Spreading his wings: Manny Rodríguez’ inspiring journey from humble beginnings to big leagues
WASHINGTON D.C. — Try as he might, Manuel Rodríguez couldn’t hold back the tears.
Who could blame him?
The Cubs’ rookie pitcher was on the phone with his parents, Manuel Sr. and Rocío Caamal, as they celebrated just after he made his major league debut Friday night. They recalled all the moments that led up to Rodríguez’s debut.
There was the time he picked up a baseball for the first time, the time he first signed up for youth baseball at 10. They reminisced about the countless hours the elder Manuel would spend with him playing catch after working all day driving a taxi around Merida, Yucatan, Mexico.
But there was one memory that stood out above the rest. It was a conversation that made their eyes moist as they smiled and celebrated his once-in-a-lifetime moment.
“It was when I signed with the team in Yucatan [in 2012]. They wanted to send me to an academy in Monterrey,” Rodríguez said.
That’s typical for any player when they sign with a professional club. They’re often sent away to a minor league affiliate far away as they begin their ascension to become a big leaguer.
Rodríguez wasn’t any other player. He was a youngster — just a teenager when he signed with the Leones de Yucatán, his hometown team. They wanted to send him more than 1,200 miles away to develop.
The club needed authorization from a parent to send him to Monterrey.
Manuel Sr. is a hardy man who always pushed the younger Manuel to take the extra step and push himself out of his comfort zone. He isn’t one to show emotion. But he’s a family man, first and foremost.
“Although my dad is a tough person, he likes my sisters and I to remain close,” Rodríguez said.
So, his dad didn’t want to make the decision that would send his only son so far away.
He put the decision of whether his son would go so far in his wife’s hands. He told her she would have to be the one to sign the paperwork.
Rocío Caamal looked her only son in the eyes and asked if he wanted to take the plunge and go to the academy.
“Si,” he told her confidently.
Then, she told him something that the three of them have never forgotten.
“Yo no te traje al mundo para cortarte las alas,” — I didn’t bring you into this world to cut off your wings.
The younger Manuel Rodríguez always carried that phrase with him. On Friday night, with him in Washington D.C. and his parents nearly 3,000 miles away in Umán, Yucatan, they remembered that moment.
And they let the water works flow. Even the patriarch of the Rodríguez household, who rarely, if ever, shows his emotions.
“[Friday], I did see him really fragile, really emotional, really moved,” the younger Manuel said. “With many emotions that he couldn’t find.”
When he was able to compose himself a little, Rodríguez thanked his son.
“Thank you for letting me live to see this moment. And more than anything he thanked me for everything I’ve done,” the Cubs’ flamethrower said. “It was a beautiful moment for my dad to tell me those words. I enjoyed it a lot.”
An inherited love
In many ways, Rodríguez’ debut in the big leagues was a dream come true for him and his father. His father was a beisbolero — he was baseball-mad. And he lived in a state that shared the passion for the sport.
Rodríguez’ father played in men’s leagues in Merida, Yucatan, while his son was little. The Cubs rookie would accompany his father every Sunday to the park. His love for the game grew with each time he went with his dad to the field.
His dad gave him his first ball. He taught him how to throw a ball. He played catch with him. And, on days when his job as a taxi driver kept him out late, Rodríguez’ mother would throw with him and play catch.
When he was 10, Rodríguez started playing youth baseball. It was a much later age to start playing the sport in an organized manner than most, but even so, he was advanced for his age. By the time he was 14, his dad realized he could play professionally.
“That’s when he decided to take me to a tryout for a team in Mexico,” Rodríguez said.
He eventually caught on with the Leones de Yucatan, in the Mexican League, who played in Merida, the big city near his hometown. He signed with them in 2012 and debuted in 2014. Rodríguez was the Mexican League Rookie of the Year in 2015 as an 18-year-old.
In 2014, Cubs’ scout Louie Eljaua saw Rodríguez pitch for the first time. Two years later, the Cubs signed him and assigned him to the Class-A South Bend Cubs. There he had a goal in mind: to become one of the first players from Yucatan to debut in the majors.
“I was conscious that it was going to be a long road, but I’ve always liked the challenges,” Rodríguez said. “I tried to say, if I’m not the first, I have to be the second, but I have to get there.”
In fact, he was the first.
An unforgettable day
Thursday night, Iowa Cubs manager Marty Pevey called Rodríguez into his office.
“He told me, congratulations, for the time being, you’re going to the taxi squad,” Rodríguez said.
That alone had him excited. He was going to be around the big leaguers and travel with them and be able to pick the players and coaching staff’s minds.
Most importantly, he knew that being there, any second, he could receive the call of a lifetime.
As the trade deadline approached and passed on Friday afternoon, and the Cubs completed trade after trade, it created more and more open roster spots.
A couple of hours before the game, Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy approached Rodríguez asking him how many days of rest he was on and how he felt. Rodríguez told him he was on a day’s rest, and he was ready for anything. That’s when Hottovy gave him the news: he was going to be activated and would pitch Friday night.
He was ecstatic. But he still had to put in his pregame work and throw. When he finally went back to the clubhouse, he had only a half hour before the game started, so he couldn’t tell his parents the good news.
So, as the game started, his agent called Rocío Caamal to talk to her.
“Turn on the TV because your son is going to pitch, he’s going to debut,” he told her.
She didn’t believe him. After all, the last time she had spoken with her son, he had told her he was just going to be on the taxi squad. After a few moments, she realized he wasn’t lying, and the family watched Manuel Rodríguez debut with the Chicago Cubs.
As the game went on, Rodríguez sat in the bullpen, waiting for the call to warm up and to, eventually, make his debut. When the call to warm up came, he tried to stay within himself. He didn’t want the emotions to overcome him.
Then the call came just before the 8th inning for him to come into the game. Rodríguez walked from the left field bullpen and down the ramp that led to the field. As he walked through the door, every baseball moment he had experienced hit him.
His experiences growing up in Mexico, the invaluable lessons he learned with his pitching coach Raul Ortega with the Leones de Yucatan, his minor league experience and, most of all, his beloved mother’s words all flooded through his mind as he ran toward the mound.
That prepared him for the moment, and it showed.
His first pitch was a 97-mph sinker for a strike. His next pitch was a slider that induced a popup. Then, he struck out Gerardo Parra on a 99-mph fastball and struck out Carter Kieboom looking on a cutter outside.
“I was really happy for Manny,” catcher Willson Contreras said. “We spent a lot of time together during spring training. He’s a really humble guy. He works hard and he has really good stuff.”
It was official, he was a big leaguer. So, after the game, he called his parents.
“They were happy because it was a family dream,” Rodríguez said. “I followed [my dad’s] dream and grabbed the same passion that he had for this sport. He was the one who gave me the opportunity to be here.”
They cried tears of joy, reminisced on his journey, and celebrated a day they’ll never forget.
“I know being here and them being there, I have them in my heart and they’ll always be there,” Rodríguez said. “It’s because of them I’m here. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity that they gave me.”