The Making of a Baseball Life

Hernan Iribarren has a bright baseball future after his playing career his over. (Courtesy of the Louisville Bats)

Hernan Iribarren has a bright baseball future after his playing career his over. (Courtesy of the Louisville Bats)

On Sundays at Louisville Slugger Field, kids run the bases. They enter the field on the first base side and trot around while parents watch. Sometimes, you’ll see a four-year-old girl with unusual company as she makes her trip around the bases. Her dad, 32-year-old minor leaguer Hernan Iribarren, runs around with her in his home uniform.

And okay, that’s a sweet image. Picturesque. But why should you or I or anyone care? I think the answer is pretty clear. If you’re reading this site it’s because baseball is a big part of your life. It matters. You have stories about how it matters. There are guys – we’ve all read the stories – who play baseball because they are good at it, but they don’t particularly like it. It’s work. I’m not impugning them, though. Instead, I’m making a point that few keep at it in the minors when they are 32 if it’s just work. They move on. If you’re 32 and in the minors, you care. And you have stories about how baseball matters.

Iribarren signed as a kid out of Venezuela. He was 17. He’s been playing professional ball in the United States since he was 20. In that time, he’s had 29 plate appearances in the major leagues, as infielder, outfielder, pinch hitter. He keeps in shape and from a distance, you wouldn’t know how old he is, but up close, there is gray in his stubble. A little hint of the middle that many of us get as we age, ballplayers or no. He’s not a kid anymore. Not a prospect. But he still plays almost every day, and this year, his .327 average has been the best in the International League.

How does that happen? How do you end up hitting so well in the International League at 32? How do you end up as .300 hitter in 10 years of minor league play with barely a sniff of major league experience?

He tells me a story about his professional tryout: “Day I signed, it was a Friday. I was in this amateur league. We played Saturday and Sunday. I never practiced. Friday was a practice day. So they call me and say, ‘There’s gonna be a tryout today. I put your name down. I want you to come.’ It’s eight in the morning, I’m sleeping and I say, ‘Just call me tomorrow when the game’s gonna be and I’ll show up.’”

He went back to sleep. An hour later, he got another call and this got him out of bed. “As soon as I got there, nobody was there. I was pissed. So I put my backpack behind my head in the stands and I started sleeping again.”

He got chewed out for sleeping. He also got signed. He could hit.

“I never worked out. Everything I had, how I got to the big leagues, it’s God-given. It’s not because I worked out. It’s not because I was in the gym all the time. I didn’t do nothing. I could almost say I didn’t deserve it.”

It’s not that hard to figure out the next few years. It’s about expectation. Sometimes things just come, and for Iribarren, they just came. He didn’t have to work to hit. He didn’t practice as an amateur. At 20, he came to the U.S. and hit .422 in 284 plate appearances between Rookie league and Single-A ball.

It’s hard to reconcile that kid with the 32-year-old I talked to. How does someone who doesn’t want to get out of bed to try out for a major league organization turn into someone who asked me to call Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich to talk about how Bridich believes Iribarren can do well as a coach or instructor once his playing days are done.

In terms of his ceiling once his playing career is over, Bridich said, it’s “whatever he wants it to be.” He then told a story about Iribarren’s influence on and interaction with younger Latin players that he witnessed when Iribarren was in the Rockies system from 2012-13.

“It was in spring training and we had all of the young Latin American guys in a conference room. We were going through the expectations for spring training. And he didn’t have to stand up and say anything, but he did and he just wanted to express to the guys his feelings on the game of baseball and about the organization and how fortunate everyone is to play the game. No one asked him to do that, but he did.”

What Bridich says fits with what I’ve heard and seen around the Triple-A Louisville Bats organization. When I interviewed the highly touted Jose Peraza, it was Iribarren who served as translator. He is known, widely, as someone who serves as a mentor to the younger Latin players.

