Sacrifices paying off for A's prospect Puason

September 17th, 2020

Robert Puason has endured more hardship during his first 17 years than most people will in a lifetime.

His experiences have shaped who he is now and the type of man he will be in the future. Puason is Oakland’s No. 2 prospect, a rising star in the organization and might very well be the next Fernando Tatis Jr.

But he’s so much more than that.

Puason already is a baseball success story -- and he hasn’t even played his first official professional game.

“This is something that I expected,” Puason said in Spanish. “My plan was to be in the United States to get better. Now, here I am.”

It’s been a long road to get here.

The 6-foot-3, 185-pound switch-hitting shortstop grew up in the outskirts of La Romana, Dominican Republic, east of the capital city of Santo Domingo, in Batey Peligro, a working-class, rural area near a sugarcane plantation. “Batey” is a word with indigenous roots that commonly refers to the communities that house sugarcane workers. “Peligro” is the Spanish term for danger.

Puason was raised in a small home with a tin roof and dirt floor. It had no running water. The exterior of his home was cobbled together by random pieces of green wood and metal that his family had gathered from the side of the road, trash bins and scrap markets. Inside, the walls were crafted from cardboard. Puason’s family prepared meals above an open flame in a cooking station made of stones and bricks set up just outside the home. They dug their own latrines.

Like most of the men in the village, Puason’s father Rosendo cut sugarcane with a machete for 12 hours a day almost every day of the week. Puason’s mother Luisa Perez sold homemade donuts and anything else she could make with her own two hands at home. At times, she also made money as a maid and by selling fuel to workers to power their gas lamps. She struggled to make ends meet, but she always had time for Robert, his brother Royel and sisters Katherine and Carolin. Rosendo often skipped meals so his children could eat.

“It wasn’t easy, but you do what you have to do for your children,” Rosendo said in Spanish from his home in the Dominican Republic. “I look back at the photos and think about what Robert went through as a boy. He was always a hard worker. Just look how far he has come.”

As an adolescent, Puason’s days usually began at 6 a.m. First, he would feed his siblings and then walk them to school. He was also responsible for feeding them lunch. In between, he made money by running errands, like fetching water and washing dishes. He’d dig through trash for anything he could find. It was common to find him posted up near stoplights in busy intersections under the scorching sun begging for food and money. Puason still carries a folded sheet of notebook paper with a list of the people who helped him during those difficult times. On the back of the page is a list of those who shunned him.

“I did a lot of things to keep going and to help family. We all did,” Puason said. “My childhood was filled with lots of hard work, but I gave thanks to God that I made it out.”

Puason found salvation in religion and baseball. He attended class in the afternoons and practiced baseball with his father, a former amateur player, after school. When he was around 10 years old, Puason began training with a local coach named Domingo Gurriel. Puason credits Gurriel for discovering him and J.D. Ozuna -- who worked with him for three years until he signed with the A’s for $5.1 million last summer -- for developing him.

A life full of hardship changed forever at age 11, when Puason took the field as part of the in-game entertainment during an international showcase for Cuban players outside of Santo Domingo. He was malnourished and undersized, but his athleticism and skills were advanced beyond his years. He was still years away from becoming eligible to sign with a Major League team -- international prospects must be at least 16 years old to sign -- but he was impressive enough to catch the attention of several high-ranking international scouts.

Three years later, Puason made a verbal agreement to sign with the Braves at age 14. The deal was never finalized because the Braves were penalized in 2017 for violating international rules and forbidden from signing him. By the time he was old enough to sign under MLB rules, he was one of the top international prospects in the world. Thanks to the efforts of Oakland assistant general manager Dan Feinstein and his international scouting staff, he signed with the Athletics.

“Oakland has been very good to our son. I just ask that God continues to guide Robert and keep him on the good path,” Luisa said in Spanish. “We want him to stay humble and stay the same person he has always been. He can’t forget where he came from.”

Puason finalized his contract with the A’s on the morning of July 2, 2019, and he was at the team’s Spring Training complex in Mesa, Ariz., that night. He stayed in Arizona for Instructional League and later participated in an English-immersion program at Arizona State University. He was scheduled for Minor League Spring Training and was on track to play in the Dominican Summer League when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

He still hasn’t taken his first professional at-bat in a game, but he’s getting plenty of practice. The teenager was named to Oakland’s 60-man roster and has been working out with the group in San Jose at Excite Ballpark, home of the San Jose Giants, San Francisco’s Class A Advanced team.

The first-place A’s are not going to call him up to the big league club. He’s still a few years away from the Major Leagues.

“He’s going to be fun to watch once he fills in and matures and gets to actually play a little bit,” A’s hitting coach Eric Martins said. “That’s the only thing that's hindering him right now, is not being able to get out there and get some innings and at-bats in Minor League games. But from what I've seen of him, I really like the kind of player he is. He has a lot of passion and a lot of energy. He really gets after it. He wants to work as much as anybody.”

Puason came of age under difficult circumstances, but in some ways, he’s just like many other teens. He’s a prankster and hooked on video games. He has fun with his social media. The teenager hopes to get his driver’s license soon and buy a car sometime this year.

He lives with his parents in the D.R. in the new home he bought for them. This one doesn’t have cardboard walls. It’s in a gated community.

“My parents taught me to always treat people with respect and always look at others and treat them as family,” Puason said. “My parents made a lot of sacrifices for us. We have a lot of experience in sacrifices, but everything they did, they did it from the heart and for a better future.”

What’s next for Puason, who turned 18 on Sept. 11, is still to be determined. What’s certain is that the lessons gained from his childhood will accompany him into the next phase of his life.