DENVER, CO - MAY 12: Jonathan Herrera #18 of the Colorado Rockies is welcomed home after his solo homerun by Carlos Gonzalez #5 of the Rockies in the first inning against the New York Mets at Coors Field on May 12, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Currently, the Colorado Rockies feature eight players from the same Latin American country on its 40-man roster. And chemistry between all of them has been immediate.
Whenever you went to look for one of them at the clubhouse located at Salt River Fields, there were always sign of mutual understanding and camaraderie. A casual conversation about baseball or the dire and polarizing political situation the country faces. There's always a reason to get together.
What many don't know at first sight is that many of them have crossed paths before. And we don't talk about playing for the same team at the World Baseball Classic. We mean bonds that started in childhood and which were reignited by fate and the twists and turns of the baseball business.
It was a sunny day in 1997 in the Eastern region of Venezuela. The heat scorched, always near 98 degrees. And there's no hotter place in the city of Puerto la Cruz than the Chico Carrasquel Stadium, home of the Caribes de Oriente team of the Venezuelan League.
Two rookie players were among those who baseball fans went to see every day: Infielder Marco Scutaro and pitcher Rafael Betancourt. Scutaro was then a farmhand with the Cleveland Indians, while Betancourt was playing in the Red Sox organization. They were returning from their first year playing up North.
"There were days in which Marco and I slept at the ballpark in order to save expenses," Betancourt recalled, 24 years later and after having become bona fide Major Leaguers. "Our salaries weren't the highest ones in the League, of course, so we had to make ends meet. There was a room for the groundskeeping crew, near the outfield and we turned it into our residence".
Scutaro and Betancourt were making big sacrifices, economically and personally. Scutaro came from the midwestern state of Yaracuy, living in its capital city, San Felipe. Betancourt is from Cumana, two hours away from Puerto la Cruz.
"I was dealing with all the things that come to you when you become a prospect. Learning a new language, dealing with a different culture," Scutaro said.
"For me it was a bit harder," Betancourt recalled. "I was also dealing with a career switch. I was originally an infielder, and then the Red Sox decided I could do better as a pitcher. It was certainly one of the hardest moments for me, trying to adapt to a pitcher's working habits".
We are going now to the year 2000: more specifically, to the city of Maracaibo in the western region, and a world away from Puerto la Cruz.
Young Johnny Herrera was 16 years old. He was dazzling at National and Local championships at the youth level. And by then, he was a big guy. Throughout his youth baseball days, Herrera was an imposing figure, with an advantage which was hard to match for many kids who faced him.
One of those perennial contenders was a child named Carlos Gonzalez. They played each other for years, and the outfielder who would be known as CarGo wouldn't match Herrera until he turned 14, being a year younger than him.
"It was funny, because Carlos wasn't as big as he is now," Herrera says.
Herrera lived, breathed and dreamed of baseball. All the time. His mother, brother and sister always supported little Johnny's wishes.
"My family, especially my mother have always been essential for me to get to where I am today," says Herrera, especially after dealing with his mother's passing this Winter. "They have been with me all throughout the way. This is what she wanted for me, I know for a fact".
The support of relatives is such a key in the story of a Young Latin American kid testing the waters of professional baseball. There must be sacrifices such as taking them to games, traveling with them throughout the country in order to have them play at tournaments.
And when they have proven themselves as talented enough to be signed by a MLB team in order to have their skills nurtured throughout their system, the family must be willing to deal with the fact their kids will spend long periods of time away from them... And the certainty they could not become the starts they always dreamed of being.
"I never dealt with hesitation from my folks," Betancourt said. "I think my mother and father were always determined to support my career, and they would do whatever was needed in order to help me get to where I am".
"There's always the factor of distance and separation," remembers Maracaibo native Jhoulys Chacin, who was signed by the Rockies in 2004 by Francisco Cartaya, who worked with the organization as a scout, and by Rolando Fernández, who is currently senior director of international scouting.
"Those are things that could scare any family. But if there was someone who rooted for me and convinced everyone around me I had to try and sign, was my grandmother. She really was very vocal about that, and it's not like they didn't believe in what I was able to do, but there was some concern about me spending so much time away. But she convinced them this was the way for me," remembers a smiling Chacin.
Cartaya, who is currently with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, was a key factor in signing most of the home-grown Venezuelan Rockies players, such as pitcher Edgmer Escalona, born in the state of Vargas, in the vicinities of the capital Caracas.
"Francisco took me under his wing and made me the guy I'm today in baseball," Escalona says. "I'm very fortunate for that. He was the one who saw my abilities and took them into consideration and believed in me so badly he had me signed. I will always be grateful for that".
Cartaya has not forgotten about Escalona:Being a team executive for Tiburones de La Guaira, another Venezuelan League club, he executed a trade which brought Escalona to Tiburones. This was a reason for joy and pride for the 25-year-old righty.
"My mother is such a big Tiburones fan, she can fully root for me no matter what," Escalona said while being visibly joyful.
And it's not surprising. The Venezuelan Baseball League truly becomes the heartbeat of a nation during every Winter, and it is a source of pride for many, while also serving as a stepping Stone for local players. You'll see how these current Rockies alternated life between the Minor Leagues and the local circuit, while being on its way towards The Big Show.