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Yankees Magazine: Rocket Man

Just 20 years old, Estevan Florial is quickly making a name for himself. For the third time
Yankees Magazine

It was the eighth inning of an early Spring Training game, one the Yankees were losing, 6-2. Even though the bases were loaded, the fans at George M. Steinbrenner Field were more focused on the last sips and crumbs of their concessions items than on anything happening in the field.

In the clubhouse on this last day of February, Yankees players already out of the game were heading home for the evening. No one would ever have any reason to remember anything that happened today; the real games were still a month away.

It was the eighth inning of an early Spring Training game, one the Yankees were losing, 6-2. Even though the bases were loaded, the fans at George M. Steinbrenner Field were more focused on the last sips and crumbs of their concessions items than on anything happening in the field.

In the clubhouse on this last day of February, Yankees players already out of the game were heading home for the evening. No one would ever have any reason to remember anything that happened today; the real games were still a month away.

These moments are built for the margins of the organization's pecking order, and outfielder Estevan Florial -- the youngest player in the Yankees' Big League camp this season and one of the team's top prospects -- was relishing the opportunity in front of him.

Florial swung at a 2-2 pitch from Tigers pitcher Mark Montgomery, smacking a single to left field that scored two runs and halved the Yankees' deficit. He was running on Montgomery's 1-2 pitch, which scooted past the catcher and went all the way to the backstop, allowing Florial -- possibly recklessly but no doubt aggressively -- to take third as Tyler Wade scored. On another wild pitch, Florial scurried home himself, having offered up a two-run single and some game-tying havoc on the basepaths. Mission accomplished. The guys in the clubhouse, those who hadn't left already, still mostly cared about getting home. But they walked out with a smile, impressed by the precocious youngster. For Florial, barely 20 years old, this moment was meaningful -- a statement, to anyone paying attention, that he belonged.

Spring Training is long when you're an established Major Leaguer, but the wait for the real moments and the real Big League drama has nothing on the long slog up the Minor League system. In both cases, then, you'll forgive the occasional cliché. You need to shoot your shot when you get the chance. Florial did that. Rookies are supposed to err by being too aggressive, not too passive. Check. And you get perilously few chances to make a name for yourself.

Florial knows this better than anyone.

***

"It doesn't matter what happens, you have to keep going," Florial says, sitting at a table on the second floor of a grocery store in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic's capital city. It's a small in-store cafe, a strange place for an extended chat, but then so much of Florial's story is unusual. He's talking about the strikeouts, the one knock against his game at this stage. Florial is a magical High-A prospect, eye-catching in the extreme. But he strikes out too much. Even Michelangelo's David has some muscular imperfections. "Bad times are going to happen," he says, "but it's how you stand up -- like, the step you take after that."

Florial goes on describing his efforts to avoid the bad counts that trip him up. Like most players, he is acutely aware of his weaknesses. "I know myself," he says. But even that's not so simple when you consider his past.

Estevan Florial was born Estevan Florial before a short detour under the guise of Haniel d'Oleo. He was from the Dominican Republic before he was from Haiti, but now he's once again a Dominican native. He was a dirt-poor limpiabota -- a shoe-shiner working on the streets of Santo Domingo -- before he was a certain millionaire, before he signed for about a tenth of what he had expected. He's Estevan, because he has always been Estevan, but some people still call him Haniel. It's a bit of a riddle.

In many ways, though, Florial's several lives have tracked close to the standard for some young Dominicans. He was born without papers, a home birth for whom a father was a mere biological necessity instead of a part of the boy's life. "There are a lot of kids like Estevan," says Bernardo Tatis. "They have no identity. You know who they are, you know what they do, but they don't have anything to prove who they are."

Tatis is Florial's manager/agent/father figure and has been the primary male influence in Estevan's life since he was just 13 years old. "Skinny, wimpy, quiet," Tatis says of the kid he remembers meeting, but the raw talent was plain to see. "A friend of mine named Arturo Peña, he told me, 'Today I saw Vladimir Guerrero hitting left-handed.'"

The term buscone has a negative connotation, associated all too often with underhanded, unscrupulous leeches who attach themselves to young, promising Dominican ballplayers and extract as much as 50 percent of their initial professional contract. Tatis -- who played Minor League ball in the United States, Mexico and Taiwan, and managed in Mexico -- says he approaches the job differently than those malevolent actors, and both he and Florial speak with deep mutual affection.

