'A special moment': Yepez, Acuña finally meet in bigs

July 7th, 2022

ATLANTA -- For the Cardinals, their trip to Atlanta and Truist Park this week has been downright nightmarish with three tough losses (the latest a 3-0 defeat on Wednesday night), some forgettable starting pitching and non-existent hitting with runners in scoring position.

However, for Cardinals rookie slugger Juan Yepez, finally reaching Atlanta -- and reuniting with close friend and Venezuelan countryman Ronald Acuña Jr. -- has been the fulfillment of a dream eight years in the making.

Once 16-year-old prospects who were scouted by the Braves and physically signed their first pro contracts simultaneously at Yepez’s Caracas, Venezuela, home, the two standouts talked often and dreamed openly of the day when they would be in the Major Leagues together and playing in Atlanta. While Acuña and Yepez had similar starting points, their paths to the pros varied greatly.

Acuña zipped through the Minors in three years, won the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year Award and established himself as one of the game’s brightest young stars. Yepez, however, needed a trade from the Braves to the Cardinals and eight years in the Minors before breaking out this season with 11 home runs.

“I always felt, for years, this was the dream -- playing here with these guys,” said Yepez, who started off at the Rookie level with Braves star prospects Austin Riley, Mike Soroka and Acuña. “To be out there playing against them, it’s been cool for me. It’s a special moment I’ll never forget.”

To understand the history between Acuña and Yepez and their playful, brotherly like relationship, all you need to see is their comical reunion at first base on Monday. First, Yepez applied a hard tag on Acuña -- even though the superstar was already on the bag. After Yepez threw the ball back, Acuña playfully slapped Yepez on the head.

Their friendship is one that extends much deeper than baseball. Yepez, who received the more lucrative signing bonus, used to drive Acuña around after he bought his first car -- a Mercedes-Benz. Assigned to an instructional league in the Dominican as 16-year-olds, Yepez and Acuña leaned on each other when they lived in spartan quarters with six players in each room and bunks stacked on top of one another.

When they were in Braves Rookie ball at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, Yepez took Acuña to an Orlando bank to open his first checking account. Also, they had a tradition of going to the Apple Store each year before Spring Training so Acuña could upgrade his phone.

“It’s been an incredible experience together,” Acuña said. “You can’t even compare bunking up in the Dominican to where we are now. [Yepez] helped me open my first bank account and took me in his car to go shopping, or wherever I needed to go. It’s been a great friendship to have over the years.”

While Yepez was initially seen as the better prospect, he admitted Acuña quickly stole that title as an electrifying five-tool talent. Recalling times when Acuña would best players who were seven years older in home run hitting contests, Yepez said this about the player who grew up on the opposite side of Caracas: “From the first day together, [Acuña] was the best player on the field. Every time we went out there, he was the best player on either team.”

Though Acuña quickly became a superstar for the Braves, he said his soul hurt over Yepez getting traded to the Cardinals in 2017 and struggling for years in the Minors. Three years ago, when Yepez was slogging along in Class A Peoria and feeling as if his MLB dream was never further away, Acuña sent tickets to his friend to come up and watch a Braves-Cubs series in Chicago. Before and after those contests, the two competed for hours in PlayStation games and reminisced about their younger years.

Remembered Acuña: “I'm extremely proud of him because it was a tough road for him to get to the big leagues. I'm happy we're both in the big leagues. He showed a lot of perseverance.”

Prior to Monday’s series opener, Acuña posted pictures of him and Yepez from their formative years and teased that the loser should pay for dinner. Yepez, on a rookie wage scale, balked. He also said he didn’t talk any trash to his friend when he hit a home run off the Braves and came within feet of hitting a second.

“He posted a picture of us together in Low-A and joked whoever lost paid for dinner,” an exasperated Yepez said. “I was like, ‘Man you’ve been in the league for so many years, so you should pay for everything.’ We had a good laugh about that.

“It’s been really cool to come out against my ex-team and really do something and prove them wrong,” added Yepez, who is 3-for-12 with a home run and an RBI in the series. “It’s awesome being back here with Ronald and most of the guys I was with in Rookie ball.”