Leclerc finds motivation from his 'hero' mom

Rangers closer worked hard to escape poverty of childhood

September 6th, 2018

ARLINGTON -- Rangers pitcher was having dinner with his family a few weeks ago when he turned to his sister Angelina and asked her a question.

"Did you ever think we would come here?' Leclerc said.

The answer was simple. "No."

When you grow up poor in a small town in the Dominican Republic, when your father walks out on the family when you're a baby, when you go days without any food or shoes to wear, it's almost impossible to dream about pitching in the Major Leagues.

"We suffered a lot," Leclerc said. "It was hard. Sometimes we would go to the park to play baseball and we wouldn't have any food. We hadn't eaten anything; when we came back, we would have nothing."

That is no longer the case. Leclerc, who has taken over as the Rangers' closer, no longer has to worry about where his next meal will come from. His family still makes their home in Esperanza, a town of 42,000 people in the northwest part of the Dominican Republic, but they no longer live in the two-bedroom wood shack where Leclerc was born.

One of the first things he did when he signed with Texas was buy his mother, Fiordaliza, a new house. It was the least he could do for a woman who passed on the toughness it took for Leclerc to succeed as a Major League pitcher.

"My hero," Leclerc said. "She was my everything. She had to do anything to support us. It wasn't easy, especially if you are a woman. There was a lot of work she had to do for four kids. She had to work whatever she could do … she worked in different factories … clothes, shoes, whatever. … She also worked in the farms around the area, picking tobacco."

There is no welfare or public subsistence in Esperanza. Leclerc and his family -- two sisters, a brother and a devoted mother -- were on their own.

"Here, you can get help," Leclerc said. "But in the Dominican, you don't get help from anybody. Somebody might say one day, 'Hey, you don't have food? You're having a bad day, OK.' But money, it doesn't happen. Me and my brother, we had to work. When we were 10 years old, we had to work on the farms, pick tobacco, bananas, a lot of things like that.

"I didn't see my father a lot, maybe two days out of the year. I don't know where he worked. He left the family and moved to the capital [Santiago]. He said he didn't have any money or job to support us. I don't even remember when my father and mother were together. I was very young."

Leclerc stayed out of trouble by staying close to his mother and by playing baseball. Older brother Angelo -- who spent seven years in the Rangers' and Red Sox's farm systems -- was always getting in fights with other kids, but Jose Leclerc was too easygoing for that.

"God gave me the strength to be strong," he said.

Leclerc played in the local leagues, or sometimes with his friends on a small patch of ground next to a dry riverbed. He played wearing the same shoes he wore to school.

"When we were younger, the stadium was far," Leclerc said. "We couldn't go there because we didn't have a car, or walk because the stadium was too far. We saw this playing space next to the river. So we played there."

Leclerc was "discovered" by Nino Maizal, a local engineer who was also a baseball coach with a big heart for the local boys. He coached Angelo and asked Jose to join as well.

Maizal did something even more important. He pointed out Leclerc to Adolfo Burgos, one of the many "buscones" who scour the Dominican Republic for talent and then sell players to Major League teams. They often have an unsavory reputation, but Leclerc speaks highly of Burgos.

"He really helped me a lot," Leclerc said. "I still talk to him all the time."

Leclerc was 15 when Maizal told Burgos about the slight hard-throwing right-hander in Esperanza. Burgos asked Leclerc if he wanted to move to Santiago, about 100 miles away.

"They ask me if I want to go there," Leclerc said. "I had nothing to eat and they said they had free food. So, I said, 'Yeah.' We lived together. Just tried to do the best for my family. Get up at 6 a.m., run and work out every day. After practice, I would run again. A lot of work, but I had to do it, because my family had nothing."

Leclerc must have done something right. Rangers scout Willy Espinal had signed Angelo two years earlier and was all over Jose, signing him for $90,000. Rangers assistant general manager Mike Daly was involved, as well, and remembers watching Leclerc's tryouts at the club's academy at San Pedro de Macoris.

"Just a guy who really competed," Daly said. "A really good arm with swing-and-miss secondary stuff. Once we signed him, it was obvious how much he loved baseball and had a great work ethic. He was really into baseball. We had a TV on at the academy and he was always watching baseball games."

Maybe that's because he couldn't watch television growing up. Maybe that background had something to do with giving Leclerc the mental toughness needed to climb through Texas' farm system and develop into a dominant closer.

The Rangers got an idea of that toughness this past year. Leclerc was in their bullpen for most of 2017, but with a 3.94 ERA and 40 walks in 45 2/3 innings. Texas loved the stuff, but the front office's notes on Leclerc going into the offseason cited a need to "rebuild his confidence."

When the Rangers got to Spring Training, they found that Leclerc had already done that.

"Things got really challenging for him," manager Jeff Banister said. "It seemed like some of those things affected him. It challenged his confidence. He made a point this winter to regain that confidence and he came into Spring Training with a different look in his face and eyes. He worked really hard at maintaining his focus and keeping a good tempo on the mound."

Lerclerc has pitched in 53 games for Texas, posting a 1.74 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP. In 51 2/3 innings, he has allowed 22 hits and 22 walks with 78 strikeouts. Lerclerc has nine saves and is 8-for-8 since taking over as closer after was traded on July 31.

"He has made a conscious effort to stay focused on throwing strikes, trusting his stuff and not overthrowing," Banister said. "This kid did this all on his own."

The motivation is family. Not only does Lerclerc take care of his mother, but he and his wife, Oclenni, have their own son, Joshuel.

"My whole life my family is everything," Leclerc said. "It was not easy where we were from and who we are. From nothing, to get here, was incredible. But everything I do … I do it for my family."