So Tatis went to see Florial, and immediately offered his mother, Irese, a proposal. Estevan would live with Tatis for three-plus years, until he could sign with a professional team on July 2, 2014. Tatis would provide food, lodging, clothes, shoes, equipment -- everything. In exchange, Tatis would get 40 percent of Florial's first contract. If Estevan proved to be as good as he looked, it could be a windfall; if nothing came of the next three years, it would be a lot of work and expense for naught.

And thus began Estevan Florial's pre-professional career. He would go to school, and when he wasn't there, he would work on his game, either at Tatis's Grand Slam Baseball Academy in Santo Domingo or with his personal coach, Nicolas Kelly. The days of vitilla, a Dominican variation of stickball, were over. Like most Dominican kids, Florial barely played in anything resembling a baseball game. It was constant skills work, teaching to the test. Everything was about preparing him for showcases and tryouts that would come as he approached his signing period.

"He was a high-profile showcase guy," says Donny Rowland, the Yankees' international scouting director. "He was in every showcase and highly regarded for obvious reasons. We saw him as often as possible with multiple opinions from multiple high-level evaluators, and I saw him absolutely every chance I had, which was pretty much every event he was part of, or showcase he had.

"He was an extremely high-level target for us and No. 1 on my board. … Premium position, five-tool potential, with the potential for all five to be above average. Now, that was obviously long-range scouting projection and potential, but that's the kind of talent that we saw."

Years later, in Miami for the 2017 All-Star Futures Game -- an MLB All-Star Week event featuring the top Minor League talent - Florial will dress in the World Team's clubhouse. He'll have a Yankees logo on his sleeve, but what grabs even more attention is the Haitian flag on his jersey's chest. No Haitian-born player has ever reached the Majors, despite the big-league factory on the other side of the island. By year's end, when Florial is in the Arizona Fall League and about to be named the No. 2 prospect in the Yankees organization, it's easy to project him as a pioneer-to-be.

Except for one thing, a weird point that seems like it should have been worked out years ago.

Estevan Florial wasn't born in Haiti.

***

Players born in the United States or Puerto Rico have long been subject to the MLB First-Year Player Draft, but outside of that jurisdiction, globetrotting scouts operate in what sometimes can resemble a lawless Thunderdome. Major League Baseball's Collective Bargaining Agreement does, however, have limits that govern the process. In 2014, the year Florial was supposed to sign, the Yankees had $2,193,100 to spend on international prospects, a figure based on their finish the year before. The penalty for exceeding the limit at that time was harsh -- teams that went over had to pay a 100 percent tax on every dollar spent above the max and then were restricted from signing any international players for more than $300,000 for the next two years. And this was all for 16-year-olds; despite the high rankings, everything is a crapshoot when you're projecting players that young.

But Rowland's team had been eyeing that 2014 group for some time, confident that it was strong enough to merit an all-in move. "We made the strategic decision to aggressively pursue and acquire as many players in that year and that given talent pool as possible," Rowland says. "Our front office, ownership and my immediate supervisors made the decision that, 'OK, this is a strategy we want to partake in during this given year,' and they gave us the green light to proceed."

The Yankees signed five of MLB.com's top 10 international prospects -- including the top two available players in Dermis Garcia and Nelson Gomez -- and added another five from the next 20 on the list. Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Korea -- the Yankees' reach extended to all points on the map. By the end of the 2014 calendar year, Rowland's staff had signed players for deals totaling approximately $18 million, meaning that the team would be paying almost $16 million extra on top of the signing bonuses.

But one name was missing -- the player who had been at the very top of Rowland's board for much of the year: Haniel d'Oleo.

He had been a regular on the showcase circuit, constantly drawing the same raves as Garcia and Gomez -- whom the Yankees signed for $3 million and $2.25 million, respectively. But when he showed up in early 2014 for an event at the Yankees' facility, d'Oleo was turned away. The league had run his paperwork, and it hadn't checked out. Haniel d'Oleo, who was really Estevan Florial, received a one-year suspension, barring him from MLB facilities and official prospect showcases. Most painfully, he was no longer permitted to sign when the July 2 period began. And even beyond that, there was no guarantee that he would ever be able to get any kind of documentation that could meet MLB's approval.

