LAS VEGAS — His locker was unlike any other in the Oklahoma City Dodgers clubhouse at Cashman Field during the weekend.
Pictures of him from his high school days at Sahuaro were taped to the locker, including one hanging at eye level for Alex Verdugo to see each time he put on the uniform. Verdugo’s name plate above read, “Lil’ Augie Verdugo.”
A cousin (Augie Aguilar) who lives in Las Vegas and has connections with the Las Vegas 51’s decorated the locker.
Whereas other players may have become embarrassed and ripped down the photos, Verdugo welcomed the vision of his early days at Sahuaro when he started the maturing process in baseball. He is now one of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ top prospects at the Triple-A level.
Instead of his head being in the clouds, Verdugo is completely grounded by family and his Tucson roots.
“I love it,” Verdugo said with a smile looking at the photos.
Because of Las Vegas’ proximity to Tucson — and it being Las Vegas — Verdugo had plenty of family visitors from Thursday through Sunday here when Oklahoma City played the 51’s.
His father Joe and mother Shelly of Tucson — both of whom are very instrumental in their son’s development — of course made the trip.
Even family from his mother’s side in Minnesota came to Las Vegas to see him and visit the fun city.
“Every morning and afternoon before I head out to the park I’m hanging out with all of them,” Verdugo told me before last night’s game. “I just go around the city and explore it with them. Kind of just take advantage of it.
“I have my aunt and uncle and cousins who live out here. I love it especially during the season because I don’t get to see them that much. I miss a lot of moments and memories with my entire family. It’s tough but any time I can see them during the season and they come out and watch, I really love it. It’s always a great time.”
The baseball season is very long but it can feel a lot longer if Verdugo allowed it to be that way.
He was not in the starting lineup last night for the second consecutive game because Oklahoma City manager Bill Haselman said he wanted to keep Verdugo “fresh” down the last stretch of the regular season. Verdugo entered as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning and walked on four pitches in Oklahoma City’s 8-4 victory.
“I may sit him again (today for the series opener at Salt Lake City),” Haselman told me. “I’m not 100 percent. I’ll figure it out after tonight and evaluate.”
Judging from Verdugo’s relaxed and easy-going appearance in the clubhouse, he is approaching his respite the right way toward the end of the seven-month grind of the season.
No batting practice was scheduled yesterday because the four-game series at Cashman was coming to a close. Verdugo lounged on the sofa instead as he watched the torrid parent Los Angeles Dodgers (with the best record in baseball at 79-32) shut down the New York Mets on television about two hours before the game here.
“It can be physically demanding here, with baseball in general,” Verdugo said. “It’s the mental part that’s huge. Just to have a day off, a breather, it’s good to regather your thoughts and clear things up and start fresh again.”
Verdugo is handling a slump better than he would have coming out of Sahuaro only three years ago. He is batting .179 in his last 10 games but is still hitting a respectable .316 with more walks (43) than strikeouts (40).
— OKC Dodgers (@okc_dodgers) July 26, 2017
“I’m happy with the way I’ve been playing,” he said. “Recently, it’s been a struggle, but it’s baseball. You’re going to have your ups and downs. It’s all about staying even keel and knowing it’s all going to work itself out eventually.
“For me, I just want to finish strong. I want to keep battling out there, keep hustling and being a good teammate, controlling what I can control. If that happens, it happens, and hopefully September comes and I’ll get the call up. That’s would everybody roots for. We’re all one step away from it. We just want to get up there and help the best team in baseball any way we can.”
Haselman believes Verdugo, the Dodgers’ No. 2-rated prospect according to MLB.com, needs time off because the outfielder never had an All-Star break like his peers.
In early July, while others were resting during the break, Verdugo played at the Futures Game in Miami and then flew 3,000 miles to Tacoma to play in the Triple-A All-Star Game a couple of days later.
“I’m just giving him a couple of days off,” Haselman added. “I want to keep him fresh. I want to kind of have these last few weeks be a time for him to finish strong by giving him a breather.
“He’s had so much on his plate this year.”
That plate is like it came from a Las Vegas casino buffet.
Verdugo, who turned 21 in May, just cleared the ominous hurdle of the July 31 trading deadline by thankfully staying put with the Dodgers organization. He is now mentioned as a potential September call-up to the Dodgers.
His name surfaced in numerous reports in the month leading up to the trading deadline. He was a potential part of the deal that sent pitcher Yu Darvish from the Texas Rangers to Los Angeles, but his name was not involved in the end.
The Rangers acquired second baseman Willie Calhoun — the Dodgers’ fourth-rated prospect and Verdugo’s roommate with Oklahoma City — along with low Class A right-hander A.J. Alexy and infielder Brendon Davis.
“You have to take it as it goes,” said Verdugo about all the trade rumors. “I tried not to think too much about it because at the end of the day, it’s out of my hands either way. Just whatever happens, happens.
