Visalia, Calif. -- It's easy to spot Jonah Arenado on a baseball field. Have you ever seen his older brother play? Jonah looks identical. A little bigger, maybe a little broader in the shoulders, but he's got the same swing as Nolan, the same mannerisms in the field, and an identical demeanor, as I find out during San Jose Giants batting practice before a game in Visalia.
Jonah is playing in the California League for the San Francisco Giants' High-A affiliate, and he's doing pretty well. Already with career highs in both homers and doubles, Jonah's a middle-of-the-lineup force for San Jose at just 21 years old, and slowly but surely, the former 16th round draft pick may be turning himself into a player to watch. Then again, it's hard to ignore him with that last name. Hours after batting practice, Jonah belts a long home run, and as he's rounding third base, a fan's voice pipes up, loud enough for everyone in Visalia's cozy Recreation Ballpark to hear.
"Your brother would have hit it further!"
Chuckles spread across the crowd as Jonah steps triumphantly on the plate.
Nobody said it was glamorous being the younger brother of a big leaguer.
"I’m beyond happy for him so I really don’t care what people say about me, I still have to prove myself," Jonah says about his older brother. "We’ve got [Jose Vizcaino, Jr.], so I know he deals with it with his dad, too, and there are other guys in this league like that, so I know it’s not just me. But I don’t really pay attention to that stuff. If people just ask me about my brother, that’s fine."
For his part, Nolan can empathize with Jonah's experience of being the "other" brother in this somewhat unique situation.
"I know it probably gets annoying when people talk to [Jonah] about me always, he probably doesn’t enjoy it," the Rockies' third baseman says from Coors Field. "But it also fuels his fire to prove people wrong and make a name for himself, and he’s working hard and I think he’s got a great opportunity to do that."
Jonah's right about one thing: there are plenty of other guys in the Cal League hoping to come out from under the shadow of famous brothers, cousins, or fathers. Vizcaino, Jr. is one; baseball fans will also recognize Inland Empire infielder Hutton Moyer (and his father, Jamie), Bakersfield first baseman Justin Seager (and his brothers Corey and Kyle), High Desert first baseman Juremi Profar (and his brother, Jurickson), and Modesto infielder Josh Fuentes (the first cousin to both Nolan and Jonah), to name a few.
Fuentes feels the Nolan comparisons just as much as Jonah, maybe if only for the fact that he's in the same organization—and plays the same position—as the Rockies' vaunted third baseman. Just like Jonah, Josh's mannerisms and mechanics are remarkably close to Nolan's, no doubt a product of growing up together, working out in a group every winter, and, yes, those whiffle ball games. Like Jonah, too, Fuentes is remarkably good-natured about the whole thing, understanding that "tell me about Nolan" is often a natural conversation starter for fans and the media—even as he and Jonah are showing success in their own careers.
"For me early on it was like, ‘who is this guy? Ah, this guy is here because of Nolan,'" Josh admits of his growing pains in pro ball. "But now, Jonah and I are proving to ourselves that we are more than that. I think it actually drives us more when we hear that, even from fans. I know Jonah hears that from fans all the time, ‘Oh, Nolan’s better!'"
"I remember I made a barehanded play the other night, I threw out [Daniel] Bravo for Lake Elsinore, and even my teammates are like, ‘whoa, Nolan makes that play,’" Fuentes continues, laughing. "It’s all fun and games, but I think when it comes down to it, it drives us for sure. We want to be up there with them, and be equals, rather than be down below here."
Just like with Jonah, Nolan can understand that motivated sentiment from Josh, too. Maybe more to Josh's optimistic point, Fuentes' on-field play and midseason promotion to Modesto has made Nolan take notice from Denver.
"He played well in Asheville so he got the call up which was well-deserved," Nolan says of Josh. "He’s doing a good job with what he can, he’s not playing every single day, but when he gets the opportunity to play he’s taking advantage of it, and that’s what he’s got to do."
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Being the brother of a big leaguer isn't all that bad, of course. Jonah may get heckled when he hits home runs on the road, but every winter, he and Josh have daily access to one of baseball's best hitters. It's access they cherish, as it's plainly changed how the two youngsters view professional baseball.
"We do everything in the offseason together," Nolan says of his minor league charges. "We’re pretty much inseparable and it’s always fun to have someone there pushing you like I push him."
"We have a lot of similarities in our swings and a lot of similarities in our approach," Nolan continues, referring to Jonah. "We talk about approach and stuff like that, but he has his own style. I think he’s going to grow into more power than I am once he gets more of his man strength."
Thus far, that appears to be true for Jonah; but while physical strength may one day provide him more power than Nolan—if you can even imagine that—it's his older brother's daily role modeling of intense focus and concentration that has made all the difference in the world down on the farm.
"To see how he works, man, it’s all serious," Jonah says of Nolan. "There’s no messing around. When he’s in the cage, he locks in. I’ve never seen someone so mentally locked in on what he does. If it’s not going to help him with baseball, he doesn’t want to do it. It’s only about baseball, and that’s just who he is."
Jonah pauses and shakes his head, obviously impressed—and proud.
"That's why he's dominating right now. That’s where I want to be."
