LOS ANGELES — Julio Urias was maybe 15 years old and a skilled player, strong and savvy enough to pitch up a level or two in tiny La Higuerita, which sat astride the road that ran from Culiacan to Mexico’s western coast. The public ballpark there had all but raised Julio, as it had his father and his father’s father, as La Higuerita rewarded spirit and dedication and an unwillingness to take a step back, just as the rest of the world did, for at least as far as that long and skinny road might go.
This is to say the lessons there were not limited to the bat-on-ball, the win-or-lose, kind. They were, however, plain to see and, in some cases, binding, at least until the next came along. Sometimes they took another summer or two or longer. Others, they arrived in the time it took for the next boy — or man — to drag a bat to home plate.
So, Julio, the kid lefty, son of Carlos, grandson of Julian, was on that mound one afternoon, up there and still maybe not as tall as some of those older boys and grown-ups around him, near the end of a tournament that asked how good, not how old. He threw a fastball and one of the boys whose chest was thick and voice was deep hit that fastball over the left-field fence. What came next, before the echo of that home run had dissolved, another of those square-jawed hitters kicking out a toe hold, would measure the kid lefty, son of that ballpark.
The catcher asked for another fastball, asked the boy not to scare, asked him to stand out in front of everyone in that ballpark and in that town and himself and fight. Julio shook his head, no. Curveball, he wanted. The catcher winced. Asked again for the fastball. Julio insisted, no. The catcher stood and clumped to the mound. The catcher was Julio’s father.
“I wanted him to be brave,” Carlos Urias said, seven years later.
Carlos could not throw the pitch for his son. He would not. He could only tip his mask to his forehead and honor the ballpark, the game, and the unsubtle maintenance required in raising a boy at it, in it. There’d been a day on that very field when a lineup for the home team had Carlos at catcher, Julio at first base and Julian at pitcher, three generations bound by the ballpark down the road. Before that, there’d been countless days in which the adults had been boys themselves, sorting the wins from the losses, the precision from the dumb luck, the brave from the unsure.
“When he was a kid,” Carlos said, “I pitched him against older kids, a level up. I wanted him to not be intimidated by these kids, even though they were bigger. It was always about pitching inside and making his pitches and just never being afraid.”
Fastball, he told his boy. Fastball here. Show him. Show them all.
Carlos stood this week near the home dugout at Dodger Stadium. He’d come to see Julio’s first start of 2019 for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Julio isn’t a boy any longer, isn’t the teenager with an instinct for the game that would seem uncommon if you didn’t know about the little ballpark in La Higuerita, and still Carlos said goodbye to his son with a kiss on the cheek. Julio is 22, going on three years since his major league debut. His shoulder required surgery in 2017, in spite of the Dodgers’ annual efforts to protect him against imprudent innings. He threw all of 23 innings in 2018, including the minor leagues, including the postseason. He is in the starting rotation today because Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill are not, and in five innings against the San Francisco Giants on Monday he had seven strikeouts and gave up three hits and no runs. His fastball was 95 mph and lively.
And so a career that began early, or appeared to begin early, is beginning again, and a special arm is being played back into strength and resilience and dependability. Meantime, any of the growing up that was required when he arrived has come in the shadows of a veteran clubhouse, of winning seasons, of long, hard Octobers, of a rehab schedule that was both daunting and tedious, another long and skinny road to travel.
“You miss that competition,” Julio said. “Especially as a pitcher. Aside from winning and losing, you just want to compete. … You go to sleep thinking about it. You wake up thinking about it. This is our life, our passion. Not having it is like missing half of yourself.”
Now, he said, “Because all the time rehabbing, it’s like starting from zero. The experience, pitching in the big leagues, definitely helped. And debuting so young definitely helped, too, to be where I am. … I’m not going to lie, it’s not quite like I feel like a veteran, but almost. Because it’s been four spring trainings. It’s been three years in this clubhouse with these guys and I’ve felt a lot more comfortable. What’s left is a mentality of not trying to do things to meet expectations, not trying to do too much, not trying to do too little, but just trying to do the best that I can.”
He is likely headed back to the bullpen, from where he pitched last season, as the delicate process of adding innings, along with days since the surgery, continues. It is enough, today, to have come this far, to dirty-up a uniform, to chase those big fastballs with sliders, with changeups, with, yes, the curveballs that once felt like his salvation.
Carlos was here to see the progress in person, saving Julio the nightly phone calls home for a week or so. When Julio pitches they talk about what worked, what didn’t, kicking around mechanics and decisions with his old catcher, with the man who put a ball in his hand, with the dad who traveled to Sinaloa and beyond as a power-hitting catcher. He left that life when Julio was born, returning to raise his boy, earning rent and food money as a janitor at the local elementary school. The sturdy and quiet little kid with the droopy eye, a La Higuerita baseball blue blood, began to tell his father and mother, Juana, and grandfather of his plans to be a major leaguer, and he almost certainly believed it before they did. That life would take him far beyond the end of the long and skinny road, away from the little ballpark where his grandfather, at 69, still pitches a few innings at a time, from the town where his father trains the next generation of ballplayers, as he has for going on two decades.
And so there would be choices. There would be goodbyes. There would be lessons, some of them painful. There would be stand-offs between equal forces of pride and fear, stubbornness and surrender. When you are raised at a ballpark, when you’ve stood shoulder-to-belt-buckle in the same uniform as your dad and his, when the scoreboard is the story but not all of it, the choice in the moment may be no bigger than fastball or curveball. The consequences, though, you’d have to get out on that road to find out about those.
Julio, you should know, threw a fastball. Could’ve blown that kid away. Could’ve flown over the fence. Nobody could remember exactly.
Because it didn’t matter.
“Then,” Carlos said, gesturing toward the Dodger Stadium outfield, “he gets to this level and everybody here is big. So I think maybe it did work, because he has that in his head, that he won’t be intimidated.”
There’d be other fastballs. Bigger fastballs, maybe, called by other men, in bigger parks and in bigger towns. But thrown with the same honest intention, born in a place where the catcher has a game to win, but first a son to raise.
“It’s important,” Julio said, “because it taught me confidence, not only in baseball but in life. Sometimes it was going away for three months to be on a national team. It was that that helped me get over the hard times. It’s the way they raised me and the way that I think I’m going to raise my kids whenever I have them.”
It’s a funny thing about that, too. In the little park in the little town, the little boy who could really play was forever known as Carlos’ kid. Anymore, the old catcher has become known as Julio’s dad. It’s how life goes, of course, and about the best part of being a father. And then, if you were to have come upon a particular baseball field along a road outside Culiacan on a particular winter afternoon, you’d have found Julio Urias sitting behind a chain-link fence, and Carlos Urias standing in the batter’s box, getting a fastball, putting a perfect swing on it, homering, catching his son’s eye.
“He celebrated,” Carlos said, “like he was my son again.”
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