Iribarren tells a story about his first week as a professional. He’s in the Dominican Republic and his legs hang off the undersized mattress. The lights go out at 7 p.m. He wanted to leave. He called his mom and was ready to go. But he says, “One of my friends – he’s a coach for Milwaukee now – he says come on, one more week. And he did that all year, one more week, one more week.”

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That little bit of a push was all Iribarren ever got, and it’s clear he feels the loss. He was an important prospect in his day. At 21, in 2005, he was added to the Brewers’ 40-man roster. That, Iribarren says, is when it became serious for him. He recalls his mother telling him it was time to stop playing soccer. But that doesn’t mean his approach to the game changed. Why would it? His numbers were good and the game still came easily.

But somewhere, he stalled. The Brewers had some established players and were going through a run of being competitive. Still, it’s hard not to feel that a truly valued prospect could have pushed the envelope and worked his way in as at least a utility player, good for a few hundred plate appearances. Instead, he got a couple of injury related call-ups in 2008 and 2009.

It was in ‘09 that Iribarren realized he wasn’t a prospect anymore. His voice catches when he talks about it and he almost tears up. “In 2009, they sent me down on Aug. 30, a couple of days just to open up the roster and at that point, I was like, wow, they don’t care about me. I’m not that guy anymore. I was heartbroken. Going to the airport, I felt like crap. I want to go home.” He was friendly with the manager in Triple-A and asked not to play the last few games of the season.

I thought that if there was ever a time when a prospect thinks about hanging it up, this would have been it and I asked if he thought about quitting. He was quick with his response. “No. No.” Not since he began taking the game seriously has he thought about doing something else.

So he hung on, and then, in 2011, something else happened. He hurt his ACL and missed the season. His body was starting to betray him.

Iribarren’s eyes light up when he talks about his time as a prospect. Getting a hit on the first pitch he saw in the majors. Playing in the Futures Game. Being added to the 40-man roster. But it’s this moment – this injury – around which our conversation and his career really seem to turn. It is the time he became a mentor to younger guys. “But after I got hurt, God hit me in the head and told me, you not doing the right things. After that, I wanted to make the young kids not make the mistakes I did when I was young.”

Iribarren understands what it’s like to be a top prospect, signing as young as some of these players sign and coming from where they come from. “Especially Latin kids, where we come from – back home – when you come from nothing, to being a top-10 prospect, you think that you’re on top of the world. You think that if you don’t play, the game is gonna stop. That’s what I thought, so my goal is to tell them, you gotta work. Even if you’re in this list or whatever, you gotta work hard because you want to be in the next level. You don’t want to be stuck in A-ball. I wish somebody would have told me. Maybe my career would have been different.”

It’s after this that he joined the Rockies organization and made such an impression on Bridich, who wasn’t yet the GM. It’s after this that he came to the Reds organization and found himself appreciated for more than just what he did on the field. And, in many ways, it seems to be when baseball started being really fun for him.

Playing all over the diamond is “fun.” He added first base to his repertoire this year in the wake of an injury to another player. “I like first. It’s really fun at first. It’s busy.” For a few years now, he’s been the emergency pitcher. “Pitching is so fun, man. I just go up and throw it nice and easy.” He mimes the hitters gearing up to hit against him. Rearing back to hit home runs and getting themselves out from trying to hit it too hard. (For the record, in 11.2 innings over the last three seasons, Iribarren has allowed only one run while striking out two and walking two.)

While the game has become fun, it’s also clear that it is the kind of fun that comes from satisfying work. Iribarren watches video after nearly every at-bat and wants to know which pitches the classification system says he was thrown. When he talks about the great players he’s interacted with and played with it’s not their on-field play that he comments on. It’s that Derek Jeter spoke Spanish and that Troy Tulowitzki works out all the time and that Miguel Cabrera goes to watch winter league games for fun and, apparently, doles out hitting advice from the stands. “I play with his team in Venezuelan [Winter League] in the playoffs and he came just to watch. I was the leadoff guy, and I was 0-2 and he calls me over and says, ‘Man, what are you doing? You’re late! You gotta be early on the ball!’ I go to bat and I hit a double!”

