Long journey for Familia to baseball stardom
Mets closer credits others for believing in his abilities when he was a young pitcher
NEW YORK -- The roads from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, west to the coastal city of Barahona are lined with stretches of lush green fields, palm trees and even patches of desert. Freeways give way to two-lane highways. The highways lead to dirt roads that sometimes lead to baseball gold.
To the south, the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea are ubiquitous.
Sandy Rosario, now a top scout in the country for the Blue Jays, used to make the 2 1/2-hour drive every morning from his home in the capital city to this southern part of the island, searching for teenage prospects while with the Mets. Sometimes, he would take his buddy Guillermo "Penaco" Valdes with him to keep him company.
"I remember being in Barahona for five hours looking for players one day, and I didn't find one single prospect," Rosario recalled. "It was a really bad day, just a wasted day, and Penaco says to me, 'There's a baby-faced kid that you have to see. Big kid. Strong arm. You'll like this kid.' I said, 'Sure, why not? It's on the way home anyway. He can't be any worse than the players I just saw.'"
The player, Jeurys Familia, lived in Yaguate, a municipality located in the southwestern province of San Cristobal, and he was busy in school taking a test at the time. Rosario sent a speedy motorcycle taxi to pick him up anyway. The trip back to meet Rosario marked the first leg of a long journey that has landed Familia with the Mets and on the biggest stage in baseball.
"I look back on those times and I'm grateful for all of those people that believed in me when I was nothing, somebody nobody recognized," Familia, 26, said. "They saw something in me. They believed more in me than I did in myself at that time. To sign with the Mets and be in the World Series is something, is like a dream, but I know it's real."
Familia, who signed with the Mets in 2007 for $100,000, had five saves and a 0.00 ERA in the first two rounds of the postseason, but he gave up a game-tying home run to the Royals' Alex Gordon in the ninth inning of the Mets' 5-4 loss in 14 innings in Game 1. It was Familia's first blown save in three months.
The Mets are not worried. Familia had a breakout year: 43 saves with a 1.85 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 78 innings during the regular season. They'll need him in top form if they are to recover from a 2-0 Series deficit. Game 3 -- the first World Series game in the history of Citi Field -- will be Friday on FOX (7:30 p.m. ET air time, 8 p.m. game time).
"Baseball is everything for me," Familia said. "I don't care if it's postseason or the World Series, because in my mind, I'm playing the same game I played in the Minor Leagues. It's the same game I played growing up."
Back in the Dominican Republic, Familia's father worked at a gas station. His mother was a shopkeeper. His first dream was to play professional basketball in the NBA, but that changed at age 12 when he met Domingo Antonio Vizcaino, the owner and operator of a youth baseball league in the area.
It was Vizcaino who eventually convinced Familia to give up basketball. Vizcaino spent five years turning a young Familia into a baseball player -- first an outfielder, then a third baseman and, finally, a pitcher.
Vizcaino and Rosario's buddy Penaco were friends.
"The first time I saw Jeurys, he was in his school uniform -- khaki pants, a blue shirt and black shoes -- and I worked him out in the middle of the street outside of a stadium because he didn't want to get his clothes dirty," Rosario said. "He just showed me his windup. He didn't even throw a pitch. But when you see a body like that, you can project what he is going to be. I knew we needed to get him in our academy for a tryout."
How Familia's initial tryout with the Mets at the academy was arranged is part of his legend. Rosario claims he lined it up. Former Mets scout Victor Santana, then with the Tampa Bay Rays, said he told Juan Mercado, the Mets' Dominican Republic scouting supervisor at the time, to sign Familia because the Rays decided to go in a different direction and were not going to sign him.
Familia's trainer, Vizcaino, said he made the call to the Mets. This much is certain: Santana and Mercado now scout internationally for the Pirates and continue to have success under Latin America scouting director Rene Gayo, signing players like Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte.
"All of those scouts worked hard on getting Familia," said Ismael Cruz, the Mets' director of international scouting at the time. "But you know how it is -- if the player turns out to be good, everyone wants the credit they deserve. If he doesn't, it was on me, because I got the final call."
Cruz, who now oversees Latin American operations as a special assistant to the general manager for the Blue Jays, knows of what he speaks. He was instrumental in signing teenage prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. this past summer. Cruz also signed Venezuelan shortstop Franklin Barreto, the top prospect sent to the A's in the Josh Donaldson trade; pitcher Miguel Castro, who was sent to the Rockies as part of the package for Troy Tulowitzki; and Dominican pitchers Jimmy Cordero and Alberto Tirado, who were traded to the Phillies for Ben Revere.
During a two-year period starting in 2006, the international scouting group with the Mets signed Familia; shortstop Wilmer Flores, out of Venezuela; pitcher Gonzalez Germen, who pitched for the Rockies in 2015; reliever Jenrry Mejia; Marlins outfielder Jordany Valdespin; shortstop Wilfredo Tovar; and infielder Jefry Marte, who is now with the Tigers. The Mets also signed Juan Lagares and Ruben Tejada; pitcher Jose Quintana, who is now with the White Sox; and catcher Francisco Pena, who is now with the Royals.
"We had a pretty good run there," Cruz said. "There were a lot of people involved and deserve credit for signing those players. It was a group effort."
The group watching Familia's first bullpen session with the Mets included Cruz, Mercado and Ramon Pena, a special assistant to then-general manager Omar Minaya. Pena is now the director of Latin American operations for the Indians and is one of the most accomplished scouts in Latin America. Pena negotiated and approved all contracts. He credits Mercado for finding Familia.
"Familia was electric with a smooth fastball, but his agent wanted a lot of money, I think $800,000," Cruz said. "He was good against live hitters, and we decided to sign him right there. We all liked him a lot."
There was only one problem: Familia failed his physical. Tests revealed some damage in his right elbow, and the deal was almost pulled off the table.
"Familia told me he hurt his arm as a little kid, and it was nothing to worry about," Cruz said. "He has always been an honest kid. That's basically when I told Omar [Minaya] that, 'Familia is on me. If he gets hurt, it's on me.' He never got hurt, and the rest is history."
Familia took over as the Mets' closer this year when Mejia was suspended for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. The power pitcher added a split-fingered fastball to his repertoire, and it's made him almost unhittable at times. Gordon's home run in Game 1 was on a 97-mph sinker.
"All I ever wanted was an opportunity, a chance to make my family proud," Familia said. "I remember the hunger I had and the desire to succeed. I still have that. I want to be like Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz -- somebody the Dominican people can look at and be proud that I am from their country."