By Jose M. Romero / @RomeroJoseM
For FOX Deportes
Elian Herrera had a lot to smile about when I approached him after his Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-1 on July 5.
The Dominican Republic native hit his first major-league home run, and was so excited he practically sprinted around the bases at Phoenix’s Chase Field. When the game was over, Herrera stood by his locker in the visiting clubhouse, beaming.
I’d spoken with Herrera before the game. I asked him where the ball from the home run was. He showed it to me. I asked him how he was able to get it from the fan in the first row of left-field seats who came up with the ball after it flew out of the reach of Diamondbacks left fielder Jason Kubel’s glove. He told me he’d traded a signed bat for the ball.
I told him I should talk to him before games every day, if he was going to hit homers after we spoke. He joyfully let my self-serving joke slide, saying “Yeah, maybe!” while laughing.
Even if you aren’t a Dodger fan, it’s hard not to pull for a guy like Herrera. He’s 27 years old, and only this year made his major-league debut. He was signed at 18 and spent the next three years in the Dominican playing baseball, working with his father and going to school.
Most guys that age in the D.R. who have the ability are busting their hump day in and day out, all baseball, all the time, trying to hit and field and throw their way off the island to the U.S. or Japan. Herrera wanted that, too, he just went about it a different way.
After signing in 2003, he spent the next three years at the Dodgers’ Dominican baseball academy before finally getting his shot in the U.S. in 2006. What followed was six years of working his way through the Dodgers system, his ability to play multiple outfield and infield positions and hit for a good average keeping him around.
This year, Herrera wasn’t even in major-league camp during Dodgers spring training. But when an injury to third baseman Juan Uribe opened up a spot for a callup, the Dodgers chose Herrera from Class AAA Albuquerque, and he made his big-league debut on May 15.
“I was working hard, and the opportunity presented itself,” Herrera said in Spanish. “I was having a good year. It was a blessing, what can I say?
“It’s been a long and difficult journey, but thank God I got the opportunity to achieve my dream. I never quit,” Herrera added. “I always had the desire to get here. I played hard and I gave it my best every season.”
Herrera started out on a hitting tear, but after a 3-for-4 day on June 17, when his batting average was .305 to end the day, he went into a slump that has dipped his average to .247 as of July 6. That hasn’t stopped Dodgers manager Don Mattingly from playing Herrera, however, even if out of necessity.
“We’ve been able to play him everywhere. We’ve been able to hit him all around the lineup,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of Herrera, who made two fine catches of sinking line drives in left field Thursday to keep the Dodgers in front. “Seems like left field is his most comfortable spot.”
Herrera has played all outfield positions plus third base, second base and shortstop, where he could see more time now that the Dodgers have lost Dee Gordon for six weeks due to injury and surgery.
“This game and hitting isn’t easy,” Herrera said. “My average has gone down significantly but maybe it’s the pitchers. The coaches are working with me and helping me. I’m sure I’ll get through it. I’ve had a bad streak, but I’m feeling better all the time at bat and I’m not letting it get to me.”
Herrera hails from a town baseball fans should know well – San Pedro de Macoris. It’s the home of dozens of ball players who went on to play in the majors, including George Bell, Johnny Cueto, Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano and Sammy Sosa. Herrera was big fan of Sosa growing up.
“It’s the only thing we do. There’s no other game,” Herrera said of the baseball tradition of his hometown. “To take care of our families for the future, it’s really the only way we have. On every street and every place we go, you can find a radio (with a game on) and a little league. The whole world there plays baseball. We fight to get here to the big leagues and it deserves respect.”