Wilson Inoa: The Chicago Cubs MVP you’ve never heard of

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Field of Dreams: The powerful journey of one Cubs prospect originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

MESA, Ariz. — After signing with the Cubs when he was 16, Wilson Inoa was one of the fastest players in the organization with a powerful 6-foot-2 frame that promised big things for the Cubs outfield one day.

His hero was Andruw Jones, but he signed with the Cubs instead of the Braves because the Cubs offered more money, and, besides, he liked Sammy Sosa, too. His signing class from the Dominican included future big-leaguers Welington Castillo and Rafael Dolis, just ahead of Starlin Castro’s and Junior Lake’s classes.

And then one day he tried to slide into third base, but his cleat caught in the dirt, and he tumbled violently over the bag, his ankle injured so badly that his foot dangled grotesquely 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

Inoa took most of the next year rehabbing from the injury but was never the same, and not long after his 21st birthday, Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita sat him down.

“He said we don’t need your service anymore,” Inoa said.

“I cried like a baby for week.”

When Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo calls the business of the baseball “the uglier side” of the sport, he’s leaving out what might be the ugliest part of all: the countless major league dreams and promises that end in nightmares and sudden wakeup calls before they ever get out of A ball.

“I didn’t have a place to live when they gave me my release,” Inoa said.

These days, you hear Inoa coming before you see him.

He’s the Cubs’ top groundskeeper at their Mesa, Arizona, training facility and spends three months a year supervising the grounds crew at the seven-year-old Dominican academy, about a three-hour drive from his hometown.

“He’s part of what makes this complex go,” said Cubs executive Jeremy Farrell, the assistant director for baseball development. “Everything from whistling Christmas carols in March to singing Adele at the top of his lungs on his lawnmower.”

That’s not an exaggeration. If anything it’s Inoa’s calling card.

It might even be why he’s the most popular groundskeeper in Arizona.

“Everybody loves to be around him,” Farrell said.

If there was ever a time for Inoa’s uninhibited joy and belting out of whatever songs are pumping through his earbuds while he mows the outfield grass — a time when finding that joy seems unexpected and new, and perhaps needed — it is now.

“It’s just refreshing,” said Dave Keller, the Cubs’ Latin America field coordinator, who has known Inoa since he was a prospect. “After the last year, everybody’s been kind of looking over their shoulder and waiting…”

And often stressed and stuck. If not sick and afraid and sad and squeezed and lonely and scarred.

Inoa spent baseball’s shutdown at the empty Arizona facility.

“It was as sad a year as I ever had doing this,” he said. “It’s no fun when you come home just to see a green field, empty. And my thing is when I come here I feel like I’m home.”

For players, coaches and even the media, baseball returned in a rush with the opening of spring training camps in February. And for those who descended on Sloan Park in Mesa, a shouted serenade awaited.

“He’s always happy,” said Cubs shortstop Javy Báez, another good friend of Inoa, “and he always wants to have a friend around.”

Inoa, now 33, has two daughters from his first marriage and a first son on the way after remarrying last year. He and his family, both in Arizona and the Dominican, have remained healthy during the pandemic.

But that good fortune, he said, is not the source of all that singing and joy, and that easy smile for strangers and friends alike.

“It’s all my bad times I lived before. The hard time,” Inoa said. “Because I’m so proud of [how far] I came. I’m so proud of what I’ve done with my life.

“I didn’t make it playing, but I feel like a major leaguer.”

* * *

When the Cubs released Inoa, he had no place to go, no backup plan and no money in his pocket.

He knew only two things for sure.

First, he didn’t want to return to the Dominican as another failed ballplayer with no future. “I was really poor,” he said of his background. “Poor, poor.”

And, second, “I wanted to keep playing baseball.”

So he found a team in Mexico and started playing again. That lasted barely a month.

“They started killing people,” he said.

Killing people?

“Sinaloa.”

His team’s home was also home to one of the biggest, most dangerous drug cartels in the world.

“So I got scared, and I came back to Arizona,” Inoa said, “and I decided to stop playing baseball.”

Still with no place to live, he slept in a park in Chandler, Arizona, for about six weeks. He found a part-time labor job and eventually found himself back on the doorstep of the Fitch Park training facility in Mesa where he had experienced his lowest day with the Cubs.