"We have comprehensive rules in place that govern the signings of amateur international players, as well as systems for monitoring compliance with those rules," Major League Baseball said in a statement issued to Yankees Magazine. "Factors such as identity, age and birthplace are evaluated -- and in turn decisions are made -- on the basis of all available information."

The problem started when Florial -- who was actually born on Nov. 25, 1997, in Barahona, Dominican Republic, about a three-hour drive from Santo Domingo -- was a few years old, and Irese tried to enroll him in school. Estevan didn't have a birth certificate, so when she found a way to pass her son off as Haniel d'Oleo, she leapt at the chance. And that was good enough, until he developed into a baseball wunderkind and MLB started the certification process that could make him an instant millionaire.

No one was arguing that Estevan had done anything intentionally duplicitous; he didn't seem to be falsifying his age or anything else to help increase his signing bonus. "I have absolutely zero belief that that was his intention," Rowland says. "I don't think there was intent on his part to cheat the system." Florial was just a kid from a poor background trying to go to school, and he had, through nobody's fault exactly, slipped through a crack. The climb out would be a struggle, emotionally and financially.

"I remember one time I told my mom, 'Hey, I think I'm not going to be able to sign because my paperwork is not good,'" Florial says. "So she said, 'I know it's not good. But if it's not good, forget about it and don't practice anymore.' But I said, 'Mom, it doesn't matter if I'm not going to sign. I'm going to keep practicing. If I'm not signed, all right, but at least I tried, you know?'"

Suddenly, Tatis was dealing with an angry, depressed kid. "He asked me a few times, 'Why am I not Dominican?'" Tatis recalls, and you can understand why someone who had been Dominican his entire life might have that kind of question. For Tatis, though, it was also a business problem. Here was this kid whom he had lovingly raised for the past three years, but the manager had a business to run, and Florial was supposed to be a golden asset. All around the prospect circuit, Tatis had touted a once-every-10-years type of talent. Now the buyers had moved on. "It's not your fault, it's not my fault," Tatis told him. "I look at you like a Dominican. As a matter of fact, I look at you like my son."

Tatis went to work, convincing Florial and his mother that they could salvage the situation. "I was running against time," he says, "because I had one year to do everything." Looking for Florial's father was a dead end -- all they had for him was a nickname. Irese was Haitian, so they would start there. When they located her birth certificate, Tatis hired a lawyer to help get her the type of documents that they could use to establish a line of lineage for her son. "We made a passport for her, and then we went to Haiti with all the documents, all the information we got from here."

And that was the only time Estevan Florial -- until recently, a native of Haiti -- ever set foot in that country.

***

Tatis tells this story like it's some sort of international heist film, but he interrupts himself to offer a hint at the type of kid at the heart of it all. "He went from zero English to, in nine months, he can speak to you," Tatis says. "I remember when the Yankees' scout, Donny Rowland, I think maybe two weeks before we signed with him, Donny goes to me and he said, 'Bernie, can you tell him to pull the ball?' I said, 'You go and tell him.'" Tatis sat in the dugout, watching as Rowland approached the young hitter and tested his aptitude by asking him to make a couple adjustments and pull the ball when the pitch dictated he should let it fly. Florial stopped, looked back, and said he would. "Donny looked at me, like, 'How did he do it?'" Tatis laughs.

That's one glimpse at how Florial spent his year in purgatory. But Tatis also saw plenty of (no doubt justified) frustration, as well. The kid really wanted to be a Yankee, he rooted for the Yankees, and there had been a time when the Yankees were prepared to make him rich. Instead, all he could do was hope that the paperwork would get resolved, and that then there might still be a team with any budget room for a can't-miss prospect.

"We took him to a tryout with the San Diego Padres," Tatis says. "He didn't say anything, but I could see -- I'd known the kid four years -- he did not want to go. He struck out five times without touching the ball, and on the way back here, I was driving and everybody was quiet. I asked, 'You don't want to sign with San Diego?' He said, 'No, I want to sign with the Yankees.'" When the Padres called Tatis with an offer, he turned them down. He didn't think it fair to either side to let Florial sign if his heart wasn't in it.

By October, Florial finally had a Haitian passport, but they still needed MLB to certify it. The league agreed that the papers established a valid line of identity and citizenship, but his age remained impossible to confirm. "But the Yankees knew his age," Tatis says. "They saw him at least 20 times." Rowland laid out the problem to Florial and Tatis. They still loved his talent and they wanted to sign him, but there was just no way that they -- even the mighty Yankees -- could match what other teams might have been able to offer. It was January by the time the suspension was lifted, and the Yankees had used up their budget and then some on the previous July's signings. Rowland would go to his bosses with his case for some flexibility to make a very calculated gamble, but even if it all worked out, anything additional at that point would carry a 100 percent tax.

