One magic town. 60 pro players. And they're all related to Ronald Acuña Jr.

Welcome to 'The Land of Ballplayers'

April 5th, 2024

You've likely heard of some of baseball's biggest family ties. The sport has a long tradition of them.

The Boones, the Alous, the Guerreros -- the last, a seemingly endless gene pool of players seen blasting dingers across Dominican sandlots year after year.

But there's one group of relatives that outranks them all. One mixture of five families, from one tiny, baseball-obsessed, way-out-of-the-way town in Venezuela that has so many pro players, even most members have lost count.

"It's amazing how many people in the family have signed professional contracts," former pitcher Kelvim Escobar told me in a phone call. "Eight Major Leaguers, and I don't know how many more have signed pro contracts."

"There are a lot," said through an interpreter. "It’s more than 60."

"Well, I think it's around 50-something, almost 60, something like that," former shortstop José Escobar said through an interpreter. "From a town of just four streets. ... It might be a Guinness record."

The Town

The tale of baseball's largest family begins, quite unusually, in a small fishing town. La Sabana.

"Tierra de Peloteros," Kelvim Escobar calls it. "Land of Ballplayers."

The 3,000-person village is one of seven that make up the Caruao Parish in Vargas Municipality. It sits on the north central coast of Venezuela, just northeast of Caracas along the Caribbean Sea. The closest big city is about an hour and a half away, and mountains surround the rural stretch of land -- making it hard to get to. Rolando Petit, the scout who found Acuña, described his trip into La Sabana to The Athletic back in 2018.

“You used to have to drive an off-road car or a 4-by-4,” Petit said. “It’s better now. But you still can’t get there without going through mountains, and you’re driving 20 to 25 miles per hour. Unless there’s mudslides. Then you can’t get there at all.”

But once you do get inside, you won't ever feel like leaving.

Photo via Familia Castillo

"We lived right on top of the beach, by the water," Kelvim Escobar, who made his home there up until and throughout his Minor League years, told me. "It's a beautiful town."

"We went to the beach, swam in the river," José Escobar said. "That's what we did from Monday to Sunday."

Fishing, lounging amongst the palm trees, baby turtle conservation and crabbing seem like some of the major activities happening in and around La Sabana.

But the No. 1 pastime every kid grows up playing and loving? Baseball.

"Since I can remember, all we did was play baseball," Kelvim Escobar said. "Even with a stick and bare hands -- we didn't have much to practice the sport. Equipment is expensive, especially for us, who grew up with nothing."

Kids played the popular Venezuelan game "La pelotica de goma," a version of stickball where you use your arm instead of a stick. The streets and schoolyards were filled with kids playing at all times of the year.

"It’s out of this world," Acuña said. "It’s great because kids play ball anywhere in town -- in the streets, at the beach, at school, they even play ball in the basketball courts. I think that’s why so many ballplayers have come out of there, because everyone lives that love for the game."

Photo via Familia Castillo

There was also, of course, a baseball field. Just one. A stadium tucked in the corner of a region of the town known as Santa Cruz: Oscar Santiago Escobar Stadium.

Oscar was a renowned teacher in the town and the father of Ángel Escobar (another big leaguer from La Sabana but, somehow, unrelated to this family).

Photo via Familia Castillo

Over the years, the pro players from the town have put in money to help with stadium renovations. Still, it has its quirks.

"It's next to the school. You jump over the wall, and you're in the school," John Hawy, Acuña's stepfather and MLB training partner, said through an interpreter. "The center field is built in the shape of a V because behind it is the cemetery, and they never gave up that space to finish the field."

Escobar remembers his early days of baseball clearly and fondly.

"My dad always scolded me because I would throw the ball against the wall all the time," Escobar recalled. "We had two shifts at school. We would come out at 11, and from 11 to 1, we played baseball in the street. We would go back, take a shower, return to school, come out at 4, practice in the afternoon, and also play at night. There was such a big passion. We played against other towns on weekends, and people always said that we were the best, that we were a powerhouse. There was a tremendous love for baseball in those days."