That kind of recognition of off-the-field qualities illustrates why so many people look at Iribarren as a future coach or manager. He says he wants to be a minor league coordinator. And there is a sense that he is coming to a place of stability. His wife is expecting a baby and they are staying in Louisville over the winter. It’s the first year he won’t be playing winter ball. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to stop yet.

“I’m playing because I want to get back to the big leagues. If not, I would just take a coaching job and get paid all year. I can still hit a 95-mph fastball.” He also knows the future might come soon. He acknowledges that there may be only two or three years left, but adds, “Having this kind of year is telling me a I still have a lot in me. If I woulda had a bad year, it woulda been different.”

And what can you say to that? He’s such a versatile player, and with his reputation of being good guy, a leadership guy, who’s to say he won’t latch on somewhere and get to be a bench guy for a major league team for a few years? He’s 32 and most of us look at that and think it must be time to stop, but that’s a decision he has to make. And as long as he’s hitting, you can’t blame him for still trying to be part of a big league club. He knows his playing days won’t last forever, so he plays while he can.

I asked Bats manager Delino DeShields about what keeps a player going in the minors when he’s reached the age at which he’s no longer a prospect. “I think it takes finding the right manager, the right coaching staff, that just kind of believes in you,” DeShields said. “I just feel like I have a little bit to do with it. And he’s told me that. Getting him to the big leagues would be the cherry on top for all of us.” And that reflects everything I’ve heard. There are no negative grumbles about Iribarren. He is valued as both a player and person.

Hernan Iribarren is what all of us want baseball players to be. He loves his family. He runs the bases with his daughter. His voice catches not just when he remembers being sent down, but also when he talks about a nine-day road trip without seeing her. He takes care of the young players. He asks to play first because he thinks it’ll be fun. He wears number 2 because he loves Derek Jeter and Jeter was nice to him. He gets hitting advice from Miguel Cabrera while playing winter ball in Venezuela and immediately lines a double to the outfield. He gets irritated that fans know to cheer only when the scoreboard tells them to. He appreciates what he has and he understands what he lost.

And, as it happens, Iribarren got a little bit of the dream back this past weekend. On Sunday, he was added to the 40-man roster and called up by the Reds. He also got his first major league start since 2008 and his first major league hit since 2009. This isn’t something that I knew was going to happen when I started working on this story, but given what I learned, it didn’t come as a huge surprise. I heard it referred to on the radio as an “earned call-up,” and it was, but not just because of his play in Louisville.


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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Zack
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Zack

Beautiful story that is beautifully written.

Peter Jensen
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Peter Jensen

A second to what Zack said. Inspiring.

Mike
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Mike

Great article….don’t understand why he isn’t getting more of a look, in place of dejesus, nothing against dejesus as a person, but if we are in a rebuild, why is he starting instead of are call ups….and why no winker? They said today no room for regular playing time? I’m sorry I forgot that we was still playing for the pennant…

Donnie
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Donnie

What an inspirational story.
I went to two games this holiday weekend and kept saying to myself, who is this guy… Now I know. He impressed me with his hustle, his two back to back triples and his obvious enthusiasm for the game. Great story Jason!

Frank Jackson
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Frank Jackson

I saw the Reds in spring training this year and I happened to have a 2010 Oklahoma City Red Hawks card of Iribarren. He took the time to autograph it carefully and legibly. Seemed like a very gracious fellow. Good luck to him.

Scooter
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Scooter

I must concur with my fellow commenters: this is a wonderful story to tell, and you told it exceptionally well. What a pleasure to read. Thank you!

Chris
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Chris

Thank you for writing this. Hernan played in Charleston, WV for the Power during the 2005 season (Ryan Braun and Alcides Escobar also played for that team). As a 12 year old, I went to all the games and talked to the players at cookouts that were held after some of the games. Hernan was one of the few players that I got to know a bit, and he was always very nice and took time to encourage me as a young ballplayer. I remember being upset when the season ended because I enjoyed talking to him. He’s a good… Read more »

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