Nolan's impressive big league beginnings don't just have Rockies fans wondering how high he can climb, either; it's quite clearly lit a fire under his brother and cousin, too, who recognize how far Nolan has come from his own time playing in the California League in 2011.
"I remember when Nolan was in Modesto, and everybody said he would never play third base," Fuentes says. "He tells us that too. He’s like, 'hey, don’t listen to those guys, go get your work in, get there early.' With that, I know that if I put in the work, and since I’ve got Nolan on my side, things can end up real good as long as I stay focused."
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If having one big league brother (or cousin) seems unique, try two.
That's the reality for Bakersfield Blaze first baseman Justin Seager, the middle brother between Kyle (Mariners) and Corey (Dodgers). Kyle's been in the big leagues a while now, but Corey's rapid rise and much-ballyhooed arrival—in a stadium less than two hours south of where Seager plays in High-A anonymity—has been an adjustment for the affable 24-year-old. Now, he finds himself fielding more questions about Corey and Kyle than he does his own career.
"You get that a lot, which is fine with me, because I’m very proud of both of my brothers," Justin says before a recent Blaze game, ironically against Fuentes' Modesto Nuts. "I got to go down to San Diego for the All Star Game to see Corey there and in the Home Run Derby, and watch my dad throw to him. It was special for the whole family. I do get it a lot, but it doesn’t bug me because I’m just so proud of them."
Justin's attitude is noteworthy; while the first baseman is creating his own unique identity in the game, he's mature enough to understand he'll be asked about Corey and Kyle again, and again... and again... and again, for this piece. Jonah and Josh, too, are equally good-natured about the Nolan questions that pop up with frequency far greater than ones about their own respective careers. That's part of the game down here in High-A, being worlds away from your famous brother(s) and getting asked about what it's like. More than perhaps anyone else, Justin knows that.
The Mariners' farmhand broke his back in high school, altering his career forever; where his older brother went to college at a national baseball power and was drafted by Seattle in the third round in 2009, and his younger brother was taken by the Dodgers in the first round straight out of a North Carolina high school, Justin's path has never been the same. A strong college career at UNC-Charlotte and an eventual 12th round phone call from the Mariners put him back on the path, but there's no question it's a different journey than Kyle and Corey.
"It's always been an uphill battle for me," Justin admits. "That injury in high school made the recruiting process tough for me, and then I was lucky enough to go to Charlotte. But I think it’s made me a stronger, better person because I’ve had to work so much harder."
"I don’t think it has to do with them at all, though," he's quick to add about his brothers. "It’s not like, 'oh, they’re doing well so I’m going to hold it against them.' It’s not that kind of thing. I’m very proud of them, and they cheer hard for me too."
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Though it's repetitive for these farmhands to answer questions about big league big brothers, and familiar for them to come together again for winter workouts, one thing remains an adjustment: seeing Nolan, Corey, or Kyle on a big league field every night. In fact, "surreal" keeps popping up when the conversation turns to the big league stars.
"My brother, man, I thought he’d be an elite player in the league but I didn’t think he’d hit as many home runs as he is," Jonah says about Nolan, shaking his head. "But he’s very good at getting the barrel to it and sticking with his plan, and that’s why he’s hitting so many home runs."
"I’ve known them my whole life, so to me, they are just my brothers," Justin adds. "They’re not All-Stars. That part is still wild. Kyle has been there a couple years now, but Corey, this is his first year and he’s an All-Star. It’s surreal to see him out there on the field."
Then again, it's a little surreal for these guys to see each other on the field, too—even if it's just a dusty old infield in California's Central Valley, at a game observed not by millions on television, but dozens on a random weeknight in July.
"Watching Josh play is funny, his mannerisms are funny to me because we’ve always been clowns with each other, so it's surreal to watch him on the field," Jonah admits, laughing about his cousin-turned-opponent. "But it’s exciting, man. It’s exciting to see after playing whiffle ball together, to have our careers converge like this. It’s pretty awesome."
The goal is the big leagues. For Justin, that means maybe playing on the same club as Kyle, and being part of a unique fraternity—sets of three brothers who have all reached the big leagues. For Josh and Jonah, that means shedding the "Nolan's brother/cousin" label and striking forward with their own identities and reputations. All that might come in time; it certainly won't come without hard work.
"I know I’ve got work to do, and I’ve got to work hard to get there," Jonah says, before chuckling about what a big league career could mean. "You know, maybe one day they’ll say 'Jonah’s brother' instead of 'Nolan’s brother.'"
Boys will be boys in the meantime, and brothers, brothers. These guys have grown up together, after all—fighting and fussing and defending each other along the way as brothers tend to do. To that end, Justin takes a break from playing the good brother to deliver a jab towards Corey's and Kyle's physical tools—you know, just so he can get the upper hand, if only for a moment, in case the other two ever read this interview.
"It's still surreal to me. Even watching them on TV at night, it’s like, wow," Justin says, before flashing a sly grin. "They look so much bigger on TV than they do in real life."
Additional reporting done in Denver, Colo. by Jordan Freemyer and Bakersfield, Calif. and Modesto, Calif. by Bobby DeMuro. All images by Bobby DeMuro.