"I went to Hal Steinbrenner," says Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, "and went through the process, explained how Donny was talking about how high a ceiling this player has, and Hal gave the green light to go ahead and try and do something."

Tatis knew that he had no choice. Instead of 40 percent of a multimillion-dollar deal, he'd get his piece of a $200,000 signing bonus. Florial wasn't going to budge, and to Tatis, who remembered the kid crying after getting the rug pulled out from under him, it felt more like a family matter than a business decision. "He wanted to sign with the Yankees," Tatis says, shrugging.

"I would like more money for him," Florial says of Tatis. "But I said, for me, it doesn't matter. I think it's enough to make a house for my mom."

***

Video: Top Prospects: Estevan Florial, OF, Yankees

Nearly four years later, Florial is in the parking lot of the Hipodromo V Centenario in Santo Domingo on a warm January morning, working out with his old coach, Nicolas Kelly, and a bunch of kids ranging in age from 13 to 17. The group meets here most days. They run some laps then begin footwork exercises. Florial and the older kids run inside and around the rungs of a rope ladder laid out on the sidewalk; the younger kids do the same routine on a ladder drawn in chalk.

Florial leads off each new set then directs all the younger kids through the various exercises, from high-knee runs to resistance movements to a particularly fun-looking station where they take sledgehammers to gigantic truck tires. The routine seems more suited for NFL scouting combine preparation, and Florial looks the part of a top-rated defensive back.

Eventually, they move to a dirt ballfield. There's a keg of old baseballs, beat brown by earth. Florial carries them to the field, saying that they save the good balls for days when it's less muddy. An octagonal mat stands in for home plate, its color indistinguishable from the dirt around it (and its utility therefore negligible). He soft-tosses to some of the other kids against a fence then steps up to the plate himself. What follows is an absolute show. With a monk's discipline, Florial begins by smacking a pitch into the right-field corner then proceeds to move a few degrees at a time, until he finishes with a few hits to the left-field fence. Each contact sounds perfect -- thwap! thwap! thwap! -- nothing chunked, nothing fat.

It's easy to imagine scouts falling in love with this kind of player -- and this kind of person. "One of the best makeup players we've had," Cashman says later. "He has a burning desire to be great. That, matching his high skillset, is a real combustible combination and it's a vital combination to success. When you have a great athlete who wants to be the best at what he does, that's when serious development comes quick."

That bat control is, in Florial's mind, a product of the year away, when he worked nonstop on opposite-field power. "When I was suspended, the first two months I was getting down," he says. "But I said, 'All right, forget about it. If you're going to get signed, you're going to get signed. If you won't, you won't. So it doesn't matter. Keep going.'

"I didn't think about how much money I lost or whatever. … The money doesn't make the baseball player." During 2018 Spring Training, after his year drawing raves from Low-A Charleston to High-A Tampa to the Arizona Fall League, Florial got to spend a few weeks with the Big Leaguers. He did fielding drills alongside Aaron Judge and Brett Gardner, sat in the clubhouse just steps away from Giancarlo Stanton and received weeks of instruction from the Major League coaching staff. "Every day, dude," he says enthusiastically. "Every day, being around those guys has been amazing. I'm trying to learn something new from those guys every day."

He'll need the lessons from this past spring, as well as those he learned during a too-hard ordeal that he endured before his dream could even start. He's way ahead of schedule, by far the most accomplished member of his signing class. Freicer Perez, a much lower-profile international signing from 2014 is No. 9 on MLB.com's list of Yankees prospects, and Dermis Garcia sits 23rd. Both are probably right on schedule; Florial is an astronaut.

From Tampa and then through wherever his 2018 season ends, there will surely be new highlights -- and new lessons -- for the star prospect. The moments will get bigger, and the Bronx will start feeling closer.

But when it's over, he'll return home. To his real home. Ever since he signed, MLB has listed Florial's birthplace as Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but today, his page on the league's website finally shows him having been born in Barahona, Dominican Republic. He's Estevan Florial, again, and he's from the Dominican Republic, again. He finally rewrote his past. Now all he has to focus on is the future.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Estevan Florial