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Big Bear ready to energize St. Louis fan base

Ozuna's all-around play boosts lineup, clubhouse
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- The baseball education of Marcell Ozuna began 20 years ago, through a television screen in the Dominican resort town of Boca Chica. That's where St. Louis' new slugger was raised, first on fishing and dominos, before learning to rake. That's where he first saw Vladimir Guerrero swing with gloveless hands at any pitch in sight, and where he resolved, at the age of 8, to play baseball like he did.

"He was my idol," Ozuna said.

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JUPITER, Fla. -- The baseball education of Marcell Ozuna began 20 years ago, through a television screen in the Dominican resort town of Boca Chica. That's where St. Louis' new slugger was raised, first on fishing and dominos, before learning to rake. That's where he first saw Vladimir Guerrero swing with gloveless hands at any pitch in sight, and where he resolved, at the age of 8, to play baseball like he did.

"He was my idol," Ozuna said.

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No Cardinals player will turn more young heads this season than Ozuna, St. Louis' splashy offseason acquisition. MLB.com is taking a look at Players to Watch for all 30 teams in the Major Leagues. Ozuna is the Cardinals' because St. Louis hasn't seen a slugger like him in years, and because its postseason pursuit hinges on perhaps no player more.

He hits 468-foot homers and swats 113.4 mph singles (per Statcast™). He hits good pitching. But he's also the club's player to watch because his swing drives as many balls out as the people his persona draws in.

Video: HOU@STL: Ozuna gives Altuve fashion advice on field

"He's a loose guy and a fun guy with a positive attitude," says new teammate Bud Norris.

Ozuna bounces with energy. He smiles and swaggers. He wears an arm sleeve neon enough to both bring out Cardinal red and clash against Chicago blue. Teammates call him "Big Bear," but he runs as fast as Andrew Benintendi, according to Statcast™. Scouts say he swings like Jim Rice while cheesing like Francisco Lindor.

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"He's the energizer bunny," said Royals assistant general manager Albert Gonzalez, who oversaw the Marlins' international scouting when Miami signed Ozuna as an amateur in 2008. "All he wants to do is play."

Ozuna's personality never shuts off, and it helps him to cross social and industry fault lines in a seamless way. He pranks teammates in both English and Spanish. He jokes with reporters. He stands up to executives -- and extends his arms.

"A lot of new players take a while to warm up to you," Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. "From Day One, he's hugging."

Video: MIN@STL: Ozuna crushes a solo homer to left field

It's also made him the rare Dominican boy who grew up to find his heroes gravitating back to him. Ozuna talks hitting with Manny Ramirez. He pals around with David Ortiz. He was tutored by Barry Bonds, mentored by Pedro Martinez, managed by Don Mattingly and bonded to the late Jose Fernandez, with whom he'll be irrevocably linked.

Fernandez invited Ozuna to join him on the seas that fateful night 20 months ago. They were best friends. "Brothers," Ozuna says. But Ozuna had relatives in town, the Marlins an afternoon game the next day. Baseball and family took precedent, as they always have.

"I said, 'no,'" Ozuna remembers. "I have to go home."

Fernandez's boat crashed in the darkness off Miami Beach, killing the Marlins' ace and two others, and sparking a chain of events that enveloped Ozuna and altered the trajectory of his life.

Video: Must C Catch: Ozuna hustles and makes leaping catch

Harnessing the memory of Fernandez, the advice of Bonds ("he taught me how to be selective"), and Pedro's friendship, Ozuna conquered the consistency issues that plagued his first four big league seasons. He closed the holes in his swing and blossomed into one of the National League's most feared hitters, setting career highs in every offensive category and earning Silver Slugger and Gold Glove nods.

Which is why the Cardinals pivoted -- "instantly," according to Mozeliak -- this winter after learning Giancarlo Stanton wouldn't accept a trade to St. Louis. The Cardinals certainly don't see him as a consolation prize.

"From a baseball standpoint," Mozeliak said. "He checked all the boxes."

Under team control through 2019, the 27-year-old could powercharge St. Louis' lineup for at least two more seasons at a team-friendly rate. The Cardinals haven't had a hitter eclipse 35 homers since Albert Pujols, and only four since World War II matched Ozuna's 2017 slash line of .312/.376/.548: Pujols, Scott Rolen, Joe Torre and Stan Musial.

"I'm working hard all the time, doing my best all the time," Ozuna said. "Now I'm here."

"St. Louis is a perfect fit for the fans and for Marcell," Gonzalez said. "They're going to love him."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals, Marcell Ozuna