Ex-ballplayers often recall their days in the Minor Leagues whimsically, smiling at the distant memories of long bus rides and teammates’ hijinks. For those currently in the Minors, though, the reality is that it’s a tough way to make a living. The dedication required and the meager salary that most Minor Leaguers command forces players to make many sacrifices. There’s a carrot on the end of a stick, though, which keeps so many of them chasing their dreams.
Jonathan Loaisiga made history when he grabbed that carrot in 2018, becoming the first player from Nicaragua to play for the New York Yankees. After a long journey filled with one detour after another, the right-hander found himself on the mound at Yankee Stadium last June, and with his people back home eagerly watching on TV, he tossed five scoreless innings in a 5-0 win over the Rays.
Although it wouldn’t be the last highlight for Loaisiga, the 12 months since have been anything but smooth sailing. The 24-year-old came into Spring Training this year feeling great, with a stated goal of staying healthy and simply playing baseball all year. But for what seemed like the millionth time, Loaisiga had the carrot ripped away. The injury bug that wreaked havoc on the big club in the early part of 2019 did not spare the team’s top pitching prospect. In mid-May, he went from missing a start on a Monday to being placed on the 60-day injured list with a shoulder injury on Tuesday.
If the old saying is true, that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, then the 5-foot-11, 165-pound Loaisiga might be King Kong. The talented hurler will soon begin rehabbing and pitching in the Minors, refusing to stop chasing his dreams even when his body keeps trying to hold him back.
Fifteen pitches, about as many as a pitcher would throw in a typical good half-inning. That’s what it took for Loaisiga to become a Yankee.
He was born into a baseball family on Nov. 2, 1994, in the capital city of Managua. His grandfather, William Maltez, pitched in the Nicaraguan professional league and passed his love of the game on to young Jonathan, taking him to the local sports complex around the age of 7. Jonathan’s father, Stanley, is well known throughout their homeland as the all-time home run leader in the Nicaraguan professional league. He never made it to the bigs, but he played alongside Vladimir Guerrero, Moisés Alou and “El Presidente” -- Nicaraguan legend Dennis Martínez -- in the Expos’ Minor League system. Loaisiga also has a 19-year-old brother, Mike, who pitched from 2016 to 2018 for the Dodgers’ Dominican Summer League team but has since returned to the Nicaraguan pro league, as well as a 13-year-old half-brother on his father’s side who plays Little League.
Being surrounded so many baseball lovers made growing up in Managua a blast.
“What I can tell you about my childhood is it was just full of fun,” Loaisiga said, assisted by Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu. “I grew up in a neighborhood with all my friends playing games, going to the baseball field and doing many different activities. Eventually they moved away from baseball, and I kept on playing.”
When he was 14, Loaisiga vowed to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and become a professional baseball player. But he wanted to do what neither had before -- something that, at that time, just nine players from Nicaragua had done: make it to the big leagues.
Two months shy of his 18th birthday, Loaisiga signed with the San Francisco Giants, and he began his professional career in 2013 pitching for the Giants’ Dominican Summer League team. The slender right-hander excelled, going 8-1 with a 2.75 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in 13 starts.
“At the moment I thought, ‘If I keep working hard, maybe I can get to the big leagues faster than I thought,’” he said. “Of course, sometimes things can get complicated, and you start hitting bumps in the road.”
For the next two years, shoulder injuries kept Loaisiga off the mound. When the Giants released him in May of 2015, he wondered whether he would ever get another opportunity to chase his dream.
“I can tell you at the beginning, when I went down with the injuries, I was very anxious. I even thought about leaving baseball,” Loaisiga said. “It’s definitely not easy when you’re going through a period of time like that where, unfortunately, you injure yourself and you see your teammates playing the game they love, playing the game I love.”
But Loaisiga was fortunate to have good people around him, including his grandfather, who encouraged him to keep working at his rehab and that, eventually, his work would pay off.
“Thank God, I listened,” Loaisiga said.
