Ildemaro Vargas’ inspiring journey to be part of the Cubs’ roster
MESA, Ariz. — The warm South Florida sun radiated off Ildemaro Vargas, but he wasn’t about to take a break. Not when there was work to be done and an opportunity to earn money to feed his son Austin.
Except, it wasn’t the job he planned when he first made the trek from Venezuela to the United States as a teenager.
“It was something really tough,” Vargas said. “My son was just born 3 months prior. It was my motivation to do something that I had never done.”
That something he had never done wasn’t fielding a new position or changing his swing. No, he was cutting grass.
The thought of playing in the major leagues felt farther than the journey back to his hometown of Caripito in the northern part of Venezuela. But if there was an opportunity to put food on the table, Vargas was going to do it.
It was the low point of the toughest few months Vargas had to go through.
Just a month or so earlier in March of 2015, Vargas had been cut by the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that signed him as a 16-year-old free agent and the club he dreamed of debuting with one day.
“As a young guy, I was very frustrated when it happened because I’m a guy that respects my job a ton,” Vargas said.
He signed with the now-defunct Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League, but their spring training camp wouldn’t start for a few weeks. Now, scrambling for a way to earn a paycheck, Vargas turned to manual labor.
So, Vargas toiled away and trimmed the grass as best he could. That was all he could do as he waited for his spring training and, more importantly, a second chance.
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Vargas’ hopes fell when he reported to spring training with the Bluefish.
“When I was in independent league and saw that style of game, that league, I thought my career was over, that I wasn’t going to have a second chance,” Vargas admitted.
That’s because it was like nothing he had ever experienced.
After signing with the Cardinals, Vargas had gone through each rung of the Cardinals’ system with anything he needed. There was equipment and gear. Moreover, there were all the tools necessary for a prospect to succeed: a dedicated hitting coach, an infield coach and the player development system of the famed Cardinals’ farm system. That wasn’t the case with the Bluefish.
“The most difficult thing about independent league is that you’re your own coach,” Vargas said. “I felt like I was forgotten, here you’re on your own, no one cares. I had to work twice as hard.”
Luckily for Vargas, he had a mentor in former big leaguer Luis Rodríguez. Rodríguez, a fellow Venezuelan, had played over 400 games in the majors across six seasons with the Twins, Padres and Mariners and was playing for the Bluefish. He knew what it took to make it to the big leagues and how to get there.
“Thanks to God, I always had someone there supporting me, there it was Luis Rodríguez,” Vargas said. “For me, he was my coach in that moment.”
He was a sponge, absorbing anything from Rodríguez and grinding for another opportunity at organized ball. After 30 games with the Bluefish, it finally came.
The Arizona Diamondbacks signed Vargas to a minor-league contract and assigned him to the Kane County Cougars and he made the most of his second crack. Vargas slashed .321/.385/.438 in his first season in A-ball. That allowed him to kick start his 2016 season in Double-A Mobile, where he spent 83 games before being promoted to Triple-A Reno, where he’d finish the season.
Dream turned reality
At Cubs camp, there might not be anyone with a more infectious personality than Vargas.
“I love having him around, always has a smile on his face and works hard,” Cubs manager David Ross said.
Earlier in camp, when Vargas and other hitters were taking batting practice, Vargas was walking around the batting cage with a huge smile on his face when a Cubs coach took notice.
“Look at this guy; worst attitude in the league,” the coach joked.
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You can always find Vargas with a smile on his face, whether he goes 0-for-4 or 4-for-4. That’s why he was shocked when he was in Triple-A in 2017 and received a message from his manager.
“The manager calls me at like midnight,” Vargas recalled. “He tells me ‘Vargas, I need to speak with you, because your attitude isn’t good. I want to talk to you because the attitude you had in the game wasn’t good.’”
His heart sank.
“I thought, ‘Wow, I was calm the whole game,’” Vargas said.
So, he walked into his manager’s office. His heart beating through his chest, his manager Greg Gross gave him unexpected news.
“For me,” Gross told Vargas, “it’s an honor to tell you, because I know everything you’ve gone through and how much you had to work and what you had to live through to tell you that you’re going up to the big leagues.”
In hindsight, Vargas should have had an inclination that could be happening. He was a Triple-A All-Star and at the game before he was called up, then-Diamondbacks special assistant Tony La Russa was in attendance.
“Every time he was watching a game in Triple-A, it was because they were gonna call someone up,” Vargas said.
Vargas travelled to Phoenix to debut for the Diamondbacks. He made his debut on June 29, 2017, against, of all teams, the Cardinals. That moment made everything Vargas had gone through more than worth it.
“It was a special moment since Arizona gave me the second chance to debut and against the team that had dumped me, against the St. Louis Cardinals,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was nervous. I struck out my first at-bat. It was a strikeout, because, really, I was so emotional. I cried. I cried a lot with my family.”
Vargas spent the next two seasons bouncing between Arizona and the minor leagues, before playing 92 games in the big leagues in 2019.
But his struggles weren’t over there. In August 2020, the Diamondbacks, who had given him another break at reaching his goals, designated him for assignment. The Minnesota Twins traded for him, but he remained on the team for less than a month before he was designated for assignment again.
The Cubs claimed him off waivers, and he played a role in their playoff push last season, including homering off Josh Hader on Sept. 12 as the Cubs rallied in the ninth inning to beat the Brewers 4-2. He seamlessly fit in with the team, too.
“The manager treats me, wow, I have no words to say how they treat me here,” Vargas said. “They treat me well.”
Still, he suffered a hamstring strain a little over a week later and missed the rest of the season for the Cubs. Now in 2021, Vargas, who is out of minor league options, is battling for a roster spot with just a couple of weeks until Opening Day. While that pressure would seem monumental for most, that isn’t the case for Vargas.
“This is just another test,” Vargas said. “After all that I lived through with St. Louis, independent league, working to support my son, I enjoy this. I’m not concerned about my job. I’m concerned with being a good teammate, which is the most important thing.
“I’m not afraid of what’s gonna happen, what’s not gonna happen.”
Instead, he’s focused on his work and appreciating the little things that he goes through in spring training.
“I feel this is all a win for me,” Vargas said. “There isn’t anything more special to me than to get to the stadium, see my locker, get dressed, see my teammates, do the little things, bat, run.
“This is what I love, and if God gave me a second chance in life, it’s for a reason. I am grabbing it with the most humility I can have and to keep fighting to keep going up another level.”
And, at the end of the day, he’s already proving to be an inspiration to others who are trying to achieve their goals.
“It’s an example to all the youth that you can’t quit,” Vargas said. “As long as you have good health and life and desire and the drive, you can accomplish it.”