The Family - First Generation

According to multiple members and friends of the family, there are upwards of a ridiculous 50 to 60 relatives from the town (or within a few hours of it) who have signed professional contracts. A town, if you recall, of about 3,000 people. Some played in the Minors, some never played at all and an astounding eight family members played Major League Baseball. Here they are below.

José Escobar
Teams: 1991 CLE
Of note: Spent 12 years in Minors, but had just 15 plate appearances in Majors, recording three hits

"I was born with a glove in my hand," the now 63-year-old said.

After 13 long seasons in the Minors, the infielder made his MLB debut in 1991 for the Indians -- putting up three hits in 15 at-bats. He never played in the Majors again after that. Still, he knows the impact he's made on the rest of his family by leading the way to the big leagues.

"Well, sometimes I joke about it, 'They owe me a lot because they followed me. I was the first, I was like an example for them,'" Escobar said. "I'm very proud, quite proud."

Second Generation

Kelvim Escobar
Teams: Blue Jays, Angels
Of note: Put up 101 wins and 91 saves in 13 seasons

Escobar makes up the next ballplaying generation of the family, debuting with the Blue Jays in 1997. José is his uncle. The hard-throwing righty was a dual threat during his career, putting up 101 wins and 91 saves during 13 years in the big leagues.

"I was good, I threw hard," Escobar laughed. "I had some nasty pitches."

You can see Escobar's delight for his town and his family's accomplishments shining through the Zoom.

"I know how hard it is [to make it the Majors]," he said. "And just to see it in our family. It amazes me and makes me feel proud."

Alcides Escobar
Teams: Brewers, Royals, Nationals
Of note: Won a World Series with the Royals in 2015

A slick-fielding, speedy shortstop, Alcides made his debut for the Brewers in 2008 -- also calling his uncle José one of his heroes. He's mostly known for his time with the championship-winning Royals in 2015, hitting one of the more electrifying leadoff home runs in recent World Series memory.

Edwin Escobar
Teams: Red Sox, D-backs
Of note: After two stints in the Majors, turned around his career in Japan and signed with Cubs for 2024

The left-handed pitcher, a son of José, was the next and fourth family member to make his debut in 2014 with the Red Sox. He pitched in two games for Boston that year and 25 more for the D-backs in 2016. He recently signed a Minor League deal with the Cubs.

Third Generation

Vicente Campos and José Martinez
Teams: D-backs (Campos); Cardinals, Rays, Cubs (Martinez)
Of note: Campos has played pro baseball in four different countries; Martinez has the highest batting average in PCL history

Nos. 5 and 6, Campos -- a cousin of Kelvim and Alcides and Edwin -- and Martinez -- a third cousin, related on his mother's side -- made their big league debuts in 2016. Campos pitched one game for the D-backs and has since pitched all over the world, including Italy and Mexico. He played for Spain in the most recent World Baseball Classic.

Martinez, or El Cafecito, was a fantastic hitter coming up for the Cardinals. His father, Carlos, played (maybe best known in the Majors for hitting a homer off Jose Canseco's head), but family members say he is not related to them. If he is, he's a very distant cousin.

El Cafecito hit above .300 twice in 2017 and '18 and still has the PCL batting average record after hitting an absurd .384 in 2015. Injuries and a lack of power or a true position ended up pushing Martinez out of the Majors after the 2020 season. Still, he used the swing and spirit of his father to come up with some big hits during his short tenure in the Show.

“I literally learned to play baseball in La Sabana, from all of them," Martinez, who lived in the town at age 12, said through a translator. "All that passion for the game. Every day at the stadium, playing pelotica de goma."

Photo via Familia Castillo

Next in the illustrious family line? Mr. La Sabana. The reigning National League MVP. A generational superstar.

