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Pedro inspired Figueroa to chase baseball dream

OAKLAND -- It was love at first sight.

Pedro Figueroa took one look at Pedro Martinez, while watching a game between Martinez's Red Sox and the Yankees from the Dominican Republic, and just like that was inspired to begin his own journey to the Major Leagues.

He remembers the moment well, also admiring New York outfielder Paul O'Neill with wide eyes. And so, at the age of 14, Figueroa decided he was done playing sock ball and ready for the real thing.

Baseball is joining in the celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, and the tremendous impact of players from all over Latin America has been felt with every Major League team.

"I tried to be my best at baseball, tried to get good results," the A's lefty said through a translator, "and I realized it was my dream to be here. I thank God every day that I am here."

It didn't happen overnight, though. Figueroa, 26, is finally enjoying his first Major League season, a dozen years after he put the socks away. The southpaw, originally signed by Oakland as a non-drafted free agent just three days before turning 18, is doing it in the A's bullpen, following his recent departure from starter duties and, before that, a lengthy rehab from Tommy John surgery.

The injury -- suffered midway through his first season at Double-A -- came at an unfortunate time for the pitcher, who was added to the A's 40-man roster shortly after a breakthrough 2009 campaign that saw him post a 3.38 ERA with 145 strikeouts in 152 innings in Class A. He was named the A's Organizational Pitcher of the Year that season after combining for a 13-6 record in 27 starts.

"It was a frustrating time for me, but I think it also made me stronger," Figueroa said.

He rehabbed through most of the 2011 season before returning to the mound right before its finish, needing just a pair of innings with the A's Rookie League team before continuing to progress at the fall instructional league, where he again found his mid-90s velocity.

Figueroa showcased it this spring as an invite to Major League camp, and the A's were impressed enough with his progress to start him at Triple-A Sacramento, rather than Double-A, as expected. By April 21, he was making his Major League debut. Since, he's made 18 more appearances with Oakland, racking up a 3.32 ERA spanning five stints.

All the while, he's formed a friendship with fellow Spanish speaker Yoenis Cespedes. The two are often seen together in the clubhouse and out on the field, and Figueroa said he finds his teammate to be "one of the funniest people I know."

During the offseason, Figueroa will return to his home in Santo Domingo, where most of his family -- he has four siblings -- still remain. It's in America, though, where he said he "feels free" and where "I can just be myself." The language barrier, once an issue, isn't so much anymore, thanks to years of gradually learning English.

This Pedro has yet to have the chance to meet the other Pedro, Pedro Martinez, but when the A's travel to New York this week, he's hoping to introduce himself to another of his favorites: CC Sabathia.

"I really hope I can," he said, smiling.

Oakland Athletics, Pedro Figueroa