“I was fortunate enough to stay with the Dodgers. It just tells me that they think highly of me. They can see me having a future with them and that I hopefully can go up there and have an impact.”
As September nears, Verdugo will undoubtedly hear the media reports and questions on whether he will get the call to the Dodgers.
Haselman does not view that as a problem.
“I’m sure things are going to leak into his head about being called up,” Haselman said. “I’m sure that’s natural to happen to a lot of players who are having a good year, but I think he’ll play out the year and be just fine. I don’t think September is going to be a big deal.”
Verdugo acknowledges his maturity level is far advanced from his Sahuaro days.
Haselman and Verdugo talked about how Oklahoma City’s more experienced players have helped mold him into a much more patient, responsible and understanding player than when he was drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft.
“I think a lot of older players here have really helped him,” Haselman said. “They took him under their wing. He’s been a great teammate. Been really good. He is maturing the right way. Every day that goes by he is maturing and learning a lot.”
Verdugo may have taken down those pictures in his locker in previous years, but he’s learned to be more accepting and not be vain in his approach. When I mentioned that his sense of teamwork started at Sahuaro, Verdugo mentioned, “I’d say I’ve had a lot of work though.”
“I’ve definitely grown up a lot even from when I got drafted,” he added. “I started knowing more about the game, knowing how to act. Just being around older guys and them looking out for me, really helping me through everything and learning from my mistakes, it’s been really good.
“They come up to me. If I do something they don’t see as me doing well — they don’t think it is a good look — they’ll come up to me and have a conversation. I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I see.’ That gives me a different perspective. It’s definitely huge to have and it’s helped me a lot this year.”
Haselman mentioned the Tucson born-and-raised talent has all the skills of a top prospect.
“Alex has a real good approach at the plate,” Haselman said. “He knows how to stay on the ball. For a young hitter, he hits the ball the other way really well. You don’t find that a lot with young hitters.
“I think that’s a real plus. He has a good eye. He’ll take his walks and get on base. In the outfield, he is a plus outfielder. I mean, his arm is as strong as anybody’s. He’s accurate and he gets really good jumps on the ball.”
Verdugo has learned, in addition to those skills, how he conducts himself off the field and in the clubhouse plays a significant impact on making that next big move to the majors.
“I just have to do all the little things, whether it’s defense, running, hitting, hit-and-runs, whatever it is, you just have to play fundamental baseball and play hard and play it the right way,” Verdugo said. “A lot of it also is being a good teammate. That’s the biggest thing.
“If you go up there, how are you going to jell with the guys? How’s the chemistry going to be? That’s the biggest thing they preach, being a good clubhouse guy. It’s huge. Obviously, the Dodgers are on a roll. It’s fun to watch. All of us can say we all want to be part of it.”
It did not get much more fun on the diamond for Verdugo than on July 25, when his fly ball to right field was misplayed by Reno’s Zach Borenstein, who lost sight of the ball and allowed it to bounce off his head beyond the fence for a three-run home run.
Verdugo immediately smiled when I brought up that highlight-reel play for the ages yesterday. He does not mind talking about the unconventional home run, which is another sign of his maturity. He is not embarrassed by getting a home run that way, which was refreshing to see.
“When it happened to Jose Canseco (in 1993), that’s the only time I’ve ever seen it,” Verdugo said. “I’ve never seen it in real life. It was just one of things. I hit it. I knew I didn’t get it. I hit it decent but I got it on the inside of the barrel. I was watching him run back and I was like, ‘Please just get over his head. Be a double or something.’
“He got turned around. I saw the ball bounce and it ended up hitting the back wall. I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ Finally, it clicked. ‘Wow, it’s a home run.’ I had the biggest smile running around the bases. I’ve never seen it before in my life in person and I don’t think I ever will again.”
A good laugh is what Verdugo needs during such a long grind of the season.
Family and Tucson are also welcomed thoughts. I could sense that Verdugo enjoyed questions about his family and his hometown instead of the routine questions from media about how he is performing as a top prospect.
“The No. 1 thing is I miss my family when I’m gone,” he said. “I love seeing them and spending time with them. When it comes to Tucson, I miss Eegee’s, God I miss Eegee’s so much.
“I love the food in Tucson. Me and my dad, we go to Leo’s Mexican restaurant. We love to throw down over there. Those are probably the few things that I’m really missing.”
Verdugo normally spends much of his off-season in Tucson, living at his parents’ home, but he said he will mostly be in Las Vegas this year staying with his aunt and uncle.
“I will be working out up here. I have a trainer up here,” he said. “I will try to get down to Tucson and stay there for a couple of weeks. I will especially be there during Christmas or the holidays, times like that. I try to make it down and see people as much as possible.
“That’s my home.”
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.