He talked his way into a second part-time job on the grounds crew, and walked nearly 10 miles each way to and from work until he eventually was able to move into a small apartment.

By the time the Cubs moved to their current complex six years later, that determination and work ethic had led to a full-time position, promotions and certification in his field, and he moved with the team to the new place.

The Cubs already had begun sending him to their newly built Dominican academy to oversee care of those fields. And he’s considered so good at what he does that more recently Farrell and Báez have hired him for projects at their homes — Báez flying him to Puerto Rico to construct a batting cage and workout field modeled after the Cubs’ spring facility.

“Because I know the way he works,” Báez said. “I like him.”

After describing some of that unplanned journey, Inoa laughed, recalling a day as a player in spring training when Fleita — the same man who would eventually release him — joked with some of the young prospects, trying to motivate them.

“I remember like it was yesterday: ‘Hey if you don’t work hard, you’ll be a great groundskeeper!’ He said that to me,” Inoa said.

“And now I’m on the grounds crew.”

* * *

Dreams don’t always die just because they don’t come true.

When Farrell, the Cubs executive, talks about Inoa making the Arizona complex go, that’s about more than the expert care of the fields and the oversized personality.

“He throws [batting practice] in the summer. He helps the Latin players assimilate because of his relationships he builds with them when he’s down in the Dominican,” Farrell said. “He’s just really a jack of all trades.”

Whether it’s players on rehab assignments or the work during summer and winter leagues when instructors might need an extra hand, Inoa has become an unofficial assistant coach, throwing BP, hitting fungoes and even standing in occasionally with a bat when a pitcher needs some simulated innings.

That’s one of the reasons he knows so many players and coaches so well — whether from hitting fungoes to Nico Hoerner or standing in against Jen-Ho Tseng before the right-hander made his debut for the Cubs in 2017.

Staying close to the game has been part of the “dream” Inoa said he still lives. But it also has been a source of some of the few occasional nagging “what-ifs” he has allowed himself to indulge.

“It was so difficult when I started doing this,” said Inoa, who until just a few years ago was as young as some of the prospects he worked around.

“Sometimes you see a player and you’re like, ‘Dude, he made it; I didn’t.’ But inside you think to yourself — I don’t say it — ‘You did it better.’

“But I didn’t make it.”

He naturally wonders if he gave up baseball too soon. But then he remembers why he made the choice he did at the time.

“I came from a really poor family,” he said. “I chose to make money because my mom and my three sisters and my dad and my stepdad, they need money.”

He has sent money back home to his family. And just a few months ago he finished the house he built for his mother in the Dominican.

So he knows he made the right decision, he said. But he also has no plans to let go of his dreams of what could have been. What a part of him believes would have been.

Like the day this former switch-hitting prospect with all that speed — still in his 20s — swung the bat during Tseng’s sim game and sent a line drive down the right-field line.

“All the way over there to the foul line, two feet fair,” he said.

“I call it a triple.”

He can never know, obviously; there was no running the bases in this game.

But it doesn’t stop him from being sure.

“That day I told myself he’s never thrown in the major leagues, but he will,” Inoa said.

The next time Tseng threw a pitch it was to the Mets’ All-Star José Reyes at Wrigley Field.

Back when he was a prospect, Inoa also stood in against rehabbing pitchers Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux.

He hit a line drive off Zambrano, he said, and couldn’t touch Maddux. “You see the ball over here, and when you try to swing, the ball just drops,” Inoa said.

Inoa sat in the home dugout at Sloan Park as he shared his stories for almost an hour. He didn’t get his day in the major leagues. But he takes as much pride in the major-league quality of his fields as he takes joy in the work and the people around him. Maybe someday he’ll even wind up doing this at Wrigley Field, he said.

For now, he can look out at the dew on the grass just starting to dry under the early morning sun in Arizona and daydream before he gets back on his tractor.

“We are 350 million [people] in the U.S.,” he said, “and I’m one of the lucky ones that I can be — not this year because of the pandemic — but I can be in the same dugout as Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant or whoever visits.

“I’m living my dream.”

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