The Revolution Is at Hand: Julio Urias Is Ready to Be LA's Next Great Star

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMay 3, 2017

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Julio Urias throws during the first inning of Game 4 of the National League baseball championship series against the Chicago Cubs Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The kid was eight years old and throwing a perfect game. What else was new? Even at that age, Julio Urias had a bad left eye and a magnifico left arm.

This isn't what he says, of course. He is far too modest. Supremely confident but not boastful, Urias is fond of saying, and has been for years, simply: "God gave me a bad left eye and a good left arm."

It ranks as one of the most egregious examples of underselling in hardball scripture because, if what was bestowed upon Julio Urias simply was a "good" left arm, then the most gorgeous sunset you've ever witnessed is "eh" and the most fragrant flower you've ever smelled, well, at least it didn't make you sneeze.

That he had a thunderbolt for a left arm was obvious from the time Urias stepped into his first baseball league in Culiacan, Mexico, when he was five. He was a left-handed third baseman in those days and a hard-hitting batter. By the time he was seven it was obvious he had a good sense for the strike zone and the kind of velocity that would make the other kids squirm.

So there he was at eight, rolling along, firing this perfect game when his cousin Ernesto, affectionately known as "Claycito," stepped in to hit. Now, Claycito wasn't much of a ballplayer. With his arm, Julio figured, he could dominate his cousin with pure heat.

Crack! Claycito's bat met the ball and produced what still probably is the most stunning line drive Julio has ever allowed.

"It broke up the perfect game, and we ended up losing that game, the championship game, and that was the only championship we lost from the time Julio was a young boy until the 13-14-year-old category," Carlos Urias, Julio's father and the coach of that team, tells B/R from Mexico, speaking through a translator. "It seemed impossible that Claycito would be the one to get the hit, to hit the line drive, to break up the perfect game."

When the family gathers at home in Culiacan, the story is told and retold, still eliciting amazement and laughter 12 years later. Today, Claycito works for the city, cleaning and landscaping parks.

"At the time for me it was hard, but it's funny looking back now that I know so much more about baseball that it worked out that way," Julio tells B/R, also through a translator. "I threw so many no-hitters and so many perfect games and won so many championships, but that's what sticks with me."

Julio Urias has created a buzz among Dodgers fans akin to Fernando Valenzuela's arrival in 1980.
Julio Urias has created a buzz among Dodgers fans akin to Fernando Valenzuela's arrival in 1980.John Locher/Associated Press/Associated Press

It is not what sticks with the habitantes back in Culiacan, who vividly recall his triumphs and dominance, this special kid with the eye condition who could pitch and bat so well that one day, they were sure, he would make them proud as the next great Mexican hero to emerge in the major leagues.

In Los Angeles, they have been anticipating this emergence since shortly after the Dodgers signed Urias as an international free agent five days after he turned 16, on Aug. 17, 2012. He debuted last year at New York's Citi Field on May 27, followed by a start at Chicago's Wrigley Field on June 2. He went on to pitch in 16 more games, and in October he became the youngest pitcher ever to start a big league postseason contest. Then, as the Dodgers' meticulous plan for his development dictated that they cap his innings for 2017 at around 180, they held him in the minors to begin this season.

"The most valuable innings are at the end of the season, and we want him at our disposal then," says manager Dave Roberts, who explains that the club's plan begins with "working backwards" from those key late-season innings.

"Whether we're right or wrong, I feel like everybody's mind is in the right place," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt says. "There's no doubt how valuable he is to us. That's why we're putting a lot of thought into the future and what's right for him and for the ballclub."

While the Dodgers scheme, fans have been clamoring on both sides of the border for the past two years, in both Spanish and English: When will Julio arrive? When will the Dodgers remove the training wheels and turn him loose?

