Blue Jays’ Diaz: ‘There were some hard times’

Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Jonathan Diaz (Peter Power/CP)

TORONTO – Part of figuring out what a player is all about when he reaches the major leagues is looking at what it took for him to get there. Jonathan Diaz, the diminutive Toronto Blue Jays shortstop filling in admirably for the injured Jose Reyes, might never have even found his way into college baseball, let alone the pro game, if not for a combination of determination, serendipity and opportunity.

Looking back at his career so far – 10 games in the majors, 811 in the minors – the 28-year-old with the big smile and slick glove says, “the stars aligned.” Never mind that he’s still paying off student loans from his days as an invited walk-on at North Carolina State, and only this past winter finally had enough money to buy a home for his wife and three kids – a two-bedroom condo in Dunedin, Fla.

Slowly and steadily, he’s making people believe that he’s a major-leaguer.

“All the credit goes to him, his ability and perseverance,” Marc Tramuta, the scout who chose Diaz in the 12th round of the 2006 draft, says via email. “Great kid, tremendous makeup.”

How long Diaz stays with the Blue Jays is an interesting question, as Reyes is making progress from his left hamstring injury and is eligible to come off the disabled list April 16.  Once the all-star shortstop is ready, Diaz may very well become the odd man out and return to triple-A Buffalo, although there’s a real possibility he stays, as well.

Life in limbo is something the Miami Beach native knows well, having scratched and clawed his way to where he is right now.

Growing up he developed his quick hands by whipping rubber super balls against the wall of his house and fielding the speedy and unpredictable hops, and by competing against younger brother Chris, who is playing at Class A West Virginia in the Pittsburgh Pirates system.

Still, he barely made the baseball team at Coral Gables Senior High School in Miami as a 5-4, 115-pound freshman, and it took two years and hundreds of throws to develop enough arm-strength for coach Laz Gutierrez to let him play shortstop.

Though Diaz earned honourable mention as an All-Dade County player in his senior season, there were few options for him to keep on playing. His plan was to attend Florida State and try to make the team as a walk-on, but instead the first of many twists in his career took him to Raleigh when N.C. State assistant coach Billy Jones mentioned to Lazer Collazo, then the pitching coach at the University of Miami, that he was looking for some infielders. Collazo had heard about Diaz from Gutierrez, and mentioned his name.

“He saw me take groundballs and he told me the situation, their infield was leaving, they had no money, I could come as an invited walk-on,” says Diaz. “I wanted to be out of Miami, I wanted to go somewhere and experience something else.

“I hadn’t even heard of N.C. State. I was so in my bubble in Miami, you have no idea. I didn’t know much about the outside world, so I was like that seems cool, it’s far, something new.”

The transition to college wasn’t totally easy. While filling out his application, he reached the section requesting a major. Diaz hadn’t given it much thought.

“I said computer engineering sounds pretty smart, I’d make a lot of money doing that, so I picked that,” he recalls with a grin. “Next thing I know I’m in the major taking calculus and chemistry and I’m like, ‘Where am I? what happened?’

“So I had to get out of that as soon as I could. I ended up in communications.”

Things went much smoother on the baseball diamond, where he won the starting shortstop job, and earned himself partial scholarships for his next two seasons. Tramuta, now an assistant scouting director and national crosschecker with the Mets but at the time a scout with the Blue Jays, first noticed Diaz during his sophomore season and was taken immediately.

“One of the best amateur shortstops with the glove I’ve seen in 18 years of scouting,” he says. “To be honest, during that (sophomore) year, I told a good friend of mine with another club that I didn’t care if (he) hit .100 his draft eligible junior year, I wanted (the Blue Jays) to draft him.”

Diaz doesn’t remember any conversations with the Blue Jays, or any other teams for that matter, but Tramuta recalls one discussion to gauge signability. To that point, Diaz had simply hoped to become a senior sign for $1,000, but while filling out a questionnaire with his bio and medical information, mentioned that he hoped to go in the 10th round.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” says Diaz, who didn’t even have an advisor/agent.

