By David Singh | Photography by Bob Croslin
By David Singh | Photography by Bob Croslin
As a kid, Alek Manoah watched his mom go hungry so he could eat. Her sacrifices and determination got the promising young right-hander where he is today, and set an example he’s still trying to live up to.

On an overcast Saturday morning in late June, Susana Lluch is calm and contented as she tends to her two-month-old Rottweiler puppy, Luna, and gives some love to her older Rottweiler, Marly. The tranquility in her Miami home will be short-lived, though, and she knows it. Lluch has a busy weekend ahead.

Later today, her son, Alek Manoah, will take the mound for the Toronto Blue Jays, facing the Baltimore Orioles in what will be the fifth start of his MLB career. And tomorrow, she’ll tune into a Fort Myers Mighty Mussels contest to see if her elder son, Erik Manoah Jr., emerges from the bullpen for the Minnesota Twins’ class-A affiliate.

Rooting for her children will bring out Lluch’s competitive side. She won’t stay in her seat — the cocktail of adrenalin and nerves ensures that. Friends and family might call or text her; if they do, it will be a frustration. Shouldn’t people know you’re not supposed to call me when they’re pitching? she’ll ask herself, before refocusing on the television. She’ll talk to the screen, reminding her boys, like she always has, to begin their outings with first-pitch strikes. She’ll be able to at least dial down the jitters if Alek and Erik Jr. go up 0–1 in the count. “My words are always, ‘First strike,’” Lluch says. “I should probably tattoo that.”

This side of Lluch — the competitive one that emerges when she watches her boys pitch — was on full display in New York in late May when she was introduced to Blue Jays fans. With Alek making his big-league debut, cameras fixed on his mom, who was a bundle of excitement, tension, hugs and tears as she watched from the Yankee Stadium stands with Erik Jr. and other family. Decked out in a white, old-school Blue Jays jersey, she cheered nearly all of Manoah’s 88 pitches — his performance resulting in six shutout innings and the victory — and was left with a hoarse voice the next morning.

That game was the starting point in what could be a promising big-league career for the 23-year-old right-hander. But in many ways, it also marked a satisfying ending. The journey to that day was filled with struggles and pain, but also immense persistence from Lluch, the driving force behind her children’s success. Through a dark period in her family’s life that could have easily engulfed Lluch and her boys, she was a bright light. And her doggedness and sacrifice set an example that will guide them well into their future.

Manoah’s big-league debut was a memorable one — six shutout innings and the W at Yankee Stadium

Baseball has been a constant in Lluch’s life. The youngest child of Cuban immigrants, she grew up in Miami and was the only girl in the local T-ball league. Her mother idolized the New York Yankees, and her two older brothers were strong athletes. Lluch’s parents gave her dolls. They also tried to push her into cheerleading, but that proved a miserable experience — she just wanted to get out and compete with the boys. T-ball aside, she was denied the chance. Eventually her sister helped her find a women’s softball league where she played first base during her high school years.

Lluch’s love of sports was shared by Erik Manoah Sr., who she met at 17 and later married. When Erik Jr. and Alek came along, three years apart, Mom and Dad couldn’t wait to introduce them to baseball. All their toys involved a ball, and the parents played a variation of wall ball with the boys when they were toddlers. Both brothers played T-ball and displayed early skill. Alek had the basic fundamentals down by the age of four, with the ball simply travelling off his bat.

“I’m not going to allow you to grow up with fears and be scared of things without ever at least facing them.”

His hitting prowess continued as he grew. He shone in competitive baseball as a youth, and when he was 10 Alek won the King of Swat home run derby in Cooperstown, a fitting achievement for a kid whose favourite player was Barry Bonds. Later that year, though, while at the Pony League World Series in Texas, a major setback arrived when the right-handed hitter took a fastball to the jaw. He finished the game with a swollen face but the effects lingered in his mind long after.

Alek, a catcher at the time, began to shy away from the ball during games. Behind the plate, he would turn his face while receiving pitches or blocking balls in the dirt. As a batter, he would back away from inside offerings. Lluch picked up on the change and tried to talk to Alek about it, but he wouldn’t open up, repeatedly assuring his mom that he was fine. Finally, after a few weeks, Lluch had seen enough and told him to strap on his catcher’s gear and come to the backyard.

“I’m like, ‘What?’” recalls Alek with a grin. “She can be a little abrupt at times, so I was like, ‘What are you doing right now?’ And I put my catcher’s gear on, I went outside and she said, ‘Get down like you’re going to block.’ And she just started throwing baseballs at me. I’m surprised the bucket wasn’t thrown at me.”