"When he pitched in the big leagues last year people would call," Carlos Urias says of the scene in Culiacan, the largest city in and the capital of the state of Sinaloa. "It was really crazy. Friends who would remember him from his playing days in baseball would come around and ask about him and wish him luck. Bars and restaurants would fill up—sometimes games wouldn't be on over-the-air TV so people would get together in restaurants.

"He started a revolution in Culiacan whenever he would pitch. And even now people will ask me: 'When's Julio coming up? Why wasn't he on the big league team?' People will ask, 'When's our next cookout?' They're waiting for the day to barbecue and celebrate him."

Urias became the youngest Dodgers starter in 73 seasons when he made his debut last May in New York.
Urias became the youngest Dodgers starter in 73 seasons when he made his debut last May in New York.Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The revolution now is at hand: Urias, who, at 19 last summer became the youngest Dodger to make his debut as a starting pitcher since Rex Barney in 1943, rejoined the rotation Thursday in San Francisco.

This time, at 20, he is expected to stick for good.

RUMORS FLEW LIKE SO much nylon at a hot air balloon festival. The kid's eye is some kind of problem. It's bad. Might be cancer. Probably, he'll go blind.

Even by standards of the Wild West world of international scouting, what the Dodgers' contingent of Mike Brito, Logan White and Paul Fryer heard when it arrived at the Diablos Rojos del Mexico Baseball Academy in Oaxaca in June 2012, was scary. They had just come from Mexico City, where they laid their eyes on a Cuban free agent named Yasiel Puig for the first time. From there, they moved on to Oaxaca primarily to see a young catcher named Julian Leon, whom they would sign in July 2012, a month ahead of Urias, and who today is with the Angels' High-A affiliate in California, Inland Empire.

While watching Leon, they could not take their eyes off Urias. That left arm. And that left eye. It was swollen and the lid was mostly closed, a lifelong condition caused by a benign tumor that has been with Urias since birth.

"You didn't know if he could see out of it," says White, now in his third season as the San Diego Padres' senior advisor and director of pro scouting after 13 seasons with the Dodgers, the final two as their vice president for amateur and international scouting. "You didn't know if he had cancer. Normal scout rumors that when something comes up, they think the worst."

Urias underwent three surgeries by the time he was two. Doctors treated the mass and worried about the swelling. As he grew, the swelling sort of molded to his bone structure around the eye.

"We treated him immediately," Carlos Urias says. "We took him to the best doctors in Jalisco and Sonora. In Jalisco … the best optometrist in the area told us the tumor wasn't going to stop him from being a normal child, from running, from playing with the dirt. I was worried that it would be an impediment, but we realized immediately that it wasn't, that he would be able to do everything a normal kid could do and the only danger would be if he got hit with the ball or something like that. But that's something that would be dangerous for anyone."

Julio's vision was fine, and the condition, such as it was, never limited him. He was pitching on the Mexican National Team when he was 10. The Diablos Rojos gobbled up his rights. Unlike in other Latin American countries, where amateur free agents truly are free, in Mexico, deals must be completed through the local team that owns the rights to a player. So the scouts watched Urias throw an easy 90, 92 mph with a good delivery and an impressive breaking ball at the academy. But they were wholly unsure of the kid's swollen and half-shut left eye.

Julio Urias and his father, Carlos, who watched his son endure three surgeries on his left eye by the time he was two to treat a benign tumor.
Julio Urias and his father, Carlos, who watched his son endure three surgeries on his left eye by the time he was two to treat a benign tumor.Photo courtesy of Carlos Urias

Some were too nervous to take a chance on him. Others liked him well enough that they fueled the rumors like neighborhood gossips, embellishing worst-case scenarios, attempting to scare away the other teams.

"They would always ask about what the doctors would say, if there were problems," Carlos Urias says.

No, the elder Urias told them. There are no problems, and the doctors can confirm this.

"I would also remind them that he'd been playing since he was five years old without any type of impediment," Carlos says. "And that when kids would be playing soccer on the streets, he would be playing soccer on the streets. And when they would play volleyball, he would play volleyball. And they always would say there were no problems. But there were always doubts from other teams.

