Three San Antonio Minor Leaguers Chase the Baseball Glory of Pedro Martínez & Fernando Valenzuela

It’s 99 degrees in South Texas as the San Antonio Missions start batting practice under the afternoon sun. Inside Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium, on a freshly manicured field, members of the San Diego Padres Double-A Affiliate run through their respective routines in small groups. Hitters take swings in the batting cage, while pitchers loosen up on the mounds directly adjacent to the diamond. Sitting in the dugout, with beads of sweat tracing his brow, 25-year-old catcher Adolfo Reina acknowledges that despite the unrelenting heat, there’s nowhere else he would rather be.

“I’m just blessed by the opportunity to be here every day,” says Reina of his seventh year in the minors. “I’m blessed and give thanks that we’re all able to come here and enjoy this beautiful game.”

The Missions’ dugout is surprisingly sparse for now, with a bat, a helmet, a few gloves strewn about, and an essential water cooler providing ice-cold relief. The only visible logo is that of the San Diego Padres, which also adorns the equipment bag that transports Reina’s clunky catching gear. As Reina recounts his journey from Santiago, Panama, to San Antonio, Texas, the familiar falsettos of Ariana Grande and The Weeknd echo throughout the empty ballpark.

Adolfo Reina
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Like many young Panamanians, Reina grew up playing soccer. When his cousin suggested that they take up the sport together as part of a new team, Reina agreed and soon fell in love with the game, equally comfortable at first and third base. He eventually signed with the Detroit Tigers, where he transitioned to the role of catcher, which he wears as a badge. Our talk eventually turns to Latino pitchers who suited up for the Missions back in the day.

The seeds of 1980s Fernandomania were planted in San Antonio.

“Pedro Martínez. To tell you the truth, to me he could be the best Latino pitcher that we have, and that’s because he was fearless,” says Reina. “He could pitch to any batter. It didn’t matter who he faced. He was always concentrating on sending the ball to where he wanted it. For that, he’s in the Hall of Fame right now.”

In overall Missions lore, before Pedro there was Fernando. The seeds of 1980s Fernandomania were planted in San Antonio when Fernando Valenzuela joined the Missions, then known as the San Antonio Dodgers, at the beginning of the decade. Homesick for his homeland of Etchohuaquila, Mexico, Valenzuela was merely average at the start of the season and struggled off the field.

Fernando “Toro” Valenzuela
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When teammate Orel Hershiser discovered that the contents of Valenzuela’s refrigerator consisted of Twinkies and water, he introduced his neighbor to the American grocery store. On another occasion, Hershiser noticed that Valenzuela’s apartment windows were open on a sweltering Texas afternoon, only to find him sitting inside, sweating on the couch. The language barrier had prevented Valenzuela from requesting that his broken air conditioner be fixed, in the same way that it had initially served as an obstacle to fresh produce.

After his future bride Linda joined him in San Antonio, Valenzuela turned his season around, carrying his team into the playoffs, and ultimately leading the Texas League in strikeouts. He was soon called up by the Los Angeles Dodgers and started the following season 8-0 with an earned run average of 0.50, becoming a Latino icon along the way. El Toro is honored at Wolff Stadium with a large plaque that features his visage and career highlights, which include a Cy Young Award and a World Series title.

“I’m grateful to be able to play here, where those two were able to throw a baseball one day,” says the Missions’ reliever Tayron Guerrero, referring to the path he shares with Valenzuela and Martínez. “I take a lot of pride in that.”

Tayron Guerrero
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A native of Boca Chica, Colombia, Guerrero relates to the challenge of leaving one’s homeland to pursue baseball glory. The 25-year-old pitcher began playing the game when he was 16 and was initially signed by the Houston Astros, before joining the Padres farm system. He credits the Dominican coaches that have mentored him over the years with helping to ease the transition to the States.

The son of a former minor leaguer, with tíos who played in the Dominican League, baseball is in Rodriguez’s DNA.

