SALEM, Va. — Children are everywhere.
Some are running on the grass behind the first base stands at Salem Memorial Baseball Stadium. A handful are playing whiffle ball inside a miniature version of Fenway Park, complete with a diminutive Green Monster, near the main entrance. Others are eating ice cream and hot dogs.
A few are even watching baseball.
The Salem Red Sox are offering the irresistible Carolina League allure of potential future superstars, reasonably priced family fun, Friday night fireworks and Mayberry Deputy Night. A Chamber of Commerce evening in this city of 25,432 at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains has helped generate the second-biggest crowd of the year (5,727).
The main attraction on the field on this June 3 is Salem second baseman and leadoff hitter Yoan Moncada. Red Sox general manager Mike Hazen likened the muscular 6'2", 205-pound Cuban-born Moncada to Bo Jackson this past March.
By the time he bats in the bottom of the seventh, Moncada has raised his batting average 22 points to .309 in just over 27 hours. Moncada dynamited his way out of a 4-for-30 slump by slamming seven doubles over three games, reaching base 11 times and scoring six runs.
Boston Red Sox principal owner John Henry’s $63 million investment appears sound.
The “Legend of Yoan Moncada,” meanwhile, continues to prosper.
Back on this at-bat in Salem, Moncada draws a walk on four pitches. He scores the tying run as Salem erases a six-run deficit in an 11-10 victory. He finishes the game 3-for-3 (all doubles) with two walks and his 32nd steal of the season.
“He’s in scoring position when he’s on first base,” said Salem shortstop Mauricio Dubon, who hopes to become the first Honduran-born player to reach the big leagues since Gerald Young. Moncada and Dubon earned spots on the Carolina League All-Star team that will play its California League counterparts in the Golden State on Tuesday. But he won't play in that All-Star Game. Instead, he'll be with the Class AA Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs after being promoted Sunday night.
“I love running. It’s one of my biggest assets. Believe it or not, I practice running during the day and during batting practice. That’s what I do. I run, run, as far as I can,” said Moncada, who was born in Abreus, Cuba. “Growing up, I was always the fastest one among my friends and classmates.”
He told B/R in March his goal for the season is to “steal 100 bases.”
After this game, the switch-hitting Moncada is missing from the clubhouse. He has decided to stay in the dugout to watch those promised fireworks and then sign autographs for fans and would-be entrepreneurs who found the fortitude to stay through it all.
A week after his 21st birthday, he’s the biggest kid in the stadium.
Legends are often born from a mixture of fantasy and reality.
Moncada’s past and potential offer a tantalizing mix of both.
Playing baseball in Cuba as a teenager, Moncada made $4 each month and walked or hitchhiked to his games with Cienfuegos. Moncada did not defect. Rather, he received the necessary clearance from Cuba’s Serie Nacional, the Cuban military and the Castro government before leaving his home country. His “mysterious” journey to the United States included a stop in Guatemala.
Moncada wasn’t offering any more details on how he left Cuba. His current agent, Gulfport, Florida, CPA David Hastings told B/R in March he did not come to represent Moncada until after his arrival in the United States in 2014.
The Red Sox smothered the Dodgers and Yankees by offering Moncada a $31.5 million signing bonus in 2015. Boston's cost then doubled because it exceeded its international spending pool. The topic of money and his well-documented affinity for customized luxury cars follows Moncada throughout the Carolina League.
When he comes to the plate during games at nearby Lynchburg, Virginia, Pink Floyd’s “Money” blares over the stadium’s PA system.
“He’s got a following everywhere we go,” said Salem manager and former major league catcher Joe Oliver. “That’s very unique for a minor leaguer.”
Before all three Salem games B/R was present for, Moncada signed autographs for anyone who asked once he finished batting practice.
One autograph seeker was 13-year-old Nick Nauseef, who came to watch the Red Sox from his home in North Carolina with a family friend. Moncada autographed a game-used bat from another league contest for the young teen before a scheduled doubleheader.“He’s big,” Nauseef said.
Most legends are.
Red Sox Nation has a strong foothold here. Among the players on the current Boston Red Sox roster who once played in Salem are Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Travis Shaw and Christian Vazquez.
The hype generated by Moncada swept through the Carolina League, infecting fans from just outside the Washington Beltway in Woodbridge, Va., to the bustling South Carolina beach burg of Myrtle Beach. Neither Portland nor the rest of the Eastern League stand a chance against this Cuban-born contagion.
