“I NEVER SETTLE’’
Mariners prospect Julio Rodriguez is a rising star on the field. On Three Kings Day, he’s spreading the joy in his hometown
By Jerry Crasnick
Four years into his tenure as an outfielder with the Seattle Mariners’ organization, Julio Rodriguez has ambitious goals and the talent to achieve them. Widely regarded as a top three MLB prospect in 2021, Rodriguez justified the buildup by reaching Double-A ball at age 20 and logging a .347/.441/.560 slash line in two minor-league stops.
“The ‘man-child’ has the physical traits of a middle-of-the-order masher and the effervescent personality to be the face of the Mariners franchise,’’ wrote Baseball America.
Rodriguez has even struck up a bromance with Mariners icon and special assistant Ichiro Suzuki, which was encapsulated in a playful spring training batting practice exchange that lit up social media.
Rodriguez’s off-field goals are equally ambitious. In the mold of Pedro Martinez, Nelson Cruz, David Ortiz and other Dominican players, Rodriguez has embraced the role of benefactor to young ballplayers in his hometown of Loma de Cabrera, D.R., near the Haitian border. Today is Three Kings Day, a major holiday in Latin-America and numerous other countries, and he will spend it handing out baseball equipment to kids.
“It’s indescribable,’’ said his father, Julio Sr. “It’s a dream that I never imagined would become this big. I focused all of my life in raising a human being that emulated the qualities that my dad showed and taught me, and the ones I naturally have. This young man has surpassed my expectations. He has gone far beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It doesn’t surprise me that he has become greater than what I wanted him to become, and to me that is an enormous source of pride.’’
Rodriguez recently shared his long-term plans on and off the field with the MLBPA. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What are your early memories of life in your hometown?
"Growing up in Loma de Cabrera, I had a lot of fun. I had a lot of friends and we all grew up together going to the same school. We were all together from childhood until we graduated from middle school. I started playing baseball here with all my friends, and it was great. It's a really, really small town."
“Normally there aren’t a lot of baseball players from towns this size. It was kind of rare for me to be able to have that kind of impact. Normally you see it on the other side of the D.R., but I'm pretty grateful that I'm from a small town.’’
And yet, you didn’t fall through the cracks?
You played in the Futures Game and won a bronze medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. What was that experience like?
“It was pretty surreal. Not a lot of people get a chance to play in the Olympics. Coming from a small town like Loma de Cabrera and making it all the way to Japan to play baseball, it was a dream come true.’’
“I have an older sister and two younger siblings, a little boy and a little girl. My dad is an agricultural engineer and my mom is a dentist.
“When I was growing up my parents told me, ‘We know you love baseball. But at the same time, you’ve got to study, because baseball is uncertain.’ So they made me go to school. I definitely loved baseball, but at the same time, I understood what they were trying to teach me with that lesson.
“If I hadn’t played baseball, I would probably be studying to be a lawyer. (Rodriguez’s first pro contract with Seattle includes a $150,000 college scholarship that’s waiting for him when his career ends). I’m already learning a lot of things off the field -- I can guarantee you that.’’
What do your parents do for a living, and how did they help shape your outlook on life?
As a bilingual player, what’s your advice for young Dominican players trying to learn English?
“The only thing I can say is, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to make errors. Don’t be afraid to say a word incorrectly, because in the end it’s nothing bad. I’m 100 percent Dominican and no one is going to take that away from me. All we’re doing is trying to learn and that’s the best we as Dominicans can do. But don’t be afraid, because if you’re afraid you’ll never be able to accomplish what you want to do.’’
“Guys like Nelson Cruz definitely motivated me. He’s not too far away from my hometown. Seeing what he's doing and the way he's impacting his hometown and helping it grow overall, that motivated me to give back to my community. I don’t want to just give back in baseball. There’s also medical centers, firefighters, police officers.
“I want to raise everybody’s life to a better standard. Not just baseball, but getting a better gym for my hometown, or a better supermarket. I don't want any money. I just want to create a place where people can work and have a better life. I know we’re doing a giveaway for the kids, but that’s not even the bigger picture. I want to open doors and actually impact everybody’s lives. With the help of people around me, I’ll be able to achieve that dream.’’
When did you start thinking about this Three Kings Day initiative?
“We have a bunch of baseball gloves and bats and catching gear. For a lot of people, it might seem like a little bit. But where I’m from, that’s like gold. When I go practice at the fields here, a lot of kids don't even own a glove or a pair of cleats. Sometimes they just go to the field and borrow some. So we collected like 112 gloves, and aluminum bats and catching gear. All that stuff is going to help kids here that have nothing. It fills me with joy that I'm going to be able to do that for those kids.’’
What equipment have you collected and how do you plan to distribute it?
So you’re playing Santa Claus for a day?
“Yeah, something like that (laughs). Me and my dad.’’
“I was a big Three Kings Day kid growing up. I really loved that day. My parents would always give me some little toy to play with. It will be really cool for kids who aren’t expecting something for Three Kings Day to get something they really desire. There are a lot of parents that can’t provide for their kids -- not because they don’t want to, but because they just can't.’’
What does Three Kings Day mean to you?
How big a factor is the cost?
“A lot of kids can't get it because of the cost. Plain and simple. They can’t afford even a simple glove. Even for me, I remember my first glove. Someone gave it to my dad, and my dad gave it to me. And my parents went to school and everything. So imagine for kids whose parents who didn’t go to school for a lot of reasons, how tough life would be for them.’’
“Yes. It wasn’t too great a glove. But it was my first one, and I appreciated it.’’
Do you still have the glove?
When you were growing up in Loma de Cabrera, which players inspired you to pursue a career in the game?
“Man, a lot of them. There are so many players from the D.R. that I watched growing up. Nelson Cruz. David Ortiz. Alex Rodriguez. All of them were my motivation to become a big leaguer.’’
“For guys like me? Baseball means a way out. It means a way to help out your family. It means opportunity, so you can help out your family and those around you.’’
Can you explain to people what baseball means to kids in the Dominican?
You reached Double-A ball this season before your 21st birthday. Beyond your community work, what are your goals in the game?
“My goals on the field will always be the same: Become the best version of myself that I can and keep competing with myself to get better. I never settle. I love competing against the best. I play to win all the time. That’s all that matters.’’