"If that's the reason they didn't pick him, then that's their loss."

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, a seismic change was occurring. On May 1, 2012, the Guggenheim Baseball Management group closed its $2 billion purchase of the team and Dodger Stadium from Frank McCourt. As June rolled into July and then into August, an old territory was re-opening to the Dodgers after McCourt's penurious ways. With new ownership, the Dodgers went from having no money to spend internationally to, suddenly, having a lot of money to spend internationally.

"It changed the franchise, really," says Ned Colletti, the Dodgers' general manager at the time and now an analyst with the club's SportsNet LA television network.

"We were very dormant in Latin American. The Dodgers were one of the pioneers in Latin America. And yet we were on the sidelines."

No more. The last week of June that summer, within days of each other, the Dodgers signed Puig and shortstop Corey Seager, their first-round pick in the June draft. Then they struck paydirt in Mexico, signing Leon and, shortly afterward, Urias.

"To this day, he's still one of the best 15-year-olds I've ever seen," says White, who has some 30 years of scouting experience.

The revolution was underway.

    

"WHO?" FERNANDO VALENZUELA ASKS, eyes twinkling, mischievous grin creasing his face. "I don't know a Julio Urias."

Maybe he is saying this because on this late-April afternoon in Dodger Stadium, Urias is still some 1,300 miles away, toiling for Los Angeles' Triple-A franchise in Oklahoma City. Probably, though, he is reacting to my awkward, gringo pronunciation. The correct way to say it is "oo-REE-ahs."

With a league-leading 180 strikeouts and eight shutouts, Fernando Valenzuela won the N.L. Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards in 1981 at the age of 20.
With a league-leading 180 strikeouts and eight shutouts, Fernando Valenzuela won the N.L. Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards in 1981 at the age of 20.Ron Vesely/Getty Images

Now 56 and an analyst for the Dodgers' SportsNet LA Spanish language network, Valenzuela goes out of his way to avoid being the moon that will eclipse Urias' sunshine. Valenzuela is a warm, sweet man who remains a civic treasure in Los Angeles and an icon to millions of baseball fans on both sides of the border in Southern California and Mexico. Comparisons are both obvious and natural, given that Urias, like Valenzuela, debuted in the majors at 19 and is a left-hander from Mexico who appears on the precipice of a rocket ride to superstardom.

While the cultural significance unquestionably will be monumental should Urias' star reach projected heights, especially during this tumultuous time of relations between the United States and Mexico, comparisons between him and Valenzuela do a disservice to both men.

"Fernando was so unique," says Jaime Jarrin, the Hall of Fame Spanish language radio voice of the Dodgers since the early 1960s. Jarrin was in the booth for every one of Valenzuela's starts in 1981, when the lefty became the only pitcher to win both the Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award in the same season while going 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA over 25 starts. "We will never see again a year like 1981.

"Fernandomania was simply unbelievable. He was such a hero for the Mexican community because of the way he conducted himself. He was a great pitcher, he had a great season, and he was extremely well-liked not only in Mexico, but the people in Los Angeles loved him, and not only in L.A., when we went to New York, Houston, Chicago, too. We've never seen anything like that. It's asking too much [for Urias].

Every Valenzuela start was a carnival, especially after he began that 1981 season 8-0 with five shutouts, dominating with a fascinating motion in which he rolled his eyes up toward the heavens at the top of his leg kick before delivering the pitch to the plate. Not only was the stadium sold out, but also, as Jarrin recalls, every single entrance leading into the stadium was "full of people selling everything. Hats. Shirts. Caps. Scapulars. Religious medals. Tacos."

After the Dodgers defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series that fall, with Valenzuela winning Game 3, the team visited the White House and Jarrin was standing there as President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush and Alexander Haig, the secretary of state, all waited after lunch to obtain autographed baseballs from Valenzuela.

