SAN DIEGO — Randy Arozarena knew he had to take a big swing.
The then-19-year-old and his family — still reeling from the death of his father — climbed onto a small boat headed to Mexico. For the best chance to reach the major leagues, he had to leave his native Cuba behind.
“It was incredible,” said Arozarena, in Spanish, recently. “I wouldn’t want to do that again because I risked my life at sea for eight hours and I didn’t know what would happen. I saw waves 5-6 meters high in the Gulf of Mexico. It was very bad. But I had to risk my life to be able to survive and help my family.”
The boat, not much bigger than a kayak, made the crossing safely in June 2015.
After waiting months to be declared eligible to sign with a major-league team, nearly three years playing in the Cardinals' minor-league system before an August 2019 call-up, a January trade to the Rays and a case of COVID-19 that left him quarantined in a Sunset Beach bungalow throughout Spring 2.0, Arozarena has arrived.
“He is the best player on the planet,” Rays teammate Kevin Kiermaier said. "It’s incredible.”
Whether the Rays win tonight’s Game 7 of the American League Championship Series to advance to the World Series or not, Arozarena already has emerged as the breakout star — and one of the biggest stories — of baseball’s postseason.
“When you’re sitting there watching it first-hand,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said, “it’s pretty remarkable what’s taken place."
Arozarena’s first month after being called up by the Rays on Aug. 30 was impressive, as he hit .281 with seven homers and 11 RBIs in 23 games, and a 1.023 OPS.
His three weeks in the postseason have been amazing. Going into play Saturday, he already had tied the major-league record for a single postseason with four three-hit games, all within his first 10, and the rookie record for homers in a postseason with six, set by ex-Ray Evan Longoria in 2008.
He was hitting .392 through 13 games, his 20 hits two shy of Derek Jeter’s 1996 rookie record, and, with a .446 on-base percentage, had a 1.290 OPS.
“He can hit. He can really hit,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “When he gets his pitch, he doesn’t miss it. I’m just trying to figure out how the Cardinals gave up on him, or was he that good then? … He’s a dangerous man. I keep saying he can’t do it again, and he does it again.”
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Arozarena, 25, didn’t grow up dreaming of major-league stardom.
He preferred playing soccer as a young kid and still follows it today, rooting for Real Madrid, citing star Cristiano Ronaldo as a major influence. (Arozarena’s younger brother, Raiko, also is a pro goalie in Mexico who would like to get on with the Rowdies, the USL team owned by the Rays.)
Arozarena only started with baseball when the coach of a team in his Cuban hometown needed bodies and asked the soccer coach about him. His athleticism transferred, and the more baseball he played, the better he got, advancing through several levels to the Cuban under-18 national team, playing mostly second base. “That’s how it happened,” he said.
At 18, he joined the Pinar del Rio team in the Cuban league for two seasons and started playing the outfield.
The unexpected death of his father, Jesus, in 2014, from what mlb.com reported was an allergic reaction to seafood while attending a tournament, was traumatic and transformative.
“Losing my dad was hard, but it also granted me a lot of mental strength,” Arozarena said. “It helped me understand that I had to work hard and make sacrifices; to do everything possible to help my family.”
Teams had seen Arozarena in international tournaments, but since baseball scouts aren’t allowed in Cuba, they got their first extended look when he started playing in Mexico, winning a batting title with the Tijuana Toros minor-league team.
He showed good hitting skills though not a lot of power, explosive speed, a wiry frame and athleticism, but needed some work in the outfield. The Cardinals saw enough promise at age 21 to give him a $1.25 million bonus.
“We thought he had a chance to be an every-day guy,” Cardinals assistant general manager Moises Rodriguez said Friday. “Did we think he’d be an impact guy doing what he’s doing now? That’d be unfair to say."
Arozarena moved solidly through the St. Louis system, with breakout performances in the 2018 Triple-A playoffs and during the 2019 season, earning a couple Cardinals minor-league player of the month awards. He made his big-league debut in August 2019 and had a spot on the postseason roster.
He was traded to the Rays with Jose Martinez in a deal for premium pitching prospect Matt Liberatore in January 2020, and was Tampa Bay’s best player in the first spring camp in Port Charlotte. (”He was Randy in spring training," agent Abel Guerra said.) When given the chance in the majors, he seized it, albeit in a record-setting way.
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The narrative that Arozarena came out of nowhere, like a modern-day Sidd Finch, makes for good reading and TV/radio talking, but is not accurate.
“There’s going to get a point in his career where people are not going to say, ‘Who is that guy?'" Cash said. “He’s going to show that he’s consistently really good. He’s a special player and has already shown the ability to do special things."
Arozarena, who has settled in Merida, Mexico, with his girlfriend, daughter, mother and brother, was shy and quiet with the Cardinals, politely declining interviews because he wanted to wait until he made the majors.
Now he’s more comfortable, showing an engaging personality in Zoom sessions and a playful side.
There’s Arozarena participating in dance-offs with teammate Brett Phillips and posting videos on social media. Wearing pitcher Brent Honeywell’s cowboy boots onto the field before a workout for good luck, and telling of similarly borrowing a pair of “power boots” from a teammate in Mexico. Using pitcher Aaron Slegers' spray-on Degree deodorant every day.
And explaining, with a smile, how his favorite player in baseball is … Randy Arozarena.
“I feel proud of Randy Arozarena,” he said, “who works so hard each day to achieve the best result, and also for the mental strength he has, the positive thinking and winning attitude.”
Staff writers Martha Asencio-Rhine and Maria Carillo contributed to this report.