photo: Yariel Gonzalez (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
As Yariel Gonzalez returned to Puerto Rico, he looked out the window as his plane descended for landing in his home country.
It is a view he’ll never forget. There were no leaves on the trees that remained. The plane flew over neighborhoods with houses and buildings that had no ceilings, or with missing walls.
“Whenever I got off the plane, I cried,” Gonzalez said. “On my way home, I cried. I can’t believe this is Puerto Rico right now. My heart has always been with them.”
The damage Gonzalez described was from Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane that killed 112.
Gonzalez returned to his San Sebastian home after the 2017 baseball season ended in the U.S, ready to help his family, his people.
“It was friends and neighbors helping each other survive, trying to find each other,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez grew up in San Sebastian, and takes great pride in Puerto Rico. He has a brother in the U.S. Air Force, and another lives in the States. Everyone in his family played baseball.
In fact, his grandfather, Carlos Ramos, played with Roberto Clemente as youngsters in Puerto Rico.
The Hall of Famer Clemente died in a plane crash en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in December of 1972.
“It’s a really big thing for us,” Gonzalez said. “Roberto Clemente is like an idol for us. He is an example of how you should do stuff and an example of it doesn’t matter about the bonus or money you get. It’s about how hard you play.”
Coming to the States
Gonzalez, like his home, is building on a slow, steady path. He understands humble beginnings.
He grew up on baseball and went on to play at the University of Science and Arts in Chickasha, Okla. The four-time .400 hitting collegian led them to the NAIA World Series in 2016.
“It was great because you don’t play for nothing than just a championship,” Gonzalez said. “You don’t know what is going to happen after that. You just know what is happening in the moment.
“It was one of the best moments ever.”
Yet, no major league team drafted him. The Cardinals signed him as a non-drafted free agent on June 16, 2016.
Gonzalez received a $1,000 signing bonus, with only $700 remaining after taxes.
“Talking about that, it was hard for me,” Gonzalez said. “If you look at my numbers compared to any guy in the league, I shouldn’t have signed for that much. But that is what God gave me. I will make sure I get the best out of it.”
Gonzalez played rookie ball for Johnson City and moved up to short-season State College to conclude his professional debut.
He returned to State College in 2017 and hit .305 with a 15-game hitting streak and a league-best 42 RBI.
That is when Gonzalez put himself on the prospect map.
After breaking camp with full-season Peoria in 2018, he slashed .311/.357/.458 over 107 games en route to both midseason and postseason Midwest League All-Star honors.
His 2018 manager Chris Swauger said the consistency in which he played stood out the most in his game.
“(Elehuris) Montero was MVP of the league and clearly our team,” Swauger said. “If you want to actually define a valuable player, Yariel was right up there because of all the roles he played on our team as far as the positions he played and he hit in the middle of our lineup and produced the entire season.”
Gonzalez attributed his success to always playing with a killer-mentality.
“I was hungry,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted more. I wanted to get out of there. I felt like I wasn’t right for that league. I was like, ‘Man, I should be somewhere else.’ I got to kill here. I need something that will help me move on.
“Great team. Great coach. Everything was perfect for playing ball.”
Returning home again
Puerto Rico is healing its wounds thanks in large part to the role baseball has played.
Gonzalez said one of the happiest moments for the country was when Major League Baseball announced the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins would play a two-game series at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, last April.
To cap it off, native son Francisco Lindor hit a dramatic home run to create what was one of the lasting images of the 2018 season.
“That is something we all dream about,” Gonzalez said. “That is something any baseball player would dream about.”
For the past three off-seasons, Gonzalez has returned home to play in the Puerto Rican Winter League.
Gonzalez hit .294 and recorded a homer and 23 RBIs in 32 games for the Indios de Mayaguez this past offseason.
His performance earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors, an award for which Gonzalez took great pride.
“You play there for love,” Gonzalez said. “The people who are expecting you to be in the bigs are watching you and crying with you – doing everything for you. It is really important for us. It teaches you a lot. You play with big-leaguers. You are playing with people who have 10 years’ experience or more.
“It teaches you a lot about baseball.”
Continuing to prove his worth
Gonzalez, 25, is older as a prospect in the eyes of scouts, but evaluators like his upside with the bat and versatility.
He has spent time at six different positions in professional baseball, including first base, second base, third base, right field, left field and shortstop.
Now in his fourth year with the Cardinals organization, Gonzalez admits his journey through the system has been hard.
“I’ve been doing everything I can,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve been doing everything they asked me for. They want me to play everywhere. I did it. They wanted me to do some other stuff and I did it.
“What can I tell you? It’s been fun, but at the same time, it’s been pretty hard. I’ve had to hit a lot (to keep moving up). I don’t know what to do to keep going higher because I feel like I’m old enough to keep going and I’m still here.
“It’s been fun. I’ve learned a lot and met a lot of people who have taught me a lot.”
He faced another challenge to open this year in the Florida State League, a league known to suppress offense.
“Everything is difficult down there,” Gonzalez said. “The weather is hot. Really hot. The fields aren’t great. You can hit the ball hard and deep it is not going to go anywhere. It teaches you. Every league, you have to take the best out of it. You can’t frustrate yourself and be like, ‘Oh, I can’t hit. No, you can hit. Try and find ways to get better.’
“Hit the ball on the ground or line drives. Just change something and try to get used to that league.”
Gonzalez kept grinding.
After hitting .260 in 57 games for High-A Palm Beach, he moved up to Double-A Springfield on June 9. Six days later, Triple-A Memphis came calling due to injuries.
Gonzalez spent a week at Triple-A before being sent back to Springfield on June 24. Since that time, he’s been one of the hottest hitters in not only the Texas League, but the Cardinals system.
Gonzalez said he has been working with hitting coach Brandon Allen on settling and calming himself down at the plate.
That has paid immediate dividends. In July, he is slashing .352/.400/.568 with five homers and 25 RBIs through 23 games.
Manager Joe Kruzel uses one word to summarize his three-hole hitter.
“Consistency,” Kruzel said. “He has been able to go up there and maintain his plan and approach. He stays within himself. He has put himself into a good hitting position and giving himself a good chance to put a good swing. He has had some really positive results with that.”
It also helps that Gonzalez doesn’t have to worry about playing a different position every day. In Elehuris Montero’s absence, he has primarily played third base, a position he has played all his life.
“Whenever I got to the Cardinals, they asked me to play everything; because that was my only chance to stay here, so I did it,” Gonzalez said. “I was like, ‘Man, I want to play ball.’ I’ll do it. I’m not mad at it. I’m happy I get the opportunity to play everywhere and learn how to play everything because that opens a lot of doors.
“Now, I’m back at my corner. That is what I love. That is the place I like to be. Again, if someday they ask me to go to the outfield because that opens doors for me, I’m more than happy to do it.”
At the same time, Gonzalez has set both short-term and long-term goals going forward.
“I’m trying to move up,” Gonzalez said. “I’m trying to keep going for my goal. All my life I just want to get to the bigs. I’m pretty sure that is every player’s goal. If I stay (at Springfield), I just want to get a championship. I want a ring. I want to celebrate with my boys and have a great time.
“That is all that matters right now.”
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