STILL SMILING
By Shi Davidi in Toronto
STILL SMILING
By Shi Davidi in Toronto
Having endured some of the worst life has to offer, Blue Jays infielder Yangervis Solarte is grateful for every moment on the field.

The dream of following his uncle Roger Cedeno’s path to the big leagues was slowly dissolving for Yangervis Solarte as his 18th birthday approached. He’d been through the academy wringer in his native Venezuela, working out for clubs who’d repeatedly told him he was either too small or too weak (or both) to play pro ball. Several of the kids he grew up playing with in and around Valencia, an economic hub on the country’s northern coast, had already signed — Pablo Sandoval, Felix Doubront and Alex Torres among them. For Solarte, though, it wasn’t happening — token offers to be organizational meat aside — so he started thinking about a future outside of baseball. He completed a course in building design — his father, Gervis, was in the business — and drew up retrofit plans for the front of his grandmother’s house, which she used in a renovation that still stands today. But he was happiest at the ballpark, so when the Minnesota Twins invited him for a workout in 2005, he reluctantly said yes, with a caveat for himself: If things didn’t work out, he would stop playing ball and move on.

The Twins signed Solarte on June 16, 2005. Nine years, eight teams and two organizations later, he made his MLB debut with the New York Yankees, overcoming a lack of prospect pedigree, the negligible financial investment teams were willing to put in him, minimal player-development backing and no fixed defensive position. Then, once he’d reached and established himself in the big leagues, his life was torn apart in September 2016 by the death of his wife, Yuliett, who a year earlier had been diagnosed with cancer after giving birth to Yulianna, the couple’s third daughter.

Through all Solarte has endured, the all-encompassing joy with which he takes the field has never ebbed; his exuberant smiles and hips-don’t-lie dance moves endearing him to Toronto Blue Jays fans over the first month of the 2018 season. “That’s just me,” says Solarte, speaking through interpreter Josue Peley, “just being alive, having my daughters, having fun. For me, this is a game. I just like to have fun. That’s who I am.”

THROWN INTO THE MIX
It was initially unclear were Solarte would slot in for the Blue Jays, but with Josh Donaldson sidelined he's seen plenty of burn at third.

Given his backstory, all the happiness Solarte displays makes sense. After all, what’s the point of grinding through the lows baseball and life can throw at a person if you don’t fully enjoy the highs? Blue Jays manager John Gibbons believes the lows just give players like Solarte a greater appreciation for the highs. “I think the school of hard knocks helps guys,” he says. “A lot of the golden boys, they get here and they haven’t struggled. The guys we’re talking about, that were viewed somewhere as someone who can’t do it, sometimes there’s a little bit more motivation in that.”

That certainly holds true for Solarte, whose vivacity masks the fiery competitor beneath the surface. Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale, who urged the front office to acquire Solarte for so many years that it became almost a running joke within the team, remembers a moment from spring training when he really learned what Solarte is about. “He was struggling a little bit and he was like, ‘F—,’” recalls Hale. “I told him, ‘Hey, relax.’ He said, ‘No, no. No relax. I’m going to get better.’ I said, ‘OK. I like that.’ That says a whole lot about being a pro.”

“I said, ‘Listen, I’d rather work at Walmart than take what you're offering me, because I'm going to make the same amount of money.’”

It also says a whole lot about how someone who heard the word “no” so often managed to make his way to the big leagues. Progress through the Twins system was slow and methodical for Solarte, who started off in the Dominican Summer League and climbed the ladder step-by-step, not allowing a shoulder surgery that cost him almost the entire 2009 season derail him. In 2011, his first full season at double-A, his game really came together, as he batted .329/.367/.466 in 121 games, mostly at second base.

At season’s end, the Twins, who had lost 99 games after winning consecutive AL Central titles, had to decide whether to add Solarte to their 40-man roster. He assumed it would be a given, based on his season. Instead, he was granted free agency. “I really thought, ‘OK, this is my year. I did pretty well; I did amazing,’” says Solarte. “When they offered me a contract to come back to double-A, I said, ‘Listen, I’d rather work at Walmart than take what you’re offering me, because I’m going to make the same amount of money.’

“I really appreciate what the Twins did, because they gave me an opportunity. But that is the one time that I really got hurt, because I did everything I could and they didn’t put me on the 40-man roster to give me a chance to move on.”


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It didn’t take Solarte long to get over that hurdle, becoming “even more fired up because I knew I was good.” About a month after his release, he signed a minor-league deal with the Texas Rangers, who assigned him to triple-A Round Rock. He posted an OPS of .745 in 2012 but didn’t receive a call up. After he re-signed with the Rangers for 2013, he posted an OPS of .727 and again didn’t break through with Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus locked in up the middle.