He returned to the mound in 2015 and helped his Nicaraguan Winter League team win the championship and advance to the Latin American championship tournament. That was when Stanley Loaisiga called his son to say that a Yankees scout, Ricardo Finol, was coming from Venezuela to give Jonathan a tryout at El Presidente’s baseball academy in Managua.
With a healthy shoulder pumping mid-90s fastballs -- complemented by a well-commanded upper-80s change-up and low-80s curve -- Loaisiga impressed Finol enough in just 15 pitches to receive a call about a week later with a contract offer from the Yankees.
“It was very surprising to me because everything happened so fast,” Loaisiga said. “It’s tough when you get injured and you’re released. It’s tough to find another opportunity. In order to be able to overcome something like that, you have to be mentally strong because if you don’t, it’s going to take you out of baseball. I had a lot of faith, and I did all the work I needed, and eventually I was able to get over that challenge. That’s why I’m happy to be here and happy to take advantage of this new opportunity I have now.”
The lessons Loaisiga learned during that stretch have, unfortunately, come in handy.
In 2018, he was 6-1 with a 3.00 ERA in 10 starts at Single-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton when an injury to Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka necessitated a call-up. Other than Tanaka, who came to New York from Japan, the Yankees hadn’t had a pitcher bypass Triple-A in more than a decade. On that historic night against Tampa Bay, Loaisiga performed brilliantly. Not only did he become the first Yankees player to hail from Nicaragua and just the 15th player in Major League history from that country, but he also became the first Yankees pitcher since 1908 to record at least six strikeouts and not allow a run in his Major League debut.
But after going 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in four starts, more arm troubles surfaced, sidelining him for two months before his family even had a chance to travel to the United States and watch him pitch. He returned to the mound in September, making five appearances for the Yankees out of the bullpen, and came to Spring Training this year with a real shot at making the big club out of camp. Loaisiga worked hard at refining his command, but even when it eluded him, his pure talent was impossible to overlook.
“The stuff obviously leaps off the page,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “He didn’t have great command in Spring Training, but we feel like he’s the type of pitcher that that is going to be a strength of his. Even with the great stuff, we feel like he has a delivery that he should be able to repeat. We feel like the athleticism of his delivery should lend itself to having command. So that’s the biggest thing: If he can command his pitches and have the ability in different counts of throwing all his pitches for a strike, then he can be a really tough customer and shut down anyone.”
A quiet and serious-minded young man whose faith is evidenced by the large cross tattooed on his forearm, Loaisiga absorbed much by observing his teammates, following the lead of established big leaguers such as Luis Severino, Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances. Those veterans noticed him, as well.
“Playing with him, I just see the confidence and poise he has,” Betances said. “Last year he came up at a time when we needed a starting pitcher and we didn’t really know much about him, and he pretty much excelled in that role. He has electric stuff; definitely a bright future.”
Loaisiga shuttled between the Majors and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at the start of this season, including a clutch relief performance at Anaheim in which his three scoreless innings of work allowed the Yankees to come all the way back from a 5-0 deficit for a 6-5 win over the Angels.
But in the span of just a couple days in May, he went from being expected to start against Baltimore to the 60-day injured list, shut down for four weeks with inflammation of his rotator cuff. Boone is hopeful that the talented righty will be able to build back up quickly and again be a factor for the Yankees this season, whether it’s in the starting rotation or coming out of the bullpen.
“Ultimately, what’s best for him and us is what it will come down to,” Boone said. “We still feel like he has a chance to be a high-end starter, so you don’t want to necessarily pull the plug on that, but at the same time, there’s no denying that he could probably play a lot of significant roles in the ’pen for us.”
As for Loaisiga, he has every bit of the mental fortitude needed to get through yet another bump in the road. He’ll take the lessons of years past and stay positive as he works toward his ultimate goal of helping the Yankees win a World Series.
“Ultimately, I am glad I went through everything I did because I learned how to become stronger mentally to deal with situations like this,” he said. “There’s a saying, ‘God’s time is perfect.’ If something happens, maybe there’s a reason for that.”