How Rafael Ortega’s steady mindset has helped him become the player he is today
Rafael Ortega spent 1,294 days waiting for that phone call back to the big leagues.
In many ways, it felt like an eternity — so much so, that there were days when he turned to his wife, Yermary, and his daughter, Mariangel, in despair.
“’Hey, I think I’m wasting my time playing baseball,’” he would tell them, wiping tears away as he did.
After all, he had been placed on waivers twice in that span and the big leagues were seemingly so far away. But, instead of quitting, Ortega persevered and it’s helped him become the player — and leader — he is today.
“I’ve had to go through many down moments to know the satisfaction of the good moments,” Ortega said. “I think all that time has matured me. You learn to be calm in the tough moments, because I know, eventually, you’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
For Ortega, the end of the tunnel was another chance in the big leagues. He had a brief taste of it in 2012, as a 21-year-old rookie who the Rockies called up from High-A. Ortega played in 2 games at the end of the season and had a pair of hits in 4 at-bats in the stint, then was sent back down.
He spent 2013-2015 at Double-A and Triple-A in the Rockies and Cardinals systems.
Ortega was claimed off waivers by the Angels in 2016, started the season at Triple-A and finally returned to the Majors early in April. He played 66 games with the Angels that season and hit .232. He played in the majors again in 2018 (with the Marlins) and 2019 (with the Braves). He played under 50 games in both seasons and posted under a .600 OPS in each stint.
He never felt like he was showing the player he really was. That in itself was a learning experience.
“In baseball, I’ve learned that it’s not always going to go 100% and well,” Ortega said. “You’re always going to have highs and lows. I try to keep myself mentally calm and hope that everything will turn out all right. I always stick to my routine; I know that at any moment the big bats and the plays will come.”
Last season proved to be the year where Ortega displayed who he thought he could be — a steady presence at the top of the lineup who can hit for average. He slashed .291/.360/.463 in 103 games with 11 home runs, 33 RBI and 12 stolen bases. Ortega even had a 3-home-run game against the Nationals a couple of days after the trade deadline.
That journey helped him this season, when he went through a cold spell to start the year, hitting just .200 through his first 28 games. His demeanor never changed. Instead, he kept plugging away, knowing that he could return to the player he was.
“I tried to stay relaxed and not think too much about the results, but instead on the process,” Ortega said.
With injuries to Seiya Suzuki and Jason Heyward, Ortega saw more playing time and with that, he returned to the player he showed in 2021. In his last 30 games, he’s hitting .318 with an .872 OPS, 3 home runs and 14 RBI.
His attitude kept him going throughout the rough stretch and it helped the team, too.
“He’s a worker and just a good way about him,” David Ross said. “Good energy about him. He affects everybody in a positive way, me included. Being around him puts a smile on my face.
“When you have a guy like that and you see him being around the new guys and affecting them with that and just the way he is and the way he goes about being a big leaguer, I think that’s what you look for in some of your veteran players or guys that know how to be big leaguers.”
Christopher Morel was quick to credit Ortega as someone he turned to when he was in a slump. Ortega shared his message to Morel during his slump.
“He was striking out a lot, he was being desperate, he was losing his confidence and I went up to him,” Ortega said. “I said, ‘Hey, the most important thing that you have — the best thing that I think you have besides your ability to play baseball — is your attitude, the soul that you have that you bring to the team. You can’t focus on just what is going on [results-wise]. Try to enjoy your teammates like you always have. Let the results come on their own.’”
That’s helped Ortega and it’s setting a foundation for young players to help the Cubs moving forward. That made his 1,294-day journey all the worthwhile.
“Without those [tough] moments, the satisfaction of the good moments would not exist,” Ortega said. “If it was all perfect, you’d have no feeling. But I think that’s a compliment, too. Going through tough moments helps me and anyone to overcome those and yearn for those good moments.”