ATLANTA – Ronald Acuña Jr. really didn’t have a choice.
In the extended Acuña family, which includes the Escobars, baseball is king.
It’s what that family is known for. It’s what they play in their free time. It builds unbreakable bonds. The sport is passed down from generation to generation among the Venezuela natives, from father to sons, and cousins to cousins.
In his younger days, even as Acuña Jr. enjoyed playing basketball, there was no point in resisting. When baseball is in your blood, that’s what you’re drawn to.
His father played in the minors, and he always wanted to watch or participate when his older cousins like Kelvim Escobar and Alcides Escobar played in Venezuela.
He wanted to be like them someday.
“I loved watching them play,” Acuña Jr. told Yahoo Sports through Atlanta Braves’ translator Franco García earlier this week. “It was a real treat whenever my cousins took me out. I was constantly pleading with them to go along and watch them.”
Being raised in a baseball family has created a special bond for Acuña Jr. and his relatives, and helped the 21-year-old become the best player from the group.
Having learned from his father and cousins, Acuña Jr. is now one of the premier players in Major League Baseball, a 30-30 threat who already has 35 homers in his second season with the Braves. There are only a handful of position players better than Acuña Jr., who signed a $100 million extension this April.
“Just one of those things that’s special,” Acuña Jr. said about his family’s baseball roots. “My father and all my friends and cousins, it’s something we share. I feel fundamentally proud to be where I am and hopefully we’ll have more.”
Acuña Jr. from long line of baseball players
The Acuña and Escobar families are well known in Venezuela and the United States for producing strong baseball players with Ronald Acuña Sr., the father of Acuña Jr., estimating that the families have more than a baker’s dozen worth of players.
Acuña Sr., an outfielder like his son, played in the minors for eight seasons from 1999-2006, mostly with the New York Mets.
The Escobar lineage includes Kelvim, Alcides, Edwin, and Jose, all of whom have played in the majors with Alcides and Kelvin enjoying the most success.
Kelvim won 101 games with the Toronto Blue Jays and Angels in his 12-year career, and Alcides helped the Royals win the World Series in 2015. Vicente Campos, released by the Pittsburgh Pirates in June, is also part of the family.
“I think about that, it’s almost all of my family,” Acuña Sr. told Yahoo Sports. “It was like you gotta play too.”
Acuña Sr. estimated that his son first developed a love for the sport at the age of five, and his son’s love grew as he watched his father and cousins play. Most of the extended family played in the Venezuelan Winter League, and Acuña Jr. tagged along to watch his father and others, spending time in the dugout. Acuña Jr. had a particular affection for Kelvim and Alcides.
“He watched them on television and wanted to be like them,” Acuña Sr. said.
Those two also looked out for their young career.
Alcides once invited the Acuña family to Arizona for spring training, a moment that Acuña Sr. said his son could not stop talking about for a long time. Kelvim also brought Acuña Jr. to Yankee Stadium when the Angels visited the Bronx in the mid-2000s. Visiting the old Yankee Stadium carried extra significance since the Yankees are the most popular team in the town of La Sabana.
Acuna Jr. got to see what it would be like to be a major leaguer, and envision the possibility of one day playing in front of a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium.
Last season, in his first series in the Bronx, Acuña Jr. hit a game-winning homer.
“That [visit] was really something special,” Acuña Jr. said.
As Acuña Jr. leaves his mark and cements his place among the game’s elite, he’s not the last ballplayer from the Acuña-Escobar tree.
Acuña Jr. has three younger brothers, and one of the three, Luisangel, is a shortstop in the Texas Rangers system and playing well in the Dominican Summer League.
“Hopefully there’s a lot more cousins on the way,” Acuña Jr. said. “A lot of guys in La Sabana have talent. Hopefully we’ll see more and more in the big leagues.”
Learning from his father
As Acuña Jr.’s love for baseball grew, his father’s chances at the majors ended in 2006 when he played his last season with Double-A Huntsville. The elder Acuña played a few more seasons in the Venezuelan Winter League and one year in independent baseball before retiring in 2010.
“Only thing I didn’t do well,” Acuña Sr. said, “is that I didn’t hit too many bombs.”
Those eight years in the minors and his time playing in Venezuela provided Acuña Sr. with critical information to pass along to his son when he started taking the steps toward trying to become a major leaguer like his cousins. He knows how hard it is to make it to the majors, and his son could learn from some of his mistakes.
While Acuña Jr. didn’t stand out in his early teenage years since he lacked power due to his skinny frame, it eventually clicked. His father estimated that by the time he turned 14, Acuña Jr. emerged as a prospect to watch.
Acuña Jr. ultimately signed with the Braves for $100,000, a modest figure compared to the multi-million sums that some international prospects sign for. The Yankees spent more than $5 million this summer to land an international free agent.
His father gave him simple yet effective advice that still resonates with him today.
Run hard. Play hard. Never quit. Always give your best.
Whether you’re 0 for 4 or going for the cycle, don’t let it affect your tenacity.
“Stay humble, and work hard every day no matter what happens,” Acuña Jr. said. “Don’t be discouraged by what anyone tells you.”
The father and son talked religiously during Acuña Jr.’s days in the minors, and in 2017, Acuña Jr. left a Florida State League game knowing his son could be a star.
“When I see him over there, I said ‘he’s going to be like Miguel Cabrera in the big leagues,’” Acuña Sr. said. “He’s killing the ball.”
Acuña Jr. is just getting started
Acuña Jr. certainly looks like he can follow in the footsteps of his fellow countryman and become a perennial MVP candidate like Cabrera.
The Braves phenom is a five-tool player, and seemingly lacks weaknesses. He put almost all of those tools on display in this past three-game series against the Mets and appears poised to terrorize the NL East for the next decade.
While his father may not have hit for power, Acuña Jr. is on pace for 40-plus homers after hitting one Tuesday and Thursday.
Acuña Sr. credited his son’s power to his workouts since he knows that was one gene that was not passed down to him.
With one more steal, Acuña Jr. will become the second player ever to produce a 30-30 season before his 22nd birthday.
“He’s a good hitter. He has some spots where you can pitch him but if you make mistakes he’s going to hit. That’s what good hitters do. They hit mistakes and make you pay for them. He’s a tough hitter,” said Mets starter Zack Wheeler, who allowed a solo homer to Acuña Jr. on Tuesday. “Sometimes guys have sophomore slumps. He’s not having that at all. It’s pretty impressive what he’s doing.”
Acuña’s defensive play is also turning heads this season.
He made two fantastic defensive plays against the Mets, throwing out a runner in the plate Tuesday and making a jaw-dropping catch Thursday to rob a homer.
His coaches marvel at how Acuña has continued to develop which they credit to his work ethic. He puts in the time to get better at his craft.
“He’s blessed with talent. ...It’s not like it’s just happening. He works at it. He’s a special kid,” said Braves third base coach Ron Washington. “Every day he does something that leaves you saying, ‘Jesus, that’s unbelievable.’”
Braves manager Brian Snitker believes it helps Acuña Jr. to have a father who played professionally.
“You look at the young major leaguers that are in the game now, kids whose father were big leaguers,” Snitker said while alluding to Toronto’s second-generation prospects. “They get a hold and understand things a lot quicker than other guys.”
Acuña Jr. made his first All-Star Game this year, and his father tagged along to watch him play and participate in the Home Run Derby. Those memories will last a lifetime.
“I was just so happy,” Acuña Sr. said.
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