Ronald Acuña Jr.
Team: Braves
Of note: Acuña Jr. set a record with a previously unthinkable 40-70 season last year on his way to winning the NL MVP

"Ronald has been a star since he was little," Hawy said. "I was impressed; when he entered the field, he was a different Ronald. I don't know, it was like he transformed. You just knew he was a boy heading in that direction."

Kelvim Escobar had an academy set up in La Sabana with Alcides and Hawy after he finished his career. The young teenager, a second cousin of the Escobars, was, as you'd expect, one of his finest students.

"Hitting the ball well, good arm, he even ran track when he was little, he was fast," Escobar remembered.

Little Ronald watching his older cousin, Kelvim, pitch at Yankee Stadium/Photo via Kelvim Escobar

The 26-year-old is grateful for all the players that came before him and what they mean for the future of his town.

"We started watching Kelvim and those other guys and we chose to be ballplayers," Acuña said. "I think in La Sabana, most of the kids, I’d say about 80 percent of them want to be ballplayers."

Acuña also has direct descendants who played pro ball: His father, Ronald Sr., was a speedster in the Mets Minor League system for years. And his grandfather Romualdo Blanco was a pitcher for six MiLB seasons in the 1970s. His mom, Leonelis, also had a big influence on his baseball dreams.

Maikel García
Team: Royals
Of note: Garcia was top 5 among AL rookies in 2023 in hits, steals and batting average

García, the most recent in the family to reach the Majors, made his debut for the Royals in 2022. He's a cousin of Ronald. Since being called up, he's shined -- putting together one of the best rookie campaigns in Kansas City baseball history. He steals bases, he hits for a high average and his defense at third base has been spectacular. All of those skills should improve as the 23-year-old gets older and gains more strength.

"As soon as Maikel starts hitting home runs, man, he's going to be a very exciting player," Kelvim Escobar said. "He can run, he can play defense, he's a great freakin' athlete."

That power is already showing early on in the 2024 season: Garcia is off to a hot start, tied for the American League lead with three home runs.

The Future, the reunions, and how is any of this even possible?

So, what is going on down in La Sabana? What is flowing through the Escobar genes? Is there magic in that salt water washing up onto the town's sandy shores?

"It's hard for me to say," Kelvim Escobar laughed. "I guess it's in the genes. My uncle was the motivation for me. That worked the same way for Alcides and Ronald and carried down that way through the family."

"It's incredible, but I knew that [the family line] would continue because the excitement was very high," José Escobar said. "Kids on the street now are playing and saying they are them. That gives them a push to try to sign professionally and keep working, because the goal is to reach the Majors and stay there."

There are murals of pro teams and players, Acuña watch parties and an annual softball tournament where all these stars from the region come back to face against one another and hang out.

"It started about 20 years ago," Hawy said. "They play softball games. Four teams play: Los Primos, El Abusador, Los Basqueteros, and La Clave. Ronald's team is El Abusador. Los Primos is Ronald's dad. Two games first and the winners go to the final. And the winner of the final is the champion. After the caimanera, we go to the square, where there is music, and we celebrate. All the teams, not just the winner."

Photo via Familia Castillo

And there are more prospects on the way.

Ronald's brother Bryan is in the Twins system and his other brother Luisangel is a rising star with the Mets' Triple-A affiliate. Kelvim Escobar says 12-year-old Kenny Acuña, the littlest brother, may be one to watch in the future. Yojackson Laya, the brothers' cousin, just signed with the Dodgers.

"I think watching my brother, Alcides and Kelvin play has been a great motivation as a ballplayer," Luisangel said through an interpreter.

And all of it, this unbelievable pipeline of related players, has its roots from a tiny spot in South America. A place hard to pick out on a map, even when you're looking right at it. A gigantic extended family with a deep love of baseball and little else. Sons want to be better than their fathers, nephews want to be better than their uncles, second cousins want to be better than first cousins. Judging from the last 30 years, there seems to be little doubt they will be.

Members from La Sabana's most famous baseball family may never stop coming.

Many thanks to Efrain Ruiz for translation, research and interview help and to Marino Panchano for translation and interview help.