Away from the Diamond

Hernan Iribarren has had a bigger impact mentoring players than he has hitting baseballs, which he can still do. (Photo courtesy of Jared Anderson).

“I can still hit a 95-mph fastball.” This is the quote that sticks in my head from the first time I talked to Hernan Iribarren, when I asked him why he was still playing minor league ball at 32. It was the kind of answer you’d expect Crash Davis to give if he were in an honest mood.

Almost exactly two years ago, I started working on a story. I’d been knocking around the press box in Louisville watching Bats games and writing about Reds prospects. But I was also looking for stories, listening to what people talked about. I’d been there a few months when I realized one name kept coming up. Hernan Iribarren. Hernan Iribarren this, Hernan Iribarren that. The interns loved him. Then-manager Delino DeShields loved him. The other players loved him.

I’d talked to him once or twice, but only because he’d served as translator when I wanted to interview a player who wasn’t comfortable giving an interview in English. I looked at his player pages. He was hitting, but he was also 31, about to turn 32 with almost no major league resume. There are very, very few guys like that in the minor leagues. It takes a lot of willpower to keep coming to the ballpark at that age when you’ve never really made it.

And it turns out, there was an interesting story there. And there were lots of reasons everyone loved Iribarren, something I came to understand as I talked both to him and to those who had interacted with him in various organizations.

And something magical happened that season. It felt a little magical for me and — as you’ll see — even more so for Iribarren. As I was working on the story, he kept hitting and hitting and hitting, all while playing everywhere. (I have personally witnessed Iribarren play every position except catcher, and he’s not a defensive slouch anywhere. As an emergency pitcher, he’s even managed to accumulate 25.1 innings pitched with a 1.75 ERA.) Anyway, he was hitting, and there started to be rumbles that he should get a call-up. This doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t. Try hard to remember the last time your team called up a 32-year-old who still had his rookie status.

Photo courtesy of Jared Anderson.

But it did. I happened to be in DeShields’ office when he got the email. Hernan Iribarren was about to be a major league player for the first time since he was 25. It had been seven years since he made it to the big leagues. I hadn’t planned it, but my story, which you can read here, turned out to be perfectly timed. And he did well. In 45 plate appearances, Iribarren hit .311/.311/.444 with the Reds in 2016.

Though he was invited to major league spring training in 2017, Iribarren hasn’t been back to the majors since. He recently became the sixth player in Louisville history to accumulate 400 hits for the franchise. A native of Venezuela, he has permanently relocated to the U.S. since my 2016 story ran. So much had happened that it felt like it was time to check in with him again. I spoke to Hernan and his wife, Tahis, about the direction his career is taking and what it was like to relocate and live in the U.S. full time.

We began by talking about how it felt for him to return to the majors after so long.

It was like I started all over again, after my knee injury. It took me seven years to get back, and when they told me, it was pretty special to me. It felt like the first time again. It felt better than the first time. The first time, I was a kid. I wanted to get there, but I hit, I hit, I hit. I didn’t go through problems. It was just uphill. I had my knee surgery in ‘11 and from ‘12, I started building my career again because nobody believed in me because of my knee or whatever.

When they told me, ‘You’re going up,’ in my memory — in my brain — I saw a movie from the moment I had my surgery all the way to that point. All the ups and downs I had with my family. You know, in every way, economically, in jobs, back home. People that have been there pushing me, encouraging me. To be honest, I cried more the second time than the first time. The first time I was in shock, but this time, I cried. And being able to do good, it was even better.”

Iribarren is much more settled than your average minor league player. He has a wife and two young kids. He and his wife decided to settle permanently in the U.S. because their home country of Venezuela was, and is, experiencing a destabilizing economic crisis.

“When you go home and it’s tough to find first-need supplies. Toilet paper, rice, we eat something called arepa that’s like, I don’t know how to put it for you, maybe bread — something you guys eat regularly. Every store is empty. There’s no medicine. No security. That made us make that choice. Before 2010, you’d go home and it was like before. Everything was the same. The country was nice, it was beautiful. Then it started deteriorating. You hear, ‘This guy got robbed, this guy got killed,’ and you think, ‘Okay, I have to do something for the sake of my family. To keep my kids safe and my wife safe.’”

