TORONTO – Throughout the 2019 season, all Santiago Espinal wanted was to go home and spend time with his mother, Ingrid Rivera. Over and over, she told him to focus up on the field, to not worry about her as she fought cancer in New York.
“She literally told me, ‘Hey, I don’t want you to come visit me. I want you to finish your season, I want you to do your job. I want you to do what you love. And after you’re done with your season, you can come visit me and give me the biggest hug you can,’” recalls the 25-year-old. “It just broke my heart, even though she told me not to worry, to play my game.”
Espinal did as she said, logging 122 games with double-A New Hampshire and triple-A Buffalo before rushing home to give his mom that big hug. Rivera died in December at the age of 52, after 18 months with the disease.
“The good thing is she didn’t suffer,” says Espinal. “She just couldn’t hold on anymore.”
That’s why, after the initial euphoria of learning he’d open the 2020 season with the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday night, Espinal broke down. Rivera’s determination to help her son set him on an unlikely path to the big-leagues. Now that he’d done it, she was gone.
“Oh, man,” he says. “I started crying when I started thinking about it. But I was so, so happy because my mom can see me right now. She’s watching me right now, and it was so amazing to know that I’m here and making my mamma proud.”
Espinal gave Rivera reason to be proud well before he made a big-league roster for the first time. That he’d even gotten into professional baseball, let alone reached its highest level, was an achievement for someone who didn’t initially graduate with his class at Lyman High School in Longwood, Fla., as he played catchup academically after moving to the United States from the Dominican Republic a few years earlier.
Rather than playing baseball, he spent the next two years taking online GED courses set up by his mother in New York, which started him on an unlikely path to the Blue Jays.
In the summer of 2014, he was set to go to Selma University but when he checked in with the club, he was told they no longer had a scholarship for him. So he returned to the Orlando area, where earned a roster spot as a walk-on at Seminole State College, and spent the year as a redshirt there.
The following summer he played with Sanford in the Florida Collegiate Summer League and while starring in the loop, he was recommended to Danny Price, the head coach at Miami-Dade Junior College who was looking for a shortstop.
Espinal was playing centre field, but on a recommendation Price came up to see him and offered a scholarship the same day. After working through some transfer issues, Espinal starred for Miami-Dade and was selected in the 10th round by the Boston Red Sox the following June.
“It’s amazing when you think about it,” says Espinal. “I almost gave up on baseball. I’ve taken advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given. I don’t take it for granted. I’m glad that I’m here and I’m ready for it.”
The Blue Jays picked up Espinal in the June 2018 trade that sent Steve Pearce, the eventual World Series MVP, to the Red Sox, and he’s steadily climbed the ladder since. A fluid and athletic defender, he’s versatile enough to play all over the field, and impressed during summer camp both with his glove and the bat.
The former is much more likely to keep him in the majors than the latter, although the Blue Jays feel there’s some gap-power upside in his swing that gives him a chance to contribute at the plate, too.
While he’s refined his swing to better drive the ball since the trade, he feels the time he spent with Bo Bichette and his all-star dad, Dante, during the pandemic shutdown will give him the mental boost needed to better pull things together.
Espinal and minor-league outfielder Forrest Wall both sheltered at the Bichette home, training and working out together the entire time. Rather than pressing on swing mechanics, Dante reinforced, “how positive I can stay when I play, how strong my mind can be at the plate.”
“Basically not giving up on one at-bat,” he continues. “I’d get out and I’d start thinking about that at-bat so much, that I’d waste my second at-bat. He told me one at-bat can’t ruin your whole game. If the pitcher beat you, or you beat yourself, that’s something you have to adjust to mentally, not mechanically. Change that negative talk into something positive. That really helped me a lot.”
Now, he’ll try to carry all that into this bizarre 2020 season, where he’ll give manager Charlie Montoyo another option around the infield behind his starters and super-utility addition Joe Panik.
Espinal woke up Wednesday morning and thought to himself, “OK, this is they day, either I go up or I go down.” Then, about 20-30 minutes before game-time at Fenway Park, mere moments after he and Teoscar Hernandez had grabbed some dinner, Montoyo called him into the office.
“I ran to his office, he and Luis [Rivera, the infielders coach] told me, ‘Hey, we like what you’ve been doing, we like how you come every day and do your work, we like how you play – congratulations on making the team,’” says Espinal. “I just started laughing. I couldn’t even say one word, I was smiling the whole time. I literally didn’t say one word until I told them, thank you so much. I couldn’t say anything else. They told me, enjoy it, keep doing what you’re doing, keep doing your job and you’re going to help this team win.”
Espinal’s first phone call was to his dad. All he could do was wish that he could share the moment with his mom, too.