Being a Dominican ballplayer is a blessing and a curse.
It's a blessing because some of the greatest names in the game come from the Dominican Republic.
It's a curse because every kid in the country wants to be the next Albert Pujols. The competition is ferocious.
That's the world Luis "Lucho" Jimenez knew on the streets of Santo Domingo.
Now, in his eighth professional season, Jimenez is on the cusp of finally breaking into the big leagues. Last year, with the Salt Lake Bees, he hit .309 and led the team in average, doubles and RBIs. He was named Salt Lake's Player of the Month for both July and August. And though he'll almost surely be with the Bees to begin the 2013 campaign, this season has the earmarks of being his breakout year.
"Luis did what he needed to do on the field last year to earn an opportunity," Bee manager Keith Johnson said at spring training in Tempe, Ariz. "He's an RBI machine. Now he's primed to have another good year with us and, hopefully, he'll get his shot."
Jimenez was one of only a couple of players on the 40-man-roster in Tempe without any Major League experience. Last year, half-a-dozen Bees were called up to the Angels at the end of the season, but not Jimenez. Still, he says, it's all about keeping a good attitude.
"I just try to keep the same approach to hitting, keep my defense good," he says. "I just try to show I know how to play the game. I have to be ready for whatever comes."
Jimenez spent the winter playing ball in Santo Domingo. There, Manny Ramirez took him aside and helped him with his mechanics. Before being swallowed up in scandal, Ramirez was a Hall of Fame lock, one of the greatest right-handed hitters in baseball history. He knows the game.
"The way he hit, he was always my favorite player," says Jimenez. "And last winter he showed me some things."
Like so many Dominican boys, baseball was a way out and up for young Lucho. His uncle played ball, so did his dad.
"Baseball is how I grew up," he says. "We were a baseball family."
On the field, baseball can be like a game of chess. But making roster moves feels more like checkers, with players jumping over others to knock off contenders and become kings.
When the Angels traded Maicer Izturis in the off-season, it looked as if Jimenez might play behind Alberto Callaspo at third for L.A. this year. But the team may move Andrew Romine into that slot. And with Kaleb Cowart, the organization's top prospect, also playing third, manager Mike Scioscia decided to slide Jimenez over to first base this spring. Albert Pujols even gave his young countryman a first baseman's mitt and an earful of advice. And Jimenez has worked valiantly to learn the new position. Handling cut-off throws and learning the necessary footwork around the bag have been challenges, but at age 24 he's a young dog who can master new tricks.
Besides, it won't be Jimenez's glove that gets him a ticket to The Show, it will be the special way he wields a bat. Like a lot of Dominican ballplayers he's something of a free swinger. But as he learns patience his numbers should climb.
"He's working at understanding pitchers and understanding situations a little bit more," says Johnson. "He works hard."
Adds Jimenez, "I can only control what I can do. I can't control what other people do. In this game, anything can happen."
As one of the leading Angel hitters at spring training, Jimenez is already showing an ability to "control" just about any pitch — not to mention tricky situation — the parent club throws his way. More and more, 2013 is looking like the year of the Lucho.
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