“They help us understand the things that the American coaches want us to know,” says Guerrero, with Selena Gomez and A$AP Rocky blaring from above. “As time passes, there are also English classes, and you continue to study the language and get familiar with the culture a little more each day.”

On the field, pitcher Bryan Rodriguez warms up for his start against the rival Corpus Christi Hooks. During the national anthem, Rodriguez stands stoically at the edge of the mound as a Navy flag practically brushes up against him. At 6’5”, the Dominican ace is all business once the game begins, the culmination of a diligent process.

“I try to prepare myself in the best way possible between starts,” says Rodriguez. “The two days before I pitch, I like to stay calm and focused on how I’m going to try to throw. Leading up to the start, I like to relax my mind, listen to music, and read, to try to learn a little more English. It helps take me out of the moment, clear my mind, and prepare for the game.”

The son of a former minor leaguer, with tíos who played in the Dominican League, baseball is in Rodriguez’s DNA. He was introduced to the game at age 12, and after signing with the Padres at age 18, he bought his mother a house on the island. A few years ago, he injured his throwing arm and underwent Tommy John surgery, which he describes as the toughest challenge of his young career. Rodriguez hopes to reach the big show that eluded his father before him, and his eyes light up when talking about another childhood idol.

Bryan Rodriguez
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“Pedro Martínez is the pride of the Dominican Republic and the face of Latino baseball in Dominicana,” says Rodriguez. “I grew up watching him pitch and I remember saying ‘I want to be just like Pedro, El Grande.’ He had an amazing motor and proved that regardless of your size, if you had faith and you had talent, you could succeed.”

Pedro Martínez became a spokesman for Latinos in baseball.

Like Valenzuela before him, Martínez suited up in San Antonio for one season, and his influence is much more palpable than the banner bearing his likeness, which hangs in Wolff Stadium. While his ascendance in the major leagues was more gradual than Valenzuela’s, Martínez remained an elite pitcher for a longer period of time. After blossoming under coach Felipe Alou in Montreal, he became a spokesman for Latinos in baseball, often challenging members of the media for perceived slights towards fellow peloteros.

Martínez famously joined fellow Dominicans David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in Boston to help the Red Sox finally break the Curse of the Bambino, and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this summer. During his induction speech, Martínez spoke of preparing a space for future generations of Latinos, wished dads in his homeland a Happy Father’s Day, and paid homage to Juan Marichal, the only other Dominican player enshrined in Cooperstown.

Bryan Rodriguez
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“It’s a difficult experience, but at times a beautiful one, because you get to know different cities and different cultures,” says Rodriguez reflecting on the life of a minor leaguer. “You don’t have family and it’s a little hard. Imagine when you get to a city and you don’t know who’s going to take you to a house or an apartment. Or after the game, if someone will take you home, because you don’t have a car or know anyone. That’s something that makes you say ‘Wow. I thought that baseball was easy.’ But after you soak it in, it’s not like how they paint it.”

“As Latinos we can get overconfident because sometimes we’re given the same opportunities as American players.”

The Missions eventually fall to the Hooks in overtime, ultimately swept by their opponents from Corpitos. After the game, the team hurriedly packs up for a bus ride to Frisco in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Six concurrent games in Arkansas follow, as part of the grueling schedule that seemingly presents a new contest each day.

For Reina, Guerrero, and Rodriguez, the promise of the major league is something to be cherished. They show no inkling of taking that for granted. Reina wants to prove that he can be a catcher at the highest level, and according to his teammates, Guerrero somehow appears to become more energized as the season goes on. Rodriguez merely wants to buy his mother a nicer house and share his success with his family back home, all of which starts with getting on that next bus.

“As Latinos we can get overconfident because sometimes we’re given the same opportunities as American players,” concludes Rodriguez. “At the same time, we get discouraged because we sometimes see American players with numbers slightly lower than ours promoted ahead of us. But it’s all a process, and to be a Latino ballplayer, to leave your country and learn a new language, it’s very difficult. You can’t really understand it unless you’ve gone through it.”