Red Sox fan Ray LaPrade lives near Salem.
He captured Moncada’s initial Carolina League grand slam on video.
The hype surrounding Moncada and former Salem outfielder Andrew Benintendi has drawn LaPrade and his wife here several times this season. “People are realizing that Boston is actually utilizing the farm system, and we're going to see future MLBers playing in Salem,” he said. “I think a lot of folks, including myself, haven't really paid a ton of attention to minor leaguers until they're at [Triple-A] Pawtucket [Rhode Island].”
He and his wife had a chance encounter with Moncada at a restaurant in nearby Roanoke after a recent weekend game.
“I recognized him instantly. I shook his hand, told him I couldn't wait to see him at Fenway, which prompted a huge smile,” LePrade said. “He was really nice. I recalled notes about his physical stature, and it really set in being that close. Twenty-one-year-olds weren't built like that when I was 21. He's really filled out and has quite a set of arms. This guy looks more like a strong safety enforcer than a baseball player.”
Legends are never perfect.
In 61 games with High-A Salem this season, Moncada slashed .307/.427/.496 with 25 doubles, 36 steals and 57 runs scored. He’d also struck out 60 times in 228 at-bats and made 11 errors. He would homer in his Class A finale Sunday.
“He’s improving on both sides of the ball,” Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett told B/R via email. “He’s been really focused to his cage routines to keep him consistent offensively where he can impact the game with his on-base skills, power and speed, while staying committed to his daily defensive work to maximize his great athleticism at the position.”
Moncada reiterated in two interviews during B/R's three-day visit to Salem the importance of practicing the same routines daily. Dubon and coach Angel Berroa translated his conversations with B/R.
“I’m working hard every day and trying to get better. I am doing the same thing in the cage every day. I’m just trying to be consistent on the plate and keep working. There are no real difficult or specific areas where I think I have failed,” Moncada said. “The level of baseball this year is harder, but it’s the same baseball game. I’m not changing anything but trying to be better.”
Oliver said Moncada’s natural swing “is to the center of the field.” Of the seven aforementioned doubles, he hit two to left field, three to center and two to right. A 20-foot-high wall runs across the entire outfield here. “To hit the top of the fence in the opposite field [referencing a double to left that bounced atop the fence past the 325-foot mark] shows you how strong he is,” Oliver said.
That same double would have landed in the Monster seats at Fenway Park.
Moncada’s love of running has gotten him in trouble. He was thrown out trying to go from first to third on a ground ball during one of three games watched here. Two nights later, he scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch in the ninth inning.
“It’s a learning curve. He’s coming over here, and he’s starting to find out there are good ballplayers on every club we play,” Oliver said. “He’s still trying to find himself as a player. He has the potential to be a power guy. He’s already a speed guy. He has to get acclimated to the speed and abilities to a lot of the other teams. Now, his speed is just outrunning it. He’s up to speed in two or three steps. It’s just amazing how quick he’s able to get going.”
Curating and developing Moncada’s still-raw abilities and talent remains the priority for the Red Sox. Salem wrapped up the first half of the Carolina League season with a 43-26 record and clinched its first first-half Southern Division championship since 1988.
“Our main job is to develop. Winning is kind of secondary. Right now, these guys are playing well together, and we’re winning. But the ultimate goal is to develop. We’ve already moved some guys up to Portland, and these guys haven’t missed a beat,” Oliver said.
Transitioning the ball out of his glove to make a flip to second or a throw to first consistently remains a shortcoming with Moncada. Berroa begins his pregame fielding drills with Moncada by rolling the ball toward him and having him shovel it toward second base.
Crockett hinted Moncada may not be a second baseman forever.
“We believe Yoan can be a very good defender at second base with tremendous athleticism. As most players progress in their minor league career, we commonly expose them to multiple positions as they reach the highest levels in an attempt to make them versatile to fit major league opportunity,” Crockett wrote to B/R. “At this point, we are focused on second base with Yoan, but like others in our organization, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some versatility down the road.”
Barely 21 and with a scant 142 professional games in the United States, Moncada spreads the ball with authority to all fields and follows with torrid speed to each base.
“We have some pretty good young players playing in Boston now who possessed raw tools and had much success during their ascent to the big leagues, but certainly Yoan has a physicality and unique skill set of speed and power that can impact a game,” wrote Crockett, a Harvard University grad and former minor league pitcher once drafted by the Red Sox. Crockett has been with Boston's front office since 2006.
