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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — They’ll tell you the kid is shy and not at all like the man you see out there, when he’s puffed up and pounding his chest and pointing to the sky, when the stadium comes to life with him. They’ll tell you you’d hardly know he was there until the game starts, unless Ozzie gets him going on something, but otherwise you’d swear his heart barely beats at all. Raised in a village on the Caribbean Sea, the son of a ballplayer, they’ll say he minds his business and his volume, maybe not because he knows his place, but because he knows himself, rare awareness for a kid, a man, who set the baseball world ablaze last summer, when he was 20.
Then he’s sitting in a locker, not his but previously someone else’s and now abandoned, a casualty of spring, happy to sit and talk, if not forever. His translator is a nice gentleman named Franco. He smiles and introduces Ronald Acuña Jr., who then does not appear impressed by your clumsy attempts at cómo estás and mucho gusto, but is willing to sit through them.
He does seem bemused.
“Very good,” he answers to how he is and “Good” to how his winter went and “Too far” to what Japan was like, that being where he and other major leaguers played a series last November. After just enough small talk, Ronald and Franco have a short exchange and Franco reports, “We’re debating if these are the interview questions or not,” which is funny.
Because what I really want to know is what he’s like, what makes him laugh, what drives his curiosity, what inspires him, what inside him turned a 20-year-old into a big leaguer, and before that took a player who signed for $100,000 and not four years later had folks wondering if, besides maybe Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, there was anyone better. How many have covered that sort of ground? And how?
“I asked him that last year,” Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “When I met him the first time, I asked the exact same question: How did the scouting industry miss on you? He signed for $100,000. He wasn’t a top July 2 [International signing day] two-, three-, four-million-dollar guy. I said did you just develop late, did your skills develop late? He said, ‘No, I’ve always been a good player.’”
Anthopoulos loved that.
“He didn’t say it in an arrogant way,” he said. “Maybe he’s not that big a guy, he’s 6-foot. You talk to some people in the organization and they’d say when he was in the Gulf Coast League, in extended [spring], you could see the talent then. I think partly it was, he didn’t get a big bonus at the time, so maybe the expectations weren’t there. I mean, really, at 19 years old, he exploded. So, he still came on pretty quick.”
Charlie Culberson, the utilityman who’s been around and seen some things, said he determined early on the world would soon want a piece of young Ronald Acuña Jr. And so what would become important were the people around him who didn’t, the people like Ozzie Albies and Freddie Freeman and, say, Culberson, people like his parents and brothers, people who’d know precisely how he got $100,000 to sign as a boy and four years later was playing as a man, who might not be so amazed at all.
“Sometimes,” Culberson said, “it’s nice to be just a friend. A teammate. I don’t want anything from you.”
Besides, he said, “He’s really good.”
On a muggy Monday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Acuña would hit a fastball off the scoreboard in left-center field and in his next at-bat get the same pitch in a similar location and line that into right field. So you’d maybe consider that it’s a gift, some sort of confluence of his dad’s tools and his town’s belief in him and a game at every corner, and then he reminds you it’s one thing to swing hard in case you hit it and something entirely different to wait, wait, wait and lash that ball past the first baseman.
“Shooting that ball to right, that’s tough to do,” Braves bench coach Walt Weiss would say. “Shows you he’s not trying to just catch a ball out front and hit it far. [But] he’s never going to be an all-or-nothing guy. He’s going to be a good hitter, too.”
He batted .293 and hit 26 home runs in 111 games last season when there were no holes in what he did, not on the road, not against righties, not with runners in scoring position and not down the stretch. He simply hit and defended and stole 16 bases and, when the Braves came upon the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League division series, drove in half their runs of the series with a grand slam in Game 3. Which only leaves the next task, which is to do it again, maybe to do it better.
So, sitting in that empty locker, he considers the year that’s been, the one that got him to here, from tiny La Sabana, Venezuela, to a place that looks an awful lot like big-league stardom, from the words of his father -- “Baseball is meant to be played the way it was intended to be played,” he recalls -- to another fresh start, to .000.
“Confidence, I would say is one of the biggest things,” he says. “Obviously I always felt confident, but in the minor leagues it’s a different thing. To be up here in the big leagues and have the confidence, and the experience to go along with it, has been the thing that’s changed the most the past year.”
And his father, an outfielder who never quite made it, he is satisfied.
“Thanks to God, yes,” Ronald says.
And then you’ll learn a little about Ronald Acuña Jr., about the boy he was and the man he’s become, about where he left and how he got here, about what is important to him, because then he laughed.
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