Despite being only 21, and just three years removed from his graduation at Sahuaro High School, Alex Verdugo has come across countless teammates and built numerous relationships in his young baseball career.
Those friendships range from Arizona Wildcats catcher Cesar Salazar from their days at Sahuaro to Los Angeles rookie phenom Cody Bellinger from their time as roommates in the Dodgers’ farm system.
Today, Verdugo became aligned with the World — the World baseball team, that is — in the Futures Game at Marlins Park in Miami. Representing Mexico, Verdugo started in left field and went hitless in two at-bats in the United States’ 7-6 win over the World team.
Former Arizona player Scott Kingery, a second baseman on the U.S. roster, did not get a hit in his lone at-bat after coming off the bench.
Although Verdugo’s support is wide-ranging in baseball, nobody comes close to how his parents, Tucsonans Joe and Shelly Verdugo, have put him in a position to succeed.
“I respect my parents for how they have been there for me from the beginning,” Alex told me in a phone interview last week from the Triple-A Oklahoma City clubhouse, where he was preparing for a game against Iowa.
“They put countless hours in on me and my mom got me in private lessons. She always made sure I was taking the right steps to get my career off to the right start.”
Joe says Shelly is Alex’s “manager because she does all of his paperwork and makes sure everything is right for him.”
That includes having the home prepared with the proper snacks when Alex returns to Tucson for the off-season starting in September or October.
“He would be so mad if he knew I told you this, but every night in the month when he shuts down right after the season, all I see in his bed are Reese’s peanut butter cups and hot Cheetos. I mean, it’s awful,” Shelly said with a laugh. “He goes to sleep with the hot Cheetos. I ask him if he brushed his teeth. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I’m like, ‘No you didn’t.’ He’s bad during that first month in the off-season.”
Alex is so good during the season he apparently is afforded that luxury when he goes home.
His selection to the World team is indicative of how far his career has come in only his third full season of pro ball.
Baseball America ranks him as the Dodgers’ No. 2 prospect, behind pitcher Walker Buehler, and the No. 35 prospect overall. He ranks fourth in the Pacific Coast League with a .346 batting average and has walked more than he has struck out, and has reached base in 32 consecutive games. Just last week, his 20-game hitting streak came to an end.
“Just to watch him mature and grow up it’s really cool,” Joe said. “We used to go to the Sidewinders games when he was little. Now, I look around and he’s actually playing at these kind of stadiums. That’s the coolest part.”
Joe watched Alex play today in the big-league stadium in Miami. He will fly tomorrow with his son to Seattle and then Tacoma for the Triple-A All-Star Game, which is on Wednesday. Shelly will join them in Tacoma. A hairdresser in Tucson, Shelly had an important appointment this weekend that she could not cancel, so she was unable to travel to Miami.
The presence of his parents is always a welcome sight for Alex, especially that of his dad in international events such as the Futures Game. They were also together at the friendly involving Japan and Mexico at the Tokyo Dome last November, and the World Baseball Classic games at Guadalajara in March.
Alex, who is not fluent in Spanish, represents Mexico out of respect for his father’s heritage. His mom hails from Minnesota.
“Every time, I point out to them (Mexican teammates), ‘Hey, that’s my dad right there,'” Alex said with a laugh. “A lot of times they never believe me that I’m Mexican. They are like, ‘How are you on Team Mexico or how are you on the World roster when you don’t speak Spanish?’
“It’s just one of those things. I point at him and they see my dad and they see how big he is and that he’s Mexican. He looks full Mexican. And they are like, ‘Whoa, dude, never mind I guess you really are.'”
Joe added, “He tells the guys he’s there because of me and then I start talking to them in Spanish and they are blown away. Their reaction is pretty funny.”
Alex gets his baseball skills from when his parents took him along to the Little League games involving his bigger brothers Joey Jr. and Chris. Joey, now 26, was a catcher at Tucson High School. Chris, 25, played first base and outfield with Sahuaro.
Joe Sr. stayed away from baseball at a young age after he was hit on the face with a ball because of an errant throw. His kids developed a love for the game, however, especially Alex.
“Since Alex was 5, every coach he’s ever had, said that he is a natural,” Shelly said. “That’s all they kept saying. He’s a natural.
“His older brothers played baseball first. He would be with us because he was still little. He would stand there with the tee and hit the ball into the chain link fence because I didn’t let him go any where unless he was right there by me.
“But he would just hit for hours. It probably drove everybody crazy, but he would just hit the ball right off the tee into the chain link fence … forever, literally for hours and hours, every game. That’s probably why he has such a good swing.”
Joe Sr. said Alex’s love for baseball and his desire to develop his skills went to extremes about the time he started attending Sahuaro High School.
“The neighbors would come to our house with paper bags full of his baseballs because he would take hours and hours swinging off the tee in our backyard,” Joe said laughing. “He would hit the balls into the swimming pool and the backyards of our neighbors.
“Alex would hit the balls and the neighbors would say he almost knocked one person out. It was the funniest thing ever. He was pretty dangerous that guy. You know, the neighbors read the newspaper stories about Alex. They were so proud of him that … I don’t know, they might have kept some of those balls.”
What 14-year-old comes home from practice with a broken bat and tries to fix it because that bat provided one of his home runs? Alex Verdugo was that 14-year-old.
“He would screw it. He would sand it and he would tape it,” Joe Sr. said. “He would go back out there and play with that same bat. If he could do something like that now, he would.
