Mets’ 34th-round pick in the 2011 draft stands out for his spin rate on a staff populated by intimidating hard throwers like Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. In the world of analytics, spin rate is to curves what heat is to fastballs. The more spin, the bigger the break. In 2016, Lugo threw a curve at 3,498 revolutions per minute — the highest spin rate measured in the Statcast era.
An average fastball and a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in the right elbow suffered after the WBC slowed Lugo’s development last season. Once again healthy, he’s currently the fifth starter in the Mets’ rotation.
Passing down stories
That’s not to say that he gets much sympathy from the non-Puerto Rican side of his family.
“On my dad’s side of my family, my grandma’s brother, he played semipro ball and he still says to this day that he can hit my fastball,” Lugo said.
Lugo’s father never tried to hit his son’s curve. He stuck to catching until the day the pitch broke from 12 o’clock down to 6 o’clock and skipped through his legs. Father and son have shared much of this journey to the major leagues, even stories about The Great One.
“My dad talked about Roberto Clemente,” Lugo said. “My dad was a big baseball card collector. And the favorite card that he ever had was a Roberto Clemente rookie card. He doesn’t have it anymore. He put it in his bike spokes in his bike and tore it all up. That was his favorite card.
“From what I understand, the ’60s and ’70s, that’s what you did with cool baseball cards. You put them on your bicycle, so your friends could see them. That was just the way it was.”
You can take José “Ben” Lugo out of Puerto Rico. But you can’t take Puerto Rico out of the Lugo family.
Featured Image: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images Sport