“They promised me I was going to get called up in September, which didn’t happen. So for the second time in three years, I got really hurt. I was heartbroken,” says Solarte, who played mostly second but also saw time at short, third, first and left field in Round Rock. “That’s why when I play against Texas, I have a little bit more emotion, because of what they promised, because of the lies.”

A free agent once again ahead of the 2014 season, Solarte’s versatility in the field increased the demand for him. The Yankees were among several teams that expressed interest. They were also the most persistent and were in need of infielders with Alex Rodriguez serving a season-long suspension for PED use, Robinson Cano departing via free agency and lingering uncertainty around Derek Jeter. “A lot of people were like, ‘Don’t sign with them, it’s going to be really hard because they’re so good,’” says Solarte. “But I believed in myself. And I actually made it with them, they’re the ones that actually gave me a chance to be an everyday player.

“How beautiful is that? You have to believe — even if it’s as hard as you think it is — that it’s possible. I just showed everybody, listen, I knew I could do it. I wanted to do it and it happened.”

“When guys do bounce around and they are able to sustain the success, it says a lot about their drive, their passion, how much they enjoy playing.”

Solarte made his debut April 2, 2014, pinch-hitting for Kelly Johnson with men on the corners in the top of the seventh inning against the Houston Astros. He hit into a double play against Kevin Chapman that scored a run, and then stayed in the game at third base and fouled out in the ninth to end the 2-1 loss. “In my first at-bat, the pitching coach for the other team came out, and I was like, ‘Dude don’t come out, maybe the manager is going to change me, pinch hit for me, whatever, just get out, I want to hit,’” says Solarte. “I didn’t feel nervous, I didn’t feel anything. I had a lot of experience, I went through a lot of things [to get to that point]. I wanted to eat the dirt.”

The next day, he started at third base and went 3-for-3 with a double and an RBI.

STOP YANKIN' MY CHAIN
Friends cautioned Solarte not to sign with New York, but after being toyed with by other organizations he was ready to take a big swing in the Big Apple.

Solarte’s drive is only part of the equation that allowed him to endure and, eventually, succeed. Yuliett was a constant by his side during his grind through the minors, urging him to keep going, to not relent. His minor-league deal with the Yankees was partly for her and their family, providing a better life for them and their two older daughters, Yanliett and Yuliett. The couple married before camp broke. “The Yankees offered me a good contract and I was thinking about my family,” says Solarte. “With the money, at least I could have my family with me.”

Solarte played third, second and short for the Yankees, and batted .254/.337/.718, before he was dealt along with right-hander Jose Rafael De Paula to the San Diego Padres for veteran third baseman Chase Headley, whom the Blue Jays also had some interest in. While the deal was a disruption, Solarte came to see it as a good opportunity to prove he was an everyday player with the rebuilding Padres.

That’s precisely what he did, but then came the birth of Yulianna, two months premature, which led to the discovery of cancerous tumours on Yuliett’s liver. It was as if his world began to crumble around him. “It’s so hard to know how to navigate that,” says Padres manager Andy Green, who helped Solarte through the difficult period. “Most of the time when guys come to the ballpark, they don’t want to be asked every second of every day how their family is doing — especially if they’re walking through what he was walking through. But you have to feel for him at times, understanding there are days when it’s tough on him and you have to have some patience. We had a great relationship. He always showed up to play, and it was so easy to just let him be him because he’s such a great guy.”

As she went through her chemotherapy treatments and watched over their daughters, Yuliett refused to let Solarte back away from the game. Over and over, she delivered the same message. “She told me, ‘You know, what? Don’t feel bad because of me, or because of you, but because of the babies. I’m fighting for them. I want you to do the same. I want you to go out there and fight for them. Don’t fight for me. I want you to fight for them.’”

FROM THE GROUND UP
Being dealt to San Diego was a disruption for Solarte and his family, but he seized the opportunity to prove he was an everyday big leaguer with the rebuilding Padres.

On the field, Solarte did, batting .270/.341/.467 with 15 homers and 71 RBI — all career highs — in only 109 games. Green and the Padres gave him the space he needed to play baseball while he watched his wife slowly, painfully wither away. Yuliett died Sept. 17, 2016. She was 31.

“I like to talk about this because it can show people this can happen to anyone,” says Solarte. “It was really hard. I don’t want this for anybody else in the world, even my enemies, but she got me through it. I’m happy she’s in peace, because she was suffering. It gives me chills talking about her, but she made me stronger.

“People who have gone through that would understand me. It’s the hardest thing you can live through.”