Outfielder and designated hitter Benintendi got his call-up to Portland from Salem after just 34 games this season, thanks in part to his .976 OPS and then-Carolina League-leading 46 hits.
“Many factors are taken into account for promotions, including performance and dependability in all facets of the game, physical and fundamental, progress on a specific adjustment, etc.,” Crockett wrote. “Each case is taken individually. Yoan has been focused on improving his defensive consistency and two-strike approach.”
Some legends fly. Others, such as Moncada, are still earthbound.
In Salem, Moncada drove a modified BMW X6M Lumma widebody from his apartment to the players' parking lot behind LewisGale Field.
In what may be the best omen of a future in Boston with the Red Sox, Moncada cruised past a Dunkin' Donuts, a Massachusetts icon, during his 18-minute commute to and from the ballpark. Likely more important to Moncada is the fact there are three Chipotle restaurants in Portland, including one located less than a mile from Sea Dogs Park.
Chipotle is his favorite eatery.
Teammate Carlos Mesa, 28, is also from Cuba. He and Moncada shared a two-bedroom apartment in Salem with Deiner Lopez, a native of Venezuela. Moncada and Mesa each have their own bedrooms. Lopez sleeps on the couch.
Mesa is the resident cook.
“I’m not a very good cook,” Moncada said. “Mesa. Mesa. Mesa. He cooks for us.”
“Yoan likes rice and beans every single day,” Chef Mesa said. “And the meat is either chicken, beef or pork. No spices. Yoan doesn’t like spices.”
But he does love the flavor of Chipotle. Their Chipotle of choice is less than 10 minutes away.
“The first time me and Yoan went for the Chipotle, we were in a rush and had to get to practice. I said we need to get some fast food. I told him we should try it. He asked if it was spicy. Yoan ate some, and he said, ‘Ahh, it’s too spicy. I don’t like it,’” Mesa said.
Fast-forward a few weeks. “Now, Yoan likes the Chipotle every single day. Every day. Since it’s close to the apartment, Yoan will say: ‘Carlos, are you cooking today? I can go for the Chipotle.’ Yoan loves Chipotle now.”
Salem boasts a rarity in Southwestern Virginia—an authentic Cuban restaurant called El Cubanito. It’s become a trendy spot on the Carolina League dining circuit. On the day Moncada failed to show for a scheduled noon meeting, about a dozen members of the visiting Myrtle Beach Pelicans coincidentally pulled up in the team bus for lunch.
“When he goes there, he eats the same things: rice, beans, pork, plantains. It’s very nice,” Mesa said.
Moncada apologized unprompted by the Red Sox for missing that meeting. “I overslept,” he said through Berroa. “I was so tired from [the previous night’s] doubleheader.”
The tree-lined, multi-two-story-building apartment complex where Moncada lived was spartan by $31.5 million signing-bonus standards. It is flush with families, single people and retirees. It has a pool. Three schools are nearby. It’s well-maintained and sprawling but otherwise unremarkable. It could just as easily be in Salem, Oregon; Salem, New Hampshire; or Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Two-bedroom units run about $850 a month, but the complex is offering a $200 move-in special. Luckily for Moncada and his roommates, short-term leases are available.
Moncada spends his down time either sleeping, playing video games, surfing Instagram, watching TV or eating. PlayStation is the unofficial console of choice for the Salem Red Sox. FIFA 16 and MLB The Show 16 are played almost exclusively. Moncada said he usually goes solo, but his teammates will play against each other. Dubon reigns as the Salem Red Sox PlayStation FIFA 16 champion.
“I’ve practiced with him a long time. I’ve pitched for him. I have a good relationship. He’s my best friend,” Mesa said of Moncada. Mesa spoke almost exclusively in English, with some assistance in translation from Berroa. “I help him with baseball. I help him get going in the morning and make sure he’s ready and on time for practice. Everything. Every time.”
Mesa has been officially on Salem’s seven-day disabled list all season and has yet to play in 2016.
Moncada and Mesa share the same agent, and the Red Sox signed them at the same time. Mesa came with a $300,000 price tag. Moncada initially lived with Hastings and his wife, Jo, after coming to the U.S. Mesa frequented Jo Hastings’ Habana Cafe restaurant near St. Petersburg, Florida, during spring training when he was with the Pirates.
That connection with Jo Hastings led to the friendship between Mesa and Moncada. Eventually, Mesa and his family joined Moncada in living at the Hastings' Gulfport home, which included an unused apartment. Moncada and Mesa now have their own Florida homes nearby.
