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Get To Know Jonathan Rodriguez

Bottom of the ninth inning of a championship game. A runner on first base. Your team is down by one run. You step to the plate.

It’s a dream scenario we all have enacted in our minds at one time or another. Earlier this month, Chattanooga Lookouts first baseman Jonathan Rodriguez got to live that dream. He got a fastball up in the zone, and he launched it deep into the night, well beyond the fence in left-center field. Immediately, he raised his arms and walked toward first base. His teammates leapt out of the home dugout and raced to greet him when he arrived at home plate. The home run gave the Lookouts a 3-2 win in the game, and a 3-2 win in the series. It also gave them a share of the Southern League championship.

You see, the Southern League decided to cancel the championship series due to Hurricane Irma which affected people in Puerto Rico, Cuba and made landfall in Florida as well. While he was playing hero for Chattanooga, Rodriguez had family and friends back home in Puerto Rico dealing with the aftermath of the hurricane.

After the season, Rodriguez returned home to Puerto Rico and soon after Hurricane Maria arrived. It was bigger and badder than Irma and caused devastation throughout the entire island. Power was knocked out throughout the country and there is a good chance it won’t be returned for months. Jonathan Rodriguez is doing what he can to help the relief efforts.

While there are a lot of Hurricane relief efforts in Texas and Florida, let’s also remember that Puerto Rico is a US commonwealth. These are American citizens as well, and they need help. A lot of help. Yankees legend Jorge Posada wrote a heartfelt article for the Players Tribune, asking for a favor.

Eddie Rosario, Jose Berrios and Kennys Vargas are Twins players from Puerto Rico, but there are several Twins minor leaguers from the island nation. The Twins are scheduled to play two games against Cleveland next season in Puerto Rico, at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. The stadium suffered major damage in this hurricane.

So, as you read this, consider donating to Puerto Rico relief efforts if you are able.
Image courtesy of Kelly McGlohon
But now, let’s get to know a little more about Jonathan Rodriguez. He is a 28-year -old first baseman who spent the first eight seasons of his career in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. Last offseason, he became a free agent and signed with the Twins. He spent most of the season with the Chattanooga Lookouts, though he spent about a week at the end of the season with Rochester. He rejoined the Lookouts for their playoff run, and had the tremendous moment to give the Lookouts the championship.

Let’s get to know him.

Seth Stohs (SS): Growing up in Puerto Rico, who was your favorite team to follow? Who were some of your favorite players?

Jonathan Rodriguez (JR): Growing up, when I started playing baseball at 7, I was a Braves fan. Loved watching Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, the Braves starting rotation with Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine. Always wondered why Leo Mazzone, their pitching coach was always rocking during the game.

SS: How difficult was it to play and be in the States during Hurricane Irma, knowing family and friends were back home going through it?

JR: It was very difficult during that first playoff game because there was so much that could happen with Irma’s trajectory. Thankfully the eye missed the island and damage was way less that what it could have been.

SS: How about going through Hurricane Maria while in Puerto Rico? Are you and your family doing alright?

JR: Thankfully, my family and I are OK. But the country is devastated. It’s not green at all. All trees, branches and leaves are gone. Looks like all the trees burned down.

SS: What were some of the better memories of your youth and high school baseball career in Puerto Rico? Did you play other sports or were you involved in other activities too?

JR: My youth baseball career never took a break ever since I turned eight. Every summer, some team would want me to play for them in tournaments in the US. It was fun getting to travel every summer, and get to face great teams. In high school, I also played volleyball. I think volleyball is a very intense sport and very personal against your competition. For some reason, I still like it tons.

SS: What was the recruitment process like for you out of high school, and what was it about State College of Florida-Manatee that made it the right choice for you?

JR: Recruitment out of high school wasn’t much. I had committed to Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona. But I had to come with money out of pocket to pay for school. Then, Manatee came along with a full ride. They showed lots of interest, gave me a full scholarship and welcomed me with open arms. I will be forever grateful to Coach Hill Sr., or Seven as we called him, his son Hill Jr (21), Coach Barry (17), Al Corlbeil and Matt Ennis for the great opportunity and adjustment period I went thru when I first got to college. Thanks to them, I was able to get adjusted to baseball in the state quicker and learn the fundamentals the right way.


SS: What were a couple of your highlights from your time in college?
JR: Highlights from my Juco days... Aside from going 4-5 with a double, two home runs and five RBIs while being sick, most of the highlights were taken by Jonathan Griffin, a former Diamondbacks player that hit 20 something home runs that year. I hit behind him most of the time, so usually I was just looking at all the bombs he would hit.


SS: Did you have the chance to speak with many scouts before the draft?
JR: I really never talked to any scouts, except Charlie Gonzalez, the Cardinals scout. This guy really pushed for me, drafting me even when he knew I had a torn labrum. Very grateful of the opportunity he offered me.


SS: The Cardinals took you in the 17th round. How did you find out that you had been drafted? How busy was your phone at that moment?
JR: The summer in 2009 my phone wasn’t busy that much. Out of nowhere, I got a call from the White Sox and Texas, I think. The Cardinals where the team calling me the most. I found out I got drafted sitting in my living room watching the Discovery Channel when Charlie called me congratulating me because the Cardinals had drafted me. A lot of joy rushed through my body because a lot of hard word had paid off. My mom’s reaction was priceless, and I was going to get the chance to meet my favorite player... Albert Pujols.