Lluch perched on that bucket and fired balls in the dirt; some even hit Alek in the arm and the mask. He continued to look away, so Lluch asked him why he was turning his face. Alek didn’t have an answer. “I say, ‘Well, catchers don’t move their faces, right? Don’t we have to look so that we can catch the ball? If you don’t catch the ball, what’s going to happen? It’s gonna hit you in the face.’ I kind of got a little rough on him,” she remembers. “I literally told him, ‘You’re not dumb. I know that you’re shying away because you’re scared, and it’s okay to be scared. We’re going to go ahead and take away that fear because the only way you’re going to conquer the fear is by facing it. I’m not going to allow you to grow up with fears and be scared of things without ever at least facing them.’”

They stayed in the backyard for hours, repeating the same drill over and over again until Alek’s trepidation faded. His kept his head still, even on balls that he wore on the mask’s chin.

Finally, Lluch asked him if he was still afraid.

“No,” Alek answered with relief.

If it’s game day for either one of her boys, don’t text Lluch. She’s busy cheering herself hoarse.

Lluch separated from Manoah Sr. in 2010, after spending nearly 20 years with him. She filed for divorce in 2014. The topic of her ex-husband is a sensitive subject for the family and brings up negative emotions for her sons, according to Lluch, who notes that they have a mostly estranged relationship with their father. “Divorce affects everyone, but they witnessed a lot of things growing up between their father and I,” says Lluch, her voice breaking as she fights through tears. “That, I think, also made them very strong. Because it made me strong. I had no choice but to be strong and I also had no choice but to go to work, because even during my marriage, I was still the sole income earner. Bottom line is, my kids saw me go to work every day with a smile on my face knowing that I went to sleep — or even if I didn’t sleep — crying my heart out. So, I think, honestly, they learned to tune things on and off from having to see that I had no choice but to do it.”

Following the split, Lluch told her sons, aged 15 and 12 at the time, that she would do her best to ensure life didn’t change for them. They would move forward and still play baseball and still be a family. Only now, it was just the three of them. They moved south, from Kendall, Fla., where they were raised, to the city of Homestead to be closer to Lluch’s family, a needed support system for the single mom. However, as much as that helped, life was still hard. Lluch describes it as a “very, very tough era” for the unit.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

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Lluch was working as a legal assistant at a law firm in Coral Gables, Fla., and took on various side jobs, including network marketing, transcribing and English-to-Spanish translation. Money was tight and some days she went hungry to make sure the boys were fed. “There were times where we would get out of games and it would be 11 o’clock at night and, maybe I had $10 or $12 in my pocket,” she says. “And so it was Taco Bell. When you have two of them eating $30 in food, it’s like you have to limit them. It’s like, ‘Okay, Erik, you can only get four tacos today.’ ‘Alek, you can only eat two burritos.’ My money did go to them.”

When the boys asked their mom why she wasn’t eating, she quickly changed the subject to try to shelter them. “Now that I’m older, I realize, hey, mom didn’t not eat dinner because she wasn’t hungry,” says Alek. “The older you get, the more you realize the little things and you’re just even more grateful for them.”

Lluch was adamant about keeping the boys in baseball, because that’s what they wanted and they were also excelling. She had to be resourceful — like when she spray-painted Alek’s aging catcher’s gear to make it look new — but she made sure they stayed enrolled on travel teams. Lluch ran fundraising events such as doughnut or garage sales, and also received some financial help from her family, to pay the hefty costs.

“I’ve seen my mom not eat dinner for me and my brother. A bad outing compared to that? It’s nothing.”

As much as she tried to hide it from him, watching his mother struggle left a mark on Alek. It provided perspective that’s always with him, like the ink on his right arm. “There’s times where you’re tired, you’ve been beat up a little bit,” he says. “Things have been thrown at you and you’re kind of just like, ‘Man, am I going to keep going? What’s even the point?’ And then you just think back and you’re like, ‘Man, my mom would have never even thought that. My mom would have never not kept going.’

“She inspires me to keep going,” he adds. “Literally, I’ve seen my mom not eat dinner for me and my brother. A bad outing compared to that? It’s nothing.”