After the funeral, Solarte came back for the final week of the season to deal with some unfinished business. He was sitting on 68 runs batted in at the time; he and Yuliett had set 70 as a goal. She found meaning in the number seven. He rejoined the Padres determined to make it happen.


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Solarte returned Sept. 24 as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning of what finished as a 9-6 loss to the San Francisco Giants, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd as he stepped into the box. He hit a single through the left side. The next day he picked up an RBI single and on Sept. 29, an RBI double against the Los Angeles Dodgers pushed him to 70. “As the father of three daughters as well, I can’t imagine walking through that chapter of life that he had to walk through,” says Green. “I would not be functioning. I would not be a productive manager, much less a productive big-league player. So I have a ton of respect for the way he was able to use baseball as a release and then go be a dad to his three daughters and still be there for his wife all the way to the end.”

Over the winter, the Padres signed Solarte to a two-year deal that guaranteed $7.5 million but included options for $5.5 million in 2019 and $8 million for 2020. Fulfilling Yuliett’s wish, he’d secured a stable financial future for their daughters, though that can only offer so much comfort. “With all the money I made, I wish I could buy a life and bring her back, and that I could have enough money to buy back all lives for all families that went through that and lost a mom,” says Solarte. “I would do it. I would bring back all the moms for all the kids … because you cannot replace a mom.”

RAY OF SUNSHINE
Solarte is a glass-half-full kind of guy. “I know what I can do when I'm out there and I enjoy it and have fun,” he says. “When I don't play, I'm the cheerleader. I'm trying to help all my teammates."

On Jan. 6, DeMarlo Hale got his wish when the Blue Jays acquired Solarte from the Padres, who had a surplus of middle infielders, for farmhands Edward Olivares and Jared Carkuff. The bench coach was far from the only person in the organization to have taken a liking to him before he suited up in Toronto. John Gibbons became a fan during Solarte’s half-season with the Yankees, crediting him for always being in the middle of rallies. He checked a lot of boxes in the front office, too, where he was high up the list of middle infielders to target during the off-season. General manager Ross Atkins knew plenty of people who knew Solarte well, and they confirmed all the positive opinions the organization had on him. “When guys do bounce around and they are able to sustain the success, it says a lot about their drive, their passion, how much they enjoy playing,” says Atkins. “He seems to play with a selflessness. It’s what we’re trying to instill into our environment.”

“You see his emotions every day, he's not trying to hide it from anybody. Ninety-five per cent of the time that's laughter and joy, and that's infectious and fun to be around.”

Andy Green also described Solarte as selfless, saying he didn’t complain about moving all around the diamond even though he would’ve probably preferred staying in one spot during his three and a half years in San Diego. “I absolutely love the guy,” says Green. “He smiles easy, laughs all the time, loves the joy that’s in the clubhouse and just brings life to it. Always dancing, always laughing. You see his emotions every day, what he’s feeling, he’s not trying to hide it from anybody. Ninety-five per cent of the time that’s laughter and joy and that’s infectious [and] fun to be around.”

Solarte’s daughters — now aged seven, six and two — have yet to see Toronto; the plan is for them to come up from the family’s Miami home once the school year ends. He relies on a network of extended family including his mom, Yanmili, and his girlfriend to help care for the girls while he’s away playing. “My wife, before she passed away, she told me, ‘You’re going to find someone great for them and for you.’ And I was lucky enough that somebody came and to me she’s great,” says Solarte. “She’s someone that really helps me and really helps me with the kids. They love her. I’m pretty fortunate to have a little bit of help from everywhere. No one will ever replace Yuliett, but at least with all the help, me included, I think my daughters are going to be in a great spot.”

That’s where he feels he is baseball-wise, too. His path to playing time in Toronto wasn’t initially clear, but Josh Donaldson’s shoulder troubles, the plan for Devon Travis to get regular rest and the Blue Jays’ desire to work in more down time for other regulars have combined to make Solarte an integral part of the lineup. Even when Donaldson returns, Solarte will get regular at-bats, just at other spots around the diamond. “I know what I can do when I’m out there and I enjoy it and have fun,” he says. “When I don’t play, I’m the cheerleader. I’m trying to help all my teammates. We all try to have the same goal: We’re trying to win here. I’m really glad not just because of the players we have, but with the staff, with all the coaches, with the training staff, with the high-performance team. Everybody treats me well. I’m really happy to be here. I like this team.”

Photo Credits

Photo Illustration and Design by Drew Lesiuczok.
Getty (1); Jason Miller/Getty Images; AP; Mark J. Terrill/AP; Jim McIsaac/Getty Images.