They, however, are not necessairly a package deal if now that Moncada has been called to Portland.
“Yoan has good coaches and trainers here. We are like a family,” Mesa said before Sunday's callup. “And he will have good coaches in Portland or Pawtucket. Portland will be a great opportunity for him. This is all about him making it to the majors. That’s what we all want.”
Added Crockett, “We see each player individually, and they’ll follow their own best path.”
Legends speak with deeds. Moncada, however, remains determined to learn English.
“I learn a lot by listening. I’ve learned more by having conversations with the American players that I know well and feel comfortable with. I don’t know a lot yet. I feel more comfortable speaking English with people I know,” Moncada said.
Deanna McNaughton, 22, is a Red Sox fan who grew up in New Hampshire. She majored in Spanish and graduated from Roanoke College in Salem. During his time in Salem, she taught English as a second language to Moncada and three teammates (schedule permitting) between six and eight times a month. Each class lasted about an hour.
“I love watching baseball. I love the Red Sox. For me, dream job doesn’t even begin to describe it,” she told B/R. The players—Moncada, German Taveras, Franklin Guzman and Rafael Devers—range in age from 19 to 23. They are contractually required to make an effort to learn English.
“They’re all so young. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them on track. But they understand why they’re in the class. They know they can’t play major league ball if they can’t talk to the media. They are so motivated. They will try to repeat anything and everything. If I say something ridiculous, they will repeat it,” McNaughton said. “When you hear them talking, you know they are frustrated. There are things they want to say in English but can’t. They’re also looking for better communication as teammates and friends.”
In one recent class, the topic was naming body parts and how to properly explain injuries and other ailments to coaches and trainers. “Saying things like: ‘They hurt.’ ‘They burn.’ ‘I think something may be broken.’ Important things they can communicate with trainers and coaches. It’s important to know the difference between ‘knee’ and ‘elbow.’”
McNaughton said Moncada has been a solid student and, at times, knows more than he demonstrates.
“His biggest challenge is not being shy. We’re working on building up confidence when he uses English. When he’s unsure about something, you can tell. When he’s comfortable and confident, he won’t hold back. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. Which can be good or bad.”
Tavares, Guzman and Devers are from the Dominican Republic. Not all versions of Spanish are created equal. “There’s a lot of difference between the Spanish spoken in Cuba and the Spanish spoken in the DR,” McNaughton said. “A lot of it has to do with the influence of Haitian and Creole. There are different accents. Different words for the same thing. There’s also a difference between the rural versus urban.”
The classes were held around lunchtime and before the players have to report for the day. Often, Moncada and the others would arrive with takeout from Sheetz, a regional convenience store/gas station chain that offers on-site items prepared to go. “They eat so much. They’ll walk in with bags of food. Stuff like burritos. And coffee.”
There are no grades or formal evaluations. The players will write a sentence after each class to show what they learned using as much of that day’s vocabulary. There’s also homework.
“A lot of the English words derive from Latin roots, and a lot of those words are in Spanish. With English, there are certain things you learn just because English is that way. There’s no logical or common sense,” McNaughton said. “They want to learn the baseball-related vocabulary and how to make a conversation out of isolated words.”
Oliver speaks “Spanglish.” The Salem manager’s biggest concern is that nuanced meaning of what he may say to a player doesn’t cross the linguistic divide. “The inflection of things. Maybe you’re taken out of context,” he said. “Typically, you try to find a coach, or better yet a player, who can translate and find the exact message you're trying to make. Words cannot translate sometimes.”
Dubon, 21, was educated in a bilingual school in Honduras and played high school baseball in California. He was the in-house translator of choice for Moncada and remains so for his Spanish-speaking teammates.
“I know it’s hard coming from another place. Different place. Different languages. I try to make the job easier for them. It’s hard,” Dubon said.
“Yoan is doing really well. When he came here last year, he had no clue. I told him not to be afraid and that he will make mistakes. I still make mistakes. I tell him not to worry,” Dubon said. “The clubhouse is incredible. You have American guys trying to speak Spanish. You have Latin guys trying to speak English. People don’t see that. That’s why our chemistry is so good.”
Nuance is important, though, even among friends. “The jokes are hard. There are certain things they can joke about,” McNaughton said. “It’s very hard to say something sarcastically. There is a very different sense type of humor in Latin American countries. When they’re speaking English, a lot of it is establishing that it is a joke.”