Alek played a version of wall ball with his parents as a toddler, and had mastered baseball’s fundamentals by the age of four

Fifty years in coaching will introduce a person to hundreds upon hundreds of kids. And even so, Fred Burnside says, Alek stood out. The longtime South Dade High School baseball head coach is a guidance counsellor by trade and notes that it’s rare to find a teenager from a split home who exuded the type of positivity that Alek brought on a daily basis. “It’s always traumatic for the children,” says Burnside, who became a friend and confidant to Lluch. “But A.K., I thought, handled it well. I tried to channel his thoughts into baseball, which he just ate up. And his brother Erik would toughen him up, for sure.”

The brothers played together for the South Dade Buccaneers and developed a reputation for being highly competitive — with each other and opponents. Alek manned first base during his early high-school years before gradually incorporating time on the mound. His fire on the diamond contrasted with an endearing charisma off the field. He never lugged any struggles from home to school. “You wouldn’t have known, because he didn’t show it,” says Michael Polizzano, athletic director at South Dade.

Alek volunteered as a student aide for Polizzano and found ways to put a positive spin on everything. Cleaning the gym floor was seen as an arduous, mundane task by every student, yet Alek would carry it out with a smile and try to get his classmates to think the same way. “He has ‘it,’” says Polizzano, “And I’m not talking about baseball. I’m talking about just life in general.”

Lluch maintained a similar attitude in her support of her sons’ high school team. She was heavily involved with the booster club, worked the concession stands at golf tournaments, organized picnics and field clean-ups, and participated in fundraisers at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. When the Buccaneers travelled to another city for a state semifinal game, Lluch was the mom who gathered all the parents by the hotel pool to have a drink and bond. She was also vocal during games, too. Polizzano says the version of Lluch broadcast from the Yankee Stadium stands was true to form. “A lot of people go to games and they want to sit there and they just want to watch,” he says. “She is 100 per cent authentic. The way she comes across is not mad — she’s just cheering her son on. And she wants the team to win.”

“This isn’t a drill. Mom, listen to me. It’s happening. It’s really happening.”

Following that debut, and really, since he was drafted by the Blue Jays 11th overall in 2019, Alek’s glass-half-full disposition has been on display in virtually every interaction with media. He’s almost like a walking embodiment of The Secret or The Power of Positive Thinking. He attributes that to his Christian faith and also to his experience growing up. “It came from life,” says Alek. “I’ve seen a lot of bad things. I’ve seen good things. I try and find a positive perspective because there could be so much negative in this world. So, it’s just about paying attention to the right things.

“A big perspective for me has always been, It’s worse somewhere else. Let’s make the best of this situation,” he continues. “That’s just a perspective that has taken me through a lot of dark times and that’s prepared me for a lot of great moments.”

These days, if Alek catches Lluch complaining about something during their conversations, he’ll flip the script on his mom. In the same way that she would motivate him as a kid, he now seeks to inspire her. It’s a relationship that has evolved from a parent-child dynamic to something more equal. “I used to tell the boys, ‘I’m your mom first and foremost,’” says Lluch, “‘and then I’m your buddy.’”

Whether it was spray-painting Alek’s beat up catcher’s gear to make it look new or running endless fundraisers, Lluch did everything in her power to help her kids succeed

Lluch is running to the washroom with a buzzing iPhone in her hand. She’s at work and needs to find a quiet place to answer this FaceTime call. A stall will have to do. She presses the answer button and Alek’s face appears. He has a look that she hasn’t seen from her son in years. His watery eyes are lit up and it reminds her of when he was a little boy. A mother’s intuition kicks in.

This is it.

“We’re going,” Alek says, his voice bouncing from the phone’s speaker off the walls.

“Where?” Lluch responds.

“You know where we’re going.”

“Really? Like now? I got to pack my bags, like, now?”

“This isn’t a drill. Mom, listen to me. It’s happening. It’s really happening. Just tell your job you’re going to be out the rest of the week. Come to New York, Mom. My debut’s in New York.”

Lluch, now a paralegal at the same firm she’s worked at for the past two decades, bursts out of the stall in tears and receives congrats from a coworker who was in the washroom and overheard the conversation. Then she makes a beeline for one of her bosses, who’s known Alek since he was two years old. Tears quickly well in his eyes, too.

Days later, she’s in the Bronx with her husband, Carlos Lluch, and surrounded by family and friends. Alek’s very first pitch is a ball on the outside of the plate to DJ LeMahieu. He proceeds to walk the leadoff hitter on four straight pitches. Of course, the nerves start churning for Lluch, in part because something is missing. Then Alek earns a called first-pitch strike on the next batter. Now, his mother can dial down the jitters.

Photo Credits

Bob Croslin/Sportsnet; Omar Rawlings/Getty Images; Bob Croslin/Sportsnet (3).