It is a long, long way from Urias' brief debut in the majors last summer to a Cy Young Award and the White House, but he has the talent to make that trip. Valenzuela has picked a couple of spots to share his experience and wisdom with Urias. He treads lightly, though, because he doesn't want to impose.

"I don't like to get involved in the way he likes to work, because I don't want to be in between him and his coaches," Valenzuela says.

But when Urias asks, which he does from time to time, especially last spring, Valenzuela is like a walking owner's manual.

Like Valenzuela, Urias has been embraced by Los Angeles' Hispanic community.
Like Valenzuela, Urias has been embraced by Los Angeles' Hispanic community.Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

"He tells me, 'You're here for a reason,'" Urias says. "You've got to give 100 percent, and your age doesn't matter. You're really the same as anyone else on this team. Continue working hard, continue doing your job and make Mexico proud."

During his brief time in Los Angeles last summer, Urias quickly tasted a little of what Valenzuela experienced in that the city's enormous Hispanic community welcomed him like a conquering hero.

"It's incredible," Urias says. "It's really another blessing to be with a team that has that kind of fanbase that makes me feel at home. It's easier to adjust, with so many Mexican fans and Latin fans. Hopefully it's something that lasts a long time and hopefully it's a team I'm with for a long time in my career."

"It is extremely meaningful," says Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations. "Our history internationally is something we're really proud of and want to continue to nurture and grow. Obviously, Julio gives us a great opportunity to make even more inroads into Mexico as an organization."

At the Caribbean World Series in Culiacan in November, the hosts invited all former Mexican League players who were major leaguers to help celebrate during the inaugural ceremony, and the two men who easily received the loudest ovations were Valenzuela and Urias.

"It was special," says Eduardo Ortega, who emceed the event and has been the Spanish language radio and TV voice of the San Diego Padres since 1987. "If Urias stays healthy and keeps growing his game, he will be very important in the history of Mexico baseball in the major leagues."

Says Jarrin: "The Latin people, the Mexican people would be so pleased and delighted if he was anything close to Fernando, especially with the Dodgers, and especially considering the Mexican community, the Hispanic community, is so large in Southern California.

"It is the perfect match."   

     

THE STORY OF HIS unusual, single-digit uniform No. 7 starts, oddly enough, with a man named Derek Bell who, in 1993, was blocking the way of another outfielder, Darrell Sherman, in the San Diego Padres system. Frustrated by life on the fringes, Sherman, who played in 37 games for the Padres in '93, soon fled to the Mexican League, where he became a star outfielder for the Culiacan Tomateros.

Urias was inspired to take No. 7 for his uniform after watching MLB castoff Darrell Sherman thrill fans in Mexican League baseball.
Urias was inspired to take No. 7 for his uniform after watching MLB castoff Darrell Sherman thrill fans in Mexican League baseball.Photo courtesy of Carlos Urias

"He was an idol for the people," Carlos Urias says. "The way he played, he would rob fly balls over the wall, he would steal bases, he would dive for fly balls. He was just a very spectacular player, so people here really admired him."

From his seat in the park, watching that No. 7 soar high over walls and race around the bases, little Julio Urias' imagination was fueled.

"When he was five years old he picked the number because of that, and he wore it throughout his entire career," Carlos says. "He always looked up to Darrell and said one day if he got the opportunity to wear it in the bigs, he would do so."

Last summer, the Tomateros retired Sherman's No. 7, and, today, he continues to commute there from his home in Riverside, California, multiple times each year to deliver motivational speeches to young players. He is a living embodiment of what legendary Dodger Jackie Robinson once said, "a life is not important except in the impact it has upon other lives." And through Julio, ever so distantly, now Sherman's reach will touch the Dodgers.

"As a kid, I'm going to say it was about 11 years ago, I had a chance to talk with him," Sherman says. "Basically, what I told him is don't ever allow anybody to tell you you can't do something because of your eye. He was always a big fan of the Tomateros, and as he got a little older, we talked. He's unique, because his eye is half-closed.