Legends generally walk alone.
There was no visible friction in the Red Sox clubhouse between the multimillionaire Moncada and his not-so-multimillionaire teammates. "We all get along," Moncada said. "There are no problems."
Those closest to Moncada’s heart live hundreds or thousands of miles away from the Salem Red Sox clubhouse. They will be even further away when Moncada is in Maine. The short list includes his parents and sister in Cuba, his surrogate family of David and Jo Hastings in Florida, and his 22-month-old son, Robinson.
The boy was named in honor of Robinson Cano, who is Moncada’s baseball role model. He lives with his mother, Nicole Banks, in West Covina, California.
Yoan Moncada has not seen his parents in two years. He said they have never seen him play professionally in the United States either live, on television or via the Internet.
“All they have are the videos I send them,” he said.
Moncada speaks to his family in Cuba and Jo and David Hastings daily, either by phone or Skype.
“With my mom, I always ask her how she feels. And how are things going,” Moncada said. “With my dad, it’s different. He always asks me about baseball stuff. So I talk to him more about what happens on the field.”
Moncada’s sister will have her quinceanera in August. This special celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday in Latin culture dates back 2,500 years. It’s on Moncada’s mind in 2016. “Yoan is a good son,” Mesa said.
“When he speaks with [his sister], he’ll be asking: ‘What do you need? Do you have good shoes? Do you need a dress?’”
Expect the Moncada family quinceanera to be a blowout.
Moncada FaceTimes with his son two or three times a week. He is limited because of the time difference between Virginia and California, and his schedule.
“Yoan is 21. But when he FaceTimes, it’s like two little boys on the phone,” Mesa said. “The boy will yell ‘Hey,’ ‘Hey,’ and Yoan will say ‘Hey,’ ‘Hey’ right back,” Mesa said.
“When he’s had enough, Robinson says ‘no’ and hangs up,” Banks added.
Moncada hasn’t seen his son in person since January. There were plans for him to see the boy this week given that the Carolina-California All-Star Game will be played in Lake Elsinore, an hour south of West Covina “Yoan is very disappointed. They were both looking forward to seeing each other,” said Banks before learning of Moncada's call-up. She also has a six-year-old son.
Robinson Moncada can rake.
He doesn’t turn two until Sept. 11.
“The apple doesn’t fall from the tree,” Dubon said.
“Robinson literally is a spitting image of his father,” added Banks. “Both in his looks and his personality. He has so much drive. Robinson is out there practicing with [my son’s] six-year-old team. I can’t keep him off the field. When he’s at home, he’ll go into the garage. He puts the ball on the tee himself. He hits. He does it on his own. He went through three buckets of balls in 90 minutes the other day. At my [older] son’s practices, we call him the Bat Bandit. He will go through everyone’s bat bag to find one he can use.”
Banks said her youngest son also shares his father’s proclivity for flashy attire. “Yoan is very showy. Robinson is into shoes and clothes. It’s just his being. It’s funny. My older son is like me. This one is exactly like him.”
Banks’ name surfaced in several stories when Moncada arrived in America in 2014 and again when he was signed by the Red Sox in 2015. She worked with a California marketing company helping international players, including Cubans, complete and process the paperwork required to emigrate from their homelands with the hopes of eventually playing in the United States.
Banks maintained to B/R she was not professionally associated with Moncada’s exit from Cuba and never formally worked with him. Her name remains on the incorporation papers of a player-marketing firm in Florida called “Baseball Divas” in Gulfport. Jo Hastings co-owns it. Banks told B/R she is no longer actively involved with the company.
“My relationship with Yoan was strictly romantic,” she said. The couple met in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2013. Moncada, then 18, was playing with the Cuban national team in the World Port Tournament. “Some things are meant to be. It’s weird how fate works,” she said.
In West Covina, Pony League play begins at age three. The players hit pitches from a machine.
“All the coaches at the pony park are fighting over who gets him next year,” Banks said.
Note to John Henry: Start saving now.
“Robinson is destined. He has that star in him,” his mom said.
The greatest legends last forever.
Even with his rapid progression through the Red Sox farm system, Moncada’s baseball career will have a time limit. He does, however, have one special long-term goal before its over.
“I want my son to play professional baseball. I hope to be around long enough to be there when he comes up,” Moncada said.
“Like Ken Griffey and Ken Griffey Jr.?” he is asked.
No translation necessary.