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Though his brother and sister have also relocated to the U.S., his parents still live in Venezuela, “They’re okay. They’re better than other people, but still, they gotta be careful. They’re not gonna go out and be like, ‘Oh, everything is cool.’ They gotta be careful about who’s following because it’s tough right now.”

Quotes like that bring home how difficult it’s gotten, and it’s easy to understand why the Iribarren family made the decision it did. His wife, Tahis, put it very succinctly: “It’s been hard to leave my country and leave my family back. Not being around my family. To come here to a new culture, but being here together is gonna be better for the kids. We like the culture here. We don’t see our family as much as we’d love to, but we like living here.”

Iribarren agrees, saying they have a good community where they live in New Albany, Ind., across the river from Louisville. “We have a good group of people we know. We have a lot of friends here. We have an old couple that’s kind of like our parents here. My kids even call them grandma and grandpa.”

Best of all, perhaps, is that when the Bats are home, Hernan is home. “I sleep in my bed every night. It’s awesome. It’s really good. For two or three years, I slept on an air mattress when I was in rookie ball or High-A or whatever.” Coming home to your family isn’t something every minor leaguer gets to experience, never mind coming home to the place where he really lives.

It’s a nice picture, but this is Iribarren’s age-34 season, and talking to him, it’s clear he feels a change coming. “This year, I just came in to have fun. No matter if I play or not, I’m just gonna try to have fun, thinking that this might be my last year. My goal is not ‘I’m gonna get to the big leagues.’ I’m just gonna try to have fun. Try to help people on the way. The kids that are here. Try to help them and then hopefully they go up. I’ve been working with guys. Nick [Senzel, the Reds’ top prospect]. [Blake] Trahan. We have a really good relationship. Nick is going through a thing where he changes positions like I did.”

Mentoring other players has been important to Hernan for a long time, something that was clear when I first wrote about him, so it’s no surprise he’s working with players on the Bats. His closest relationship on the current team seems to be with Dilson Herrera.

Herrera came into the Reds organization as a highly-touted prospect who’d already seen time in the majors, but a shoulder injury more or less ruined his seasons in 2016 and ’17, causing him to fall off the radar. It doesn’t help that the Reds are converting Senzel into a second baseman; second is Herrera’s natural position. It’s not so different from Iribarren’s story. He was a well-regarded prospect in the Brewers organization — even playing in the Futures Game — before a knee injury cost him a season and completely reset his career.

“Dilson will come to me. He’s my roomie on the road. He knows where he is right now. He knows he has to work. He knows he has to show that he’s healthy and ready for the next level. We talk a lot. His mindset is different than last year. That’s a good thing. He’s not thinking ‘I’m the same guy.’ He knows, ‘I need to open eyes again.’” Asked if having someone who’s been through a similar experience will help Herrera, Iribarren says, “I think so. It will.”

I tell Iribarren I’ve heard about teams helping players from Venezuela relocate because of the particularly difficult circumstances. I asked if the Reds had helped him, and he said he didn’t ask. “They could have helped me, but I didn’t want to have that … When you apply for residency, you can have a sponsor. Cincinnati could have been my sponsor. I never asked for that, but I could have, and they would’ve done it because we have a great relationship, but I didn’t want to feel that attached.”

That last bit tells you that Iribarren is looking past his playing career now. There is more than one organization that is interested in bringing him into player development once he’s finished playing. He’s going to be part of someone’s staff. It’s a given. He could, of course, use the Reds as a sponsor and then leave the organization if he gets a better offer, but if you talk to him for any length of time, it’s clear that’s not who he is.

I referenced Bull Durham a little bit back at the beginning of the article. Somewhere out there is a Mickey Mantle quote in which he says it’s a sad movie because it’s about a good player who never really got a chance. But I wonder if it really is. Iribarren’s story hasn’t been perfect, but like the iconic Crash Davis, we know he won’t be an athlete who flaps in the wind when his days as a player are done. They will be an important chapter in his life, for certain, but they won’t be the whole story.

Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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Yehoshua Friedman
5 years ago

I hope he gets a chance to do coaching. He seems to have the talent. But maybe he can help some club as a player before he finally hangs them up.

5 years ago

A multilingual, multicultural athlete who’s played multiple positions and has experience mentoring young athletes. Sounds like a great minor league manager to me once he’s ready.

Great write-up Jason.

Eric Robinson
5 years ago

This is a great article that reminds me not just why I like baseball but the individuals who are involved in the game as well.