GLENDALE, Ariz. – When Julio Urias was 14, so five years ago, he pitched in an amateur league in his native Culiacan, in Mexico. The league was open to anyone skilled enough to play, which meant the first baseman could be a cop and the left fielder could be the butcher and the catcher could be, well, your father.
The same guy who handed you your first baseball and then taught you how to grip it and throw it and spin it, who handed you your first baseball and so gave you your passion.
Urias on Saturday morning flipped a lacrosse ball from one hand to the other. Back and forth, with a curveball’s snap of his fingers. He’s at least part of the reason the Los Angeles Dodgers weren’t moved to restock their rotation with any of the ready-made aces on the free-agent market this winter. He’s known in some panting corners as the next Fernando Valenzuela, an unassuming and fully confident left-hander from Mexico who could set L.A. baseball afire.
“I have to say,” he said Saturday morning through translator and fellow prospect Jose De Leon, “my goal is to play in the big leagues this year.”
You’d be tempted to say he’s a long way from those fields in Culiacan, from those days his father would nurse him through a lineup of grown men – “Don’t take anybody in that lineup for granted,” his father would say before pulling the mask over his face – except for the fact he’s not. Urias is 19. He won’t be 20 until mid-August. So he stands in a clubhouse of grown men, and then he runs beside them on the fields and shares their bullpen sessions and he aches to become one of them. He is sure his time is coming, at least as sure as they are that he will join them soon enough. The ground left to cover is fogged over with the usual uncertainty. That is, when a young man preternaturally gifted is also emotionally and physically ready for the relentlessness of the game and the life. Maybe soon. Maybe not.
He has thrown 222 1/3 professional innings, 80 1/3 of them over four levels last season. He threw them well enough – big fastball, artful curveball, plain mean changeup – to convince evaluators he’s about the best pitching prospect in the land, all at an age many ballplayers are sweating out their first draft. But what has most convinced Urias can be – will be – special is his relationship with the game’s more complex elements. Indeed, some would say darker elements. Living with massive expectations and fawning scouting reports is at least as hard as repeating a delivery. Being required to be the next Fernando is at least as hard as being the next Fernando.
Urias’ sum reaction to such unrealistic impatience, according to those who see him and coach him and play alongside him, speaks to the grown man inside him. He gets that it’s a hard game. He gets that 13 starts in Double-A can bring a 2.77 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 68 1/3 innings, as they did in 2015, and he gets that two end-season starts in Triple-A can return an 18.69 and hopeless imprecision, as they did in 2015.
“He’s a down-to-earth, humble kid,” said Matt Herges, Urias’ pitching coach in Double-A Tulsa. “It’s so rare for a kid of his stature, too. I mean, the weight of the world is on him. At least the weight of his country. Really, it’s inspiring to me.
“He’s confident, but he’s not too confident. He knows he hasn’t earned this yet.”
Behind Herges not 15 steps, Urias managed a mob of Dodgers fans who’d applauded and waved and called to him in Spanish and English. He laughed with them and signed his name and abided their selfies. These are not generally the spring moments of 19-year-olds with the number 78 on their backs, and regular old big-leaguers were forced to veer around the commotion, but this is where he is going, if not already where he is.
“It’s pretty special,” Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. “He’s setting his goals higher. In his mind it’s a realistic goal for him and that’s good. For me it comes down to him letting his talent play. When he gets here you want him to stay.”
Urias flipped the lacrosse ball to his left hand, then to his right, and back. He carried some of a conversation in English. Occasionally, he’d look to his friend, De Leon, who’d guide him with a word or two. Urias spent time this winter with veteran lefty Oliver Perez, also from Culiacan. They talked about what awaited Urias in the big leagues, what was good enough and what had to get better.
He also helped out his father, Carlos, who coaches young baseball players at an academy in the city. His father, he said, teaches those boys the way he taught his own son, that there is a way to play the game and many ways not to, that they should not take anyone in that lineup for granted, least of all themselves.
“My dad was always on top of me,” Urias said with a smile. “Do this, do this, do this.”
So it was when Carlos would pound his mitt and ask for a fastball from his son, some big ugly guy testing himself against a child who couldn’t possibly belong on that field. But there he was, until one final fastball between a son and his dad.
“I was 14,” Julio said. “I hit him in the knee. From that moment on he didn’t want to catch me anymore.”