On draft day the Texas Rangers phoned him and said they planned to choose him in the 12th round if he was still available. In the Blue Jays draft room, assistant GM Tony LaCava and scouting director Jon Lalonde asked Tramuta in which round they should target Diaz.

“I said I want him in the 12th round, and we did – 360th overall pick – same round as John McDonald (363rd overall pick),” says Tramuta. “Maybe get a little karma.”

The Blue Jays offered Diaz a signing bonus of $4,500 – “I was all right, let’s do it” – and he made his pro debut with short-season Auburn that summer.

Promoted to single-A Lansing the next year, Diaz responded by leading the Midwest League with a .406 on-base percentage. But in 2008-09 he yo-yoed up and down between single-A Dunedin, double-A New Hampshire and triple-A Las Vegas and felt like “I could get released at any second. I was that guy, going back and forth, just filling up a spot when they needed a guy.”

Things didn’t stabilize until 2010 when he returned to New Hampshire and had a strong season under manager Luis Rivera, earning another stint in Las Vegas where he opened strong. The momentum continued into 2011, when he impressed new manager John Farrell during spring training and nearly broke with the team as McDonald struggled with an arm injury.

“(McDonald) came up to me said, ‘I’m getting an MRI done on my elbow, it doesn’t feel good, so be ready. If I’m done, then most likely you’re going to be the guy.’ So I was like, OK,” says Diaz. “On the very last day his MRI comes back negative, so he’s fine, I get sent down (to New Hampshire).”

Quickly promoted to triple-A, Diaz hit the ground running and was off to “my best start ever” when he hopped into a cab with his wife (at the time fiancée) Kerry after a May 13 game. En route to a restaurant for dinner the taxi was T-boned and all the momentum hit a stand still.

Diaz woke up in hospital with a concussion, his two front teeth broken and with a slight hearing loss in his left ear that remains to this day. Kerry, on the side of the cab that got hit, suffered broken ribs, a separated shoulder, torn spleen and needed staples in her head.

Once he recovered in July, Diaz found himself back in double-A and while there was some speculation he’d be a late September call up to cover for an injured Yunel Escobar, it didn’t happen. The next spring he didn’t get a serious look during spring training, was sent back to double-A again and began to wonder about his future.

“I was like, did this accident really just mess up everything?” says Diaz. “I’m in double-A, fifth-year there, I was like jeez, so I started pressing big time and did horrible, worst start ever. I did so bad they ended up moving me up to triple-A and I started normalizing, playing my game again.”

Despite that, there was no call-up that season, either, and when Farrell moved to Boston with coaches Brian Butterfield and Torey Lovullo, he signed as a minor-league free agent with the Red Sox. He was assigned to triple-A Pawtucket and when injuries opened up a spot he made his big-league debut June 29 at Fenway Park, against the Blue Jays of all teams. He went 0-for-3 with a run scored, Colby Rasmus making a diving catch in centre field to rob him of his first big-league hit.

“It was like maybe the accident didn’t just completely ruin my career,” he says. “Maybe I could have been in the big-leagues a lot before that, but to just finally arrive, to get that one day, it took the weight of the world off my shoulders. I could finally say at least that I made it to the big-leagues.”

Diaz’s stay didn’t last long. He played just five games and spent the rest of the year at Pawtucket. In the off-season he returned to the Blue Jays. Last week, GM Alex Anthopoulos said they should never have allowed Diaz to leave in the first place.

“This my eighth year with this organization, the team that stuck with me when I didn’t put up great numbers but they still kept me around,” says Diaz. “I was able to grow as a player and get better.”

The goal now is to make his stint with the Blue Jays a beginning, not an end. At long last he’s living his big-league dream, a dream he’s still paying for.

“I played my whole career on minor-league contracts, I wasn’t making any money until last year, I was making a living wage, so I’ve still got a whole ton of debt I’ve got to deal with,” says Diaz. “People think once you sign in pro baseball you’ve got a bunch of money in your pocket. There are a lot of guys struggling down there, it’s not easy, especially with a family. There were some hard times.”

All of which makes the better days all the more rewarding.

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