During the current World Baseball Classic mania, Team Netherlands has become the surprise poster child for countries who may not be associated with the words “baseball power” but whose players — young and not-so-young — have been getting the job done in a big way.
Honduras has a long way to go before it can compete in an international tournament of this caliber. But if it was represented, its own poster child, Atlanta Braves left-hander Mariano Gomez, surely would be a central part of the team.
The 26-year-old, who signed with the Braves in the offseason as a Minor League free agent, was born and raised in San Pedro Sula in Honduras — a Central American country of more than 7 million and bordered by Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Honduras, like its Central American counterparts but unlike many other Latin American countries, has never been a baseball hotbed. In fact, only one Major Leaguer has been born in Honduras: outfielder Gerald Young, who played eight seasons with the Astros, Rockies and Cardinals.
The distinction there, however, is that while Young was born in Honduras, he was raised in California and drafted out of high school in 1982. Gomez, on the other hand, is actually Honduran. Think of the distinction along the lines of players who were born in, say Germany or Japan, because they had parents who were in the military and based overseas.
“He was born there because Honduras had a lot of banana-growing companies with a lot of Americans working there,” Gomez explained, and it should be noted that Young was born in tiny Tela, the home of the Chiquita Banana plant. “So we all know that he was the only player from Honduras to make it to the big leagues, but he was only really ‘Honduran-born.'”
Growing up in Honduras, baseball wasn’t the sport of choice for most young athletes, so it’s no surprise that the lanky Gomez played soccer with his friends. But when his cousin, who had moved to Texas, came home with bats, balls and other baseball equipment, he was a quick convert.
“He brought baseball back to his family whenever he came home on vacation, so me and my other cousins started playing,” Gomez recalled. “Every time we’d go to the soccer field, we’d start by playing soccer, but we’d finish playing baseball.”
It came so naturally to Gomez that by the time he was 17, he’d caught the eye of a Cleveland Indians scout who signed the lanky lefty to a contract in 1999. He spent eight seasons working his way through the Indians system, a move that started quickly but sputtered somewhat in 2003 when, while at Advanced A Kinston, he experienced pain in the middle finger of his throwing hand.
It took awhile before the injury was properly diagnosed, since it was a ligament injury almost unheard of in baseball (though, oddly enough, not uncommon among rock climbers). It limited Gomez to a handful of games in 2004, his first Double-A season, and eventually see him move from the rotation to the bullpen.
He spent the next three seasons bouncing back and forth between Kinston and Double-A Akron before eventually signing with the Minnesota Twins as a free agent for the 2008 season.
His Triple-A debut with the Twins’ Rochester affiliate was an impressive one as he posted a 2.76 ERA out of the Red Wings’ bullpen. And when he went into another offseason as a Minor League free agent, his agent had interest from 17 different organizations.
“Going to the Twins was an awesome experience, but I was disappointed when I didn’t get a callup, so I just asked my agent to try to find an organization that might need a lefty reliever,” said Gomez, who is still waiting to make his big league debut. “But when the time came and he had 17 teams interested, it was just too much information for me. So I asked him to pick the five best offers and explain to me why he’d chosen each one.”
After they went over the list together, the Braves stood out to him as the best opportunity. The fact that they were one of the teams he’d watched on TV growing up helped seal the deal in his mind.
And in his time as a non-roster invitee, before being reassigned to Minor League camp Sunday, Gomez may have helped seal the deal for his future as well, striking out three over four hitless innings in four games.
“I’m just trying to make a good impression because when you go to a new organization, that’s the most important thing,” he said. “I don’t want (Braves manager) Bobby (Cox) to have to think twice down the line if he needs a lefty.”
In the meantime, Gomez spends as much time as he can back home in the hopes that someday there will be more young Honduran kids who dream of a baseball career.
“I spent my offseasons at home there, working with the kids,” he said, “and hoping I can be a role model for them.”
There may already be one prospect in the making.
“I have a 16-year-old cousin named Orlando Castro, a left-handed pitcher,” Gomez said. “He has a tryout in the next few weeks and he’s going to be better than I am.”
MLB: Of what accomplishment, on or off the field, in your life are you the proudest?
Mariano Gomez: I think being a father is the greatest thing to ever happen to me. Watching my son, Mariano Andres, being born. I’m proud to be a great father. (The couple just learned they will welcome a second child this fall).
MLB: What do you think you’d be doing now if you weren’t playing baseball?
MG: My father owns a company selling pipes back home, so I guess I’d be working with my dad and maybe managing the company.
MLB: Everyone has a “hidden talent.” What’s yours?
MG: I love to fix my car. I’m no mechanic but love to get my hands dirty with the mechanics. Every offseason I go to this shop and spend hours with them.
MLB: Complete this sentence: It would surprise people to know that I …
MG: … Like to watch Spanish soap operas in my off time.
MLB: What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
MG: Carrying pipes. I was a driver and would drop off the pipes at the manufacturers. But it was my first time driving, so I was always nervous.
MLB: If you could trade places with one person for a day who would it be and why?
MG: I like to cook, so I’d trade places with a chef.
MLB: Which aspect of life in the Minors do you find to be the biggest challenge and why?
MG: I think it’s moving out and living by yourself when you’re 16 … paying your own bills, being away from your family. You don’t make enough money to have money to send home. But the hardest part is being away from your family. I didn’t speak English very well and I’d come to places and couldn’t order food. I’d have to go to places that had the pictures of food on the menu so I could point at what I wanted.
MLB: Who is the most unusual character you’ve met in your pro baseball career?
MG: (Indians pitcher) Fausto Carmona. When the game starts he’s always the hardest competing guy, but when we’re off the field he’s the best guy ever to be around. He’s always happy and looks like he doesn’t have a worry in the world. I’ve really liked the time I’ve spent with Fausto in the Minors.