How Ryan Aguilar turned a 'heartbreaking' moment into a career revival with Angels

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 26: Ryan Aguilar #39 of the Los Angeles Angels swings against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Angels outfielder Ryan Aguilar swings at a pitch during a win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday. (Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

When outfielder Ryan Aguilar made his big league debut for the Angels on Friday night, he did so as more than just another minor leaguer getting a first chance.

Aguilar, 27, grew up the youngest of three brothers as an Angels fan in a Yorba Linda house from which it was possible to see the top of the Angel Stadium big A.

Ryan’s mother, Kristi, said he “was pretty much born on a baseball field” because siblings Shane and Michael played travel ball.

“Ryan basically was their little gofer boy,” Kristi said, “running around, shagging balls, running the bases, getting the balls for the big brothers, and he just learned the game very, very young.”

He started playing baseball at about 4½ years old. His first team was with Yorba Hills Little League at Bryant Ranch, and he started playing travel ball at a young age.

“I remember when Ryan was going to try out for travel ball,” Kristi said of a 7-year-old Ryan trying out for a team of Little Leaguers around Yorba Linda. “The coach says, 'Well, you know, this is an 8-year-old and older travel ball team.' I said, 'Ryan will be 8 on Sept. 11. Can you give him a chance?' He goes, 'We'll give him a chance, but there's no guarantee.' So Ryan tried out. We weren't even in the driveway and we get a phone call stating, 'We want your son.' ”

Aguilar always seemed undersized compared with his peers, though that never discouraged him or his family.

“His dad and I always told him, ‘Leave your name on the field, you're Ryan Aguilar,’ ” Kristi said of the advice they still give Ryan to this day.

Aguilar played at Esperanza High and Santa Ana College before playing for the University of Arizona. He was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 31st round of the 2016 MLB amateur draft and floated around their minor league system until August 2021, when he was released.

“It was very heartbreaking,” Kristi recalled. “Ryan had a feeling it was coming because of his numbers. … It hit him very hard, and he went through a little bit of a depression because all Ryan has ever done his entire life was play baseball.”

Aguilar didn’t want to talk about his situation when he returned home, so Kristi and her husband, Eric, gave him time and space to come to terms with it.

“He came home after a couple months, and we didn't really mention anything about it,” she said. “We let him think about it on his own and speak with his agent [Matt Gaeta]. His agent just said, 'Ryan, do you love the game?' and Ryan says: 'I do. I still have it in me. I know I can play this game.' ”

Aguilar got to work and planned to play for an independent league, but that’s when the Angels called.

“Ryan came home and says, 'Mom, I'm going to be an Angel,’ ” Kristi said. Still reeling from getting cut by the Brewers, Aguilar didn’t want to celebrate until all the paperwork was signed, which happened days before Christmas.

“Everything just went in place, and now look at him,” his mother said.

The Aguilars were not able to see Ryan make his MLB debut in person in Toronto on Friday. Ryan — who was with the Rocket City Trash Pandas, the Angels' double-A affiliate in Madison, Ala. — was told to join the big league club Tuesday, while the Angels were in Tampa Bay for a series versus the Rays. Kristi and Eric made their way to St. Petersburg, Fla., believing his debut would happen against the Rays.

When he was officially called up Friday, the first day of the Angels' series in Toronto, the Aguilars were shocked. Neither had brought passports with them and furthermore, Kristi’s passport had expired.

Angels outfielders Ryan Aguilar, Mike Trout and Magneuris Sierra celebrate after a win over the Toronto Blue Jays.
Angels outfielders, from left, Ryan Aguilar, Mike Trout and Magneuris Sierra celebrate after a win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday. (Jon Blacker / Associated Press)

They got back to Orange County on Friday and watched Ryan make his debut on television. He walked in his first plate appearance, which surprised no one in the Aguilar household.

“We both looked at each other, my husband puts a fist up in the air,” Kristi recalled. “[On TV] they were like, ‘Yeah, he got a walk’ and I said, ‘Just like the Trash Pandas, you’re on base. There goes your on-base percentage.’”

Ryan had a .944 on-base-plus-slugging percentage over 88 games in double A. He went 0 for 2 on Friday with two walks and two runs scored.

That evening, the Aguilars were able to secure a flight for Eric to Buffalo, N.Y., where he was able to rent a car and drive to Toronto to see the rest of Ryan’s debut series. Aguilar started in right field all three games in place of Taylor Ward, who was one of three players put on the restricted list before the series. (Individuals not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 have to complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine, and if not, they can't enter Canada.)

Eric saw his son get his first MLB hit — a double that Ryan unsuccessfully tried to turn into a triple — on Saturday, a reaction of which was caught live on camera on the Bally Sports West broadcast. Aguilar went one for four Saturday and one for five Sunday as the Angels completed a three-game sweep with an 8-3 victory.

The Aguilars hope Ryan is able to stay with the Angels, who play the New York Yankees on Monday night to open a nine-game homestand.

“I think the whole city of Yorba Linda knows about Ryan right now," Kristi said. "It's crazy.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.