SS: What has the adjustment like for you, from the college game to the professional game, both on and off the field? Specifically, how big of a challenge was the language barrier?
JR: Language barrier wasn’t an issue. When I went to college, I knew English, so it was a matter of polishing it, learning slangs and that kind of stuff. Communication wasn’t an issue. On the field, the aluminum-wood bat transition was critical. Getting jammed at 95+ with wood was very different from aluminum bats, hahaha. At Manatee, we had a winning culture, so paying attention to detail was second nature. When I got out of Manatee, I was a professional baseball player waiting for a contract. That program is top notch getting student-athletes ready for pro ball.

SS: You became a free agent after the 2016 season and signed with the Twins. What was it about the Twins organization that made it the right organization for you to sign with?

JR: Last year, I felt like I had decent numbers to get a couple of calls during free agency. That wasn’t the case. The Twins were one of the few teams that called me and, to be honest, free agency is becoming tougher and tougher. You see guys with big league time, starting in Indy ball because the game is getting younger and younger. So, I’m really grateful that the Twins took a chance with me during the offseason and gave me an opportunity not many teams would have.

SS: What was the key to your success really throughout the 2017 season? How much fun was it to play for such a great team in Chattanooga, under a great manager in Jake Mauer?

JR: There are a couple of factors to my success this season. First, having my wife in town made a huge difference. It's really hard to play for 6 months away from family. My mom and brother have been able to see me play in the States only one time, so having that family presence every home game was key. Second, trusting in my abilities and what makes me a good player was huge. I was able to make a midseason adjustment, which was a huge gamble for me, but I had nothing to lose, and that was having a more “fly ball approach”. Trying to hit the ball hard in the air made me drive the ball more consistently, which is very important in my offensive game. Playing under Jake is a breeze, man! Jake laid out the rules at the beginning of the season, and we just went out there and had fun! The whole coaching staff was fun, and that just makes you enjoy more the time you are at the field.


SS: I have to ask… take us back to the Southern League co-championship game. The Lookouts are down 2-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning. A runner gets on base. What is going through your mind as you’re walking to the plate? Were you thinking walk-off the whole time?
JR: At the moment I stepped to the plate, I wasn’t thinking of trying to hit a home run. Like I said in the interview to MiLB, in the top of the seventh, after striking out, I saw myself hitting a home run and turning to our dugout getting my hands across my jersey where it says ‘Nooga. When Wade got on, after a very competitive at-bat against Gibaut, one of the hardest throwing pitchers in the league, I had no thoughts of a home run. I just went looking for a belt high fastball to drive and stay away from a double play.

SS: And from the video, it was pretty clear you knew it was gone and your team was getting rings… What was going through your mind as you were running around the bases?

JR: OMG, man, as soon as I hit it, I flipped my bat and got my hands up like Manny Ramirez, I for sure knew it was gone. Walking to first while watching the ball, I was thinking “I really ended this game with a home run” and running around the bases it was surreal. I was thinking of all the hard work that I’ve put into this game, my family, my wife and wishing they were able to see it live. My wife had to fly back before the season ended, so she wasn’t there to see it. It was, by far, the highlight of my career!

SS: What do you have planned for the offseason? Will you play winter ball again?

JR: So far the plan is to play winter ball. Now that Maria hit Puerto Rico, the winter ball here is uncertain. Stadiums are destroyed, so it would be hard to get them ready in time. Hopefully some team from the Dominican Republic calls me, that would be a dream come true since my parents are from Dominican Republic and it would be an honor to play in front of my family back in the Dominican Republic.

SS: What are some of the things that you enjoy doing when you’re not playing baseball?

JR: I really enjoy and invest lots of time playing this video game called Destiny. It's a Sci-Fi shooter and is very interesting and overall a time-consuming game. Thankfully, a lot of the guys in the Twins like Stephen (Gonsalves), (Mitch) Garver, (Jason) Wheeler, Dereck Rodriguez, Ryan Walker, Ryan Strausborger and a lot of other guys play it too, so we will be spending a lot of time playing together, at least I will get back on the sticks when power and internet get back to Puerto Rico, which might take months.

SS: You can become a free agent again this offseason. What will be some of the factors that will go into a decision for where you’ll play in 2018?

JR: That's a good question and it's something me and my agent need to sit down and discuss the plan for next year. Right now, priority is to help my people here as much as I can to recover from this disaster, and then, we will discuss all the possibilities for my future.

SS: Who are some of the people who have helped you get to this point in your career?
JR: My parents have been a cornerstone to everything I am today. Although they have no baseball background, their support has always been there since day one. My brothers and my wife’s support have helped me be hungry to become the best version of myself on a baseball field. All the coaches, in one form or another, have contributed in my development as a player on the field, but also a good citizen off the field. And to God, he has blessed me with great people around me and has given me health and strength to go through all the challenges thrown at me.


SS: Favorite Baseball movie?
JR: Hahaha! To me it has to be, Bad News Bears. I find it hilarious.


A big Thank You to Jonathan Rodriguez for taking time to respond to our questions. It’s a busy time for him as he’s helping out Puerto Rico after the impact of Hurricane Maria. Most of the country doesn’t have power. He made a comment that he only has internet access at night, but he took some of that time to respond.

Again, if you are able, consider donating to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

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3 Comments

Nice interview, Seth.

Thanks for these player profiles, Seth. I really enjoy reading more about these minor league players, especially the ones that might not rank among the top prospect. Even veteran grinders like Rodriguez can surprise you if given the chance.

    • David HK likes this

Rodriguez said:

 

"Growing up .... I was a Braves fan .... Always wondered why Leo Mazzone, their pitching coach was always rocking during the game."

 

I always wondered about that too!


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