Erick Aybar grew up in Bani, a small town located along the coast in the southern portion of the Dominican Republic. His neighborhood, awfully close to the river, was the most affordable to live in.
In one tiny house, with aluminum panels as a roof and cheap concrete slabs on the side, crammed Aybar, his three brothers, his three sisters and his parents, sleeping two per bed. Two to three times a year, it would rain hard, and the river would overflow, and all of the furniture would get soaked, and that tiny house would float about 100 feet, usually landing on the very edge of the river with all the others.
Those were the nights Aybar would sleep at the local school, and wait for the water level to even out again, and dry up all his personal belongings, and push his house back in place until the next rainstorm.
Now completing his eighth season as the Angels' shortstop, Aybar -- like many others celebrated during September's Hispanic Heritage Month -- never loses sight of where he comes from.
"It makes me feel proud," he said in Spanish. "To go from nothing to everything, to get your family out of something like that and to help others in the Dominican, it's a big honor. I give any little bit I can over there. I go by there a lot when I go back, to this day. I take my car through there. The memories come back very quickly. It's as if I was there again. It makes me feel strong, because I came out of there. I worked hard. If I hadn't worked hard, I would've still been there. And here I am, still working hard."
Aybar is sitting in the visitors' dugout in Toronto. It's early in the afternoon and Rogers Centre is eerily quiet, still a few hours away from the bustle of that night's game. He's in sandals, gym shorts and an Angels batting-practice fleece, fresh off getting treatment in the trainers' room. And along Aybar's forehead are several tiny scars and scratches that never go away, constant reminders of the rough upbringing that only worked to harden him.
Aybar has always been short, and for most of his childhood he was rail thin. But he was also tough. He didn't take lip from anybody and he had a short fuse, which can be a very bad combination when you grow up around the crime that he did.
In school, he was always fighting. At home, he didn't know when he was going to eat.
But he had a strong-willed mother. Her name was Francia. She stayed home while Aybar's father worked all day, perpetually peeling pigeon peas into a bucket for mere pennies, and somehow raised seven kids with little money and a bad environment.
"I was a little bit of a troublemaker growing up, always getting into fights at school," Aybar said. "She kept me in line."
When Aybar signed his first professional contract in 2002 for $100,000, he gave it all to her. When he signed an extension with the Angels in April 2012 -- a four-year, $35 million deal that delayed his free agency until 2016 -- his first purchase was a Ford Explorer for his mother.
"She was always there, in good and bad times, always gave you your support," Aybar said. "When you're a kid, we'd fight all the time in school and stuff. She always disciplined us. That's a good thing. If she wouldn't have done that, I wouldn't be here. I would've kept fighting."
Aybar's older brother, Willy, was the star growing up.
Willy, 10 months his senior, hasn't been in the Majors since the last of a three-year stint with the Rays in 2010, playing briefly in independent ball in '11 and in the Mexican League in '12 before spending '13 back home. But back then, it was Willy who cast a dark shadow over Erick. He was bigger, faster, stronger, and everyone in their little town knew it would be Willy that would take them out of that little house by the river one day.
In 2000, he did. At 17, six months before Erick would sign, Willy was inked to a $1.4 million contract by the Dodgers and the first thing he did was buy his mom a house in the central part of Bani, where cops patrol 24 hours a day and only the wealthiest reside. At last, the family could breathe easy.
But Erick didn't see it that way.
"My brother is my brother," he recalled thinking. "That's his money. I'm going to fight and work hard to make my own living."
Erick loved countrymen Miguel Tejada and Rafael Furcal, but he grew up wanting to be Derek Jeter. Yankees games were the only ones that made it to the island, and when the small television set in his home miraculously got reception, Erick saw the kind of shortstop he one day wanted to resemble, the kind of shortstop he'd one day become, even though he played baseball with rocks and couldn't play in a league unless someone spotted him the $20 entrance fee.
The kids would laugh at that thought. He was too short, way too skinny and Willy was the star.
"Now I see them and I laugh," Aybar said, a big smile across his face. "I remember, a lot. Nowadays, they come to my house. Sometimes when we're relaxing I remind them. They feel bad about it, but it makes me happy. Because they felt good when they told me that and I felt bad. They're my friends. They helped me. They helped me get here. They're all over there in the Dominican -- and the small skinny kid is still here, playing baseball."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.