“Also, one time when he was 14 or 15, he got out of school and set up his tee after putting a target on the wall of the house. He was pitching and trying to hit the target. We had to stop him really quick from doing that because he would break the wall. He had quite an imagination when it comes to baseball.”
The lighthearted nature of Joe and Shelly has a lasting impact on Alex, a significant reason why he is thriving within the Dodgers’ organization. He is not succumbing to the pressure a high draft choice at the Triple-A level may experience.
Shelly watches all of Alex’s games on TV on the MiLB.TV network. She said she senses that Alex has overcome any trepidation or false bravado that may have been noticeable in his first couple of years of professional baseball.
“I’m not going to lie,” Shelly said. “I got worried when he first got drafted (the 62nd pick overall, in the second round in 2014). When I read the articles about him, it’s very true, he came in thinking, ‘I got this.’ But I know there are times you’re going to be humbled.
“I’ve watched him mature so much. I noticed this year just a huge change. He’s happier. He likes to joke more. He’s not so stressed out. I mean, I know he’s stressed, but he doesn’t act like it. He likes his teammates. He plays with guys who have been up to the major leagues and have been back down. He is more aware of how players conduct themselves with (media) interviews.”
Alex said he believes the biggest difference with him this season is his “mentality.”
“You know, how I handle failure and how I interact with teammates and all that,” he said. “It’s just I’ve matured a lot and I’m taking the right steps toward the right way.”
Shelly remembers when Alex came out of Sahuaro he was not comfortable with all of the media attention.
“When I listen back, it was so funny because he was like, ‘And, uh, um,’ in many of those interviews,” she said. “I do feel like he handles himself pretty well. You have to do things with a sense of humor. You have to take your job seriously, but you have to laugh. You have to find some humor in some things because it’s hard. It can be cutthroat. Politics can play a part of what goes on with baseball.”
The uncertainty of professional baseball is what Verdugo is experiencing with the calendar now in July.
The trading deadline is at the end of this month, which means deals involving top minor-league prospects will be made by teams looking toward the future while parting ways with a veteran who may help a playoff contender.
Verdugo could be one of those prospects who might be traded by the Dodgers to a team that has what they need — a quality outfielder who bats right-handed, a relief pitcher and a starting pitcher — to bolster their pennant drive.
The Los Angeles Times today ran a story with the headline, “Dodgers prospect Alex Verdugo could be prime trade bait”.
“A lot of people from back home are like, ‘Man, I heard you’re about to get traded,’” Verdugo said in the article. “You never know. It could happen. We always mess with each other at Triple-A: ‘No, you’re getting traded! No, you are!’ We just try not to think about it, but it’s in the back of our minds.
“I hope I’m given the opportunity to go up there and help the team win. I think I can bring a lot to them. I can help in every aspect of the game.”
OKC Dodgers outfielder Alex Verdugo, center, entered clubhouse with speaker blaring Lee Greenwood while wearing this. pic.twitter.com/nR7D34y0xg
— Jacob Unruh (@jacobunruh) July 4, 2017
Alex told me last week that he only gets a positive vibe from the Dodgers, although he understands it is a business.
“I love the Dodgers. I love the organization, I love the staff. I can’t imagine myself with any other team,” he said to me. “I feel like they want to really develop their players. They not only want us to get better as baseball players but also as men.”
Shelly added, “You think everything is going right or going good, but you don’t know. We always explain to him and his roommate Willie (Calhoun), ‘If you’re moved or get traded, it’s usually for the better because that team needs you. That could be a faster path to the big leagues.’ They’re kids. They’re young so you have to help them along too.”
The nurturing never stops for Joe Sr. and Shelly, from the time Alex hit the ball off the tee into the chain link fence as a 5-year-old to when they reunite this week in Tacoma for the Triple-A All-Star Game.
The process included the summers Joe Sr. would accompany Alex when the youngster played for an elite traveling team out of Chicago coached by Chuck Reeder, who is known around baseball circles as the guru of coordinating top talent.
— MLB Network Radio (@MLBNetworkRadio) July 9, 2017
“I saw him play in Chicago, Georgia, Colorado, Dallas, Florida … we traveled everywhere. That’s when we knew things were changing,” Joe Sr. said. “Alex was only 16. The scouts came out but they couldn’t talk to him yet.
“When he was 17, the New York Yankees came out to watch him play when we were in Michigan at the time. The scout said that he couldn’t go out to Arizona but that he’d call one of the scouts out here to come out and see Alex. That was really the start of Alex’s career. It was pretty cool.”
Shelly remembers how their life changed when scouts started to flock to their house.
“All of sudden, Holy Moly, every team came to our house,” she said. “It was rough. It was hard when I look back. You don’t know better. You’re like, ‘OK, you can come visit.’ Alex was falling asleep listening to them sometimes because there was so much information.
“He was a teenager. He had other things going on he probably would have rather been doing. I don’t think they understand the magnitude of it at that age. I really don’t. It’s just one of those things that doesn’t register.”
Shelly said she went from wanting only a college education for Alex — before the onslaught of scouts — to making certain her son put everything in his life into perspective with him becoming a baseball phenom.
Fortunately for Alex, he has the strong yet affable support from his parents to make it through what could be an overwhelming time in a young player’s career.
“They mean everything to me,” Alex said. “I am very close with them. I am the person and player I am today because of them.”
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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.