"Now when I give speeches to Little Leagues, and to the academies out there, I use him as an example: Nobody can tell you what you can't do. I tell them, you want to be that guy about who others are saying, 'I played with that guy and I was better than him, but then something happened. I don't know how he made it and I didn't.' Well, that something is what happens between the start and the finish."

Here in that in-between, Sherman has become close with the Urias family. He and Julio talk through the Facebook Messenger app several times a month, with Sherman making sure Urias is "mentally OK" and still in a good place with the Dodgers' deliberate plan with him (he is). Sherman is not alone in this mission. Carlos Urias also has enlisted former Mexican League pitcher and family friend Luis Ibabel and lefty Oliver Perez, now with the Washington Nationals, as part of this grass roots Culiacan mentorship program. They know it is easy to feel alone in an unfamiliar country when you're young and do not speak the language.

One member of the Urias family who is not subject to strict pitch counts and workload limits today is Julio's grandfather. Julian Urias is 67 and still pitches in a Culiacan adult league. Not long ago, in a state tournament, he went 12 innings.

"Even if he pitches underhand, it's still impressive that he can go so long," Julio says. "I love going to those games because it's guys who go out and are risking their lives because of how hot it is, and their health. I go out there and they hit a ground ball and they sprint to first base. It is great to see their motivation and their drive."

Urias is expected to remain on the Dodgers roster for the rest of the season after giving up one run in 5 2/3 innings during his season debut last week.
Urias is expected to remain on the Dodgers roster for the rest of the season after giving up one run in 5 2/3 innings during his season debut last week.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

He understands that drive because it's always been his trusted ally. Though there wasn't much money growing up, the family is rich in so many other ways. His father worked for the teacher's union as a janitor, leaving him time in the afternoons and evenings to coach Julio's teams.

"I was paid very little, and also because of his eye we had to take him to the doctors constantly, so it was very hard to make ends meet," Carlos says, noting that the family—his wife, Julio and Julio's brother—lived with his father until Julio was 11.

It was during this time that father and grandfather worked hard with Julio, building a pitcher's mound outside the house. Julian would squat down as the catcher. And Carlos would stand in the batter's box, right-handed, bat in his right hand and glove on his left. When Julio would throw slower to work on his control, Carlos would direct him to throw faster. And when Julio threw faster, if the pitch was about to hit his father, Carlos would simply catch it with his glove hand, allowing Julio to release the ball without fear.

Later, they worked on off-speed pitches, pitching inside and the beginnings of the changeup, the one that family, friends and media who again will fill Carlos' house on game days this summer will watch as Carlos fires up his flat screen and grill and, like last year, hosts gatherings that are guaranteed to spill outside from his house and into the yard.

"It was, honestly, one big party," Carlos says. "We would make some carne asada, bring some snacks and watch the game. And after he was done pitching, we'd sit around and celebrate, talk about the game and what was happening and just kind of relive it."

It is all just about, well…

"Nobody is born perfect," Julio says. "It's not a bad thing, it's actually a gift. God gave me a gift, he gave me an arm, he gave me the talent, he gave me a supportive family and the drive to work hard and be successful. The eye doesn't really affect me."

As he talks, this man of profound faith and a filthy fastball wears a small St. Benito bracelet on his right wrist, a gift from his Aunt Clarissa, 29, Carlos' youngest sister, before he left home for spring training this year. Benito is the patron saint of schoolchildren, and Clarissa promised that it would help protect him.

Maybe one day in the future, he says, advancements in medicine will be able to alter the appearance of his eye, at least to some extent. But right now, protective goggles in place, he's far more concerned with facing the Giants and Diamondbacks.

He is in a very good place. From St. Benito to his family, from Sherman to the Dodgers, he has so many protectors. Plus, there is the legion of friends and family who cannot wait to fill his father's home in Culiacan, the ones who will continue to cheer his every pitch, fueling the revolution as it sweeps ever further across the border.

            

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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