DUNEDIN, Fla. – Irene Arencibia’s voice was taut, her tone suspicious.
“How do I know you’re who you say you are?” she demanded.
A stranger was on the phone, had called her number, was asking questions about her boy, J.P., the next big thing with the Toronto Blue Jays, a catcher being handed the starting job.
“I’m very protective of my son,” she said, at once firm and apologetic. “I hope you understand.”
She excused herself from the phone, hung up, called her boy – whom she alternately calls J.P. or Jonathan (his middle name is Paul) – interrupted his day of fishing, confirmed that he had indeed given her number to a reporter, told him she loved him, hung up, and then returned the original call.
“I don’t know who I can trust,” she said. “I hope you understand.”
She’d raised J.P. and his older sister, also Irene, mostly on her own since the boy was 8, running him all over Miami, all over Florida and beyond, tending to his ambition. He’d left behind the toys of regular children before kindergarten, she said, for a ball and a bat, when he already was taller than the rest. He took to football and basketball, too, and while he was adept at those sports, Irene knew her J.P. was a ballplayer, a catcher, the way a mother knows these things.
“I was a nervous wreck every time he was on the football field,” she said. “The baseball coach and I would sit together and cringe.”
They lived in a neighborhood in Southwest Miami called Westwood Lakes, in a house that backed up to the home of Irene’s parents, who had emigrated from Cuba when their daughter was but 2. J.P. attended Westminster Christian, the high school that produced Alex Rodriguez(notes) and Doug Mientkiewicz(notes), and on special days would return from practice to grandma Julia’s baked chicken, his favorite.
He played for the highly regarded 18-and-under Florida Bombers (Mat Latos(notes), Gaby Sanchez(notes), Yonder Alonso(notes), Jon Jay(notes)), attended Tennessee with the likes of Chase Headley(notes), Luke Hochevar(notes) and Julio Borbon(notes), and played two summers for the USA Baseball National Team, in 2006 winning team gold and the individual MVP at the World University Championship in Havana. The Blue Jays drafted him in the first round in 2007, 20 picks behind David Price(notes), a teammate the summer before in Cuba.
Arencibia’s mother held a high-end management position in health care for more than two decades, then switched to real estate when the baseball scouts began to outnumber the fans at J.P.’s ballgames. The new work brought time and financial flexibility, and when J.P. traveled she often did, too.
“Imagine,” she said, “living with them their most treasured dream. Jonathan, as he was growing up, it’s scary to see a child with the passion for something specific, like Jonathan had. He was always driven and always knew. As a parent, you sit back and pray nothing will prevent him from reaching this passion. Anything can happen, but he was fearless.”
Soaked in sweat from six innings behind the plate against the Philadelphia Phillies, and still with work to do nine hours after arriving at the old ballpark at Douglas and Beltrees in Dunedin, J.P. is a mere few weeks from steady work in what his mom casually calls, “The bigs.”
“She’s a big part of my life,” he says. “She was doing everything she could do to keep me playing baseball. Sometimes it was hard, too, because she always wanted things done right and I was always hard on myself. I want to be perfect at it. And it’s a process.”
On a random day early last August, J.P. had called her. It was a Thursday.
“Mom,” he said, “I was called up to the big leagues. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Oh my God!” she shouted. “Tell me about it. When are you playing?”
“I don’t know.”
Hours later, her phone rang again. He was in Toronto.
“I bought you airline tickets. I want you here.”
He would start Saturday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays. He’d bat ninth and catch Jays left-hander Brad Mills(notes). She would stay in the hotel that overlooks Rogers Centre, and sit in the family section behind home plate, where moms with catchers prefer.
As J.P.’s batting turn approached, she prayed, asking that he be taken care of, that he feel strong, and maybe for a hit. She thought of her own mother, who had passed away when J.P. was at Tennessee, and she smiled to herself when she noticed a flag dangling from one of the windows of the hotel – a large orange T. She took a picture of it.
J.P. came to the plate in the second inning. On the first pitch from James Shields(notes), J.P. homered to left field. In his next at-bat, he doubled. In the next, he singled. And then he homered again.
“It was like mom in heaven must have been so thrilled,” Irene said.
There were curtain calls, and roars she’d never heard before, and when it was over he untucked his jersey and called her down to the field, where they hugged.
“You made it,” she whispered to him. “You made it. Your grandmother is blessing you from heaven.”
In the clubhouse, teammates asked J.P. to dinner for a night of celebration.
“No thanks,” he said. “I want to go out with my mom.”
They went to a steakhouse where the televisions on the walls were obsessed with the rookie catcher’s debut. The catcher himself looked away, trying not to stare.
“I was on cloud nine,” she said. “Any difficult times, the sacrifices we all made, God had paid me back.”
J.P. Arencibia(notes) turned 25 in January, not two months after veteran catcher John Buck(notes) left the Blue Jays to sign with the Florida Marlins. The job, then, was Arencibia’s, after four minor league seasons, the last two in Triple A, and despite the fact that he was 1 for 30 with Toronto after the memorable debut.
He hit 53 home runs over two seasons in Las Vegas, and batted .301 in 2010, when he was the Pacific Coast League MVP. Scouts viewed him as an offensive force who would need to cover some ground defensively, and that is why Arencibia is obsessed with leading a Blue Jays pitching staff that in a year lost to trades Roy Halladay(notes) and Shaun Marcum(notes), so will be young and vulnerable in the buzz saw that is the AL East.
“This is his time,” said John Farrell, the new manager of the Blue Jays.
So it is. With veteran reserve Jose Molina(notes) as his mentor, Farrell as his conscience and bench coach Don Wakamatsu as his guide, Arencibia has a staff to learn, a season to play, a career to earn.
“I am definitely ready,” he says. “I’ve been ready.”
And so is mom. She has her tickets for Opening Day, April 1 in Toronto, Blue Jays against the Minnesota Twins.
She’ll be sitting behind the catcher.
“I pray to mom,” she said, “to guide him never to change.”