Ubaldo Jimenez: 'I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my family'

Who is Ubaldo Jimenez? What makes him tick? Find out what went into his remarkable turnaround.

Among the many lessons Ubaldo Jimenez learned from his parents growing up in the Dominican Republic, the most important one was to never lose his faith.

That faith has been tested many times during his baseball career, through long bus rides in the minor leagues and throughout a roller-coaster big league career. But Jimenez's family always serves as a close reminder that perseverance pays off.

Inside the Orioles clubhouse, the words of the bible, specifically Psalm 91, are prominently displayed in Spanish on Jimenez's locker.

"He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge. His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart," a part of the prayer reads. "... A thousand may fall at your side, 10,000 at your right hand, but it will not come near you."

"That's very true," Jimenez said, looking at the same prayer on the wall of the Baltimore apartment he shares with his father, also named Ubaldo, and his mother, Ramona, during the season. His niece, 11-year-old Crisley, also visits from the Dominican over the summer. "It doesn't matter how things are going. You're going to go through that and eventually see the light. … No matter what it is, I keep going and try to move forward. I don't fear anything."

As the Orioles open the unofficial second half of the season Friday night in Detroit, the 31-year-old Jimenez will be on the mound looking to continue a remarkable rebound from his horrific first season with the club in 2014.

Before last season, the Orioles signed Jimenez to a four-year, $50 million deal, the largest and longest the team has given to a free-agent pitcher. But Jimenez struggled from the start, battling with his command and confidence before eventually being demoted to the bullpen. While the Orioles were on their way to a division title, Jimenez said he was going through a personal hell.

"I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for my family," Jimenez said. "They give me the strength every day. It's not easy to go home. Especially last year with everything I was going through, it's not easy to go home and sleep. Having my family with me, they always gave me the strength to continue and having the strength that everything is going to change. That's what happened here right now.

"A lot of people didn't think I would be here right now pitching the way I am. I know a lot of people lost their faith in me. They thought, 'Oh no, he's done, he doesn't have it anymore.' But I never lost my faith."

Jimenez enters Friday 7-4 with a 2.81 ERA — his lowest at the break since his All-Star season in 2010 — and his eight quality starts in 17 outings this season rank second on the club. Given where he was last year, it has been an impressive turnaround.

"There's a lot to like in this guy," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Ubaldo wants to be a consistent pitcher every time out. He's well conditioned, you never have to worry about him doing something to embarrass the club. He's a good human being. He's a good teammate. He smiles easily. He doesn't take himself too seriously. He takes a lot of pride in it. He loves his family like nobody else."

Humble beginnings

Growing up in San Cristobal, 20 minutes outside Dominican capital Santo Domingo, Jimenez didn't even have his own bedroom. His family had a three-room home, so while his parents slept in one room and his older sister, Leidys, occupied the other bedroom, Ubaldo would sleep on a futon in the living room.

Both of his parents worked two jobs to support the family. After serving in the military for 13 years, his father worked as a bus driver and a security guard. His mother was a nurse and sold homemade meals in the neighborhood market.

"Since he was little, the example we wanted to set for him was that if you work hard, you can get whatever you want," his father said in Spanish. "... In tough moments, we all stayed together, so now it's enjoyable to share good moments together."

Even though his father was often working, Jimenez shared his passion for baseball. As a kid, Jimenez would take a stone and wrap socks around it to make a ball. A stick sufficed as a bat. Jimenez grew up as an outfielder, but also had a great arm and eventually was scouted as a pitcher. His favorite pitcher was Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez — ironic considering Martinez's older brother, Ramon, now works closely with Jimenez for the Orioles.

Still, Jimenez's parents kept him grounded and focused. When he was 13 and 14, Jimenez and his sister, now a doctor in the Dominican, would take an hour-long bus ride every Saturday for three-hour English classes. When he was 16, Jimenez turned down a $20,000 signing bonus from the New York Mets because it meant he would have to drop out of school. When he eventually signed for a $50,000 bonus with the Colorado Rockies a year later, it was under the condition that he'd first be allowed to complete school before turning pro.

"My parents used to make me go to school every day," Jimenez said. "I hated school. ... But they always told me, if you want to play baseball, you have to go to school."

Even though his parents prepared him, Jimenez had to adjust to being an 18-year-old minor leaguer in the U.S. for the first time. He would get homesick, so he'd save his meal money to buy calling cards to call home before and after every game.

“I know I went thought tough times, but I’m thankful for everything because that made me see things different,” Jimenez said. “If you go through tough times the first time, you may not know how to deal with it, but I’ve been through a lot, in the major leagues, in the minors. That’s why I always behave the same.”

Major league hurdles

With just 51 major league games under his belt, Jimenez signed a four-year, $10 million extension with the Rockies before the 2009 season that included two club options and kept him under team control through 2014. One of his first purchases was a house for his parents in the Dominican.

Jimenez enjoyed a storybook 2010 season in which he was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He threw a no-hitter in April, went into the break with a 15-1 record and earned his only All-Star nod before finishing the season third in the National League Cy Young Award voting.

He was traded to the Cleveland Indians at the trade deadline the next season. He struggled over the final two months of 2011 and went 9-17 in 2012, but rebounded in his walk year, going 13-9 with a 3.30 ERA.

That December, Jimenez bought his father an Orioles watch for his birthday. It was two months before he would sign to play in Baltimore, but Jimenez said he already had good feelings about the organization.

"I knew I really liked this place," Jimenez said. "We were talking to teams, but I thought this was really where I wanted to go. I liked everything, the team was contending, the history, playing in the [American League] East against really good teams. There's also a direct flight to the Dominican Republic."

Jimenez signed that February, but his first season with the Orioles was a nightmare. In April, he was 0-4 with a 6.59 ERA on the way to finishing 6-9 with a 4.81 ERA. He led the league in walks for most of the season, and went more than six innings in just four of 20 starts before being sent to the bullpen in August.

"I think the toughest thing was coming to the stadium every night knowing that you are not doing what everyone is expecting you to do," Jimenez said. "That's the toughest thing, to look into people's eyes and know you're trying everything you can and it's just not coming along."

Said Showalter: "I never got mad at him. I got frustrated for him because I knew how much it was hurting him not contributing."

Jimenez said some of his new teammates helped him with constant pep talks, especially team leaders like Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Chris Davis.

"He's a part of the family," Jones said. "If he struggles, we all feel that, so it was important to me, Markakis, the guys to reach out to him. But it was important to me personally, that I just let him know, we trust him, we've got his back, you're not in here by yourself. Just small things like that makes a bigger difference and bigger impact than you can imagine."

Jimenez said he definitely needed that support, but his family really helped last season. As they have through each of his major league seasons, Jimenez's parents live with him for four months during the season on a tourist visa. His niece also lives with him during her summer break.

"The only thing that kept giving me faith was that I have a great family," Jimenez said. "Since I was a little kid, that's what was preached to me, God is the No. 1 thing. It doesn't matter how bad things are, I never lost my faith even when I am going through a tough time because I know I'm going to get out of it."

Another redemption

When Jimenez talks about his 2015 turnaround, the conversation quickly turns to his renewed confidence. He's getting ahead of hitters because he has faith in his stuff, no longer nibbling at the corners of the plate and falling behind in the count.

He's flourishing under the guidance of Ramon Martinez, who the Orioles intently claim is not Jimenez's personal pitching coach, but their bond has been instrumental to his success.

Jimenez's goal is maintaining consistency going into the second half. He has won four of his past five decisions and has allowed just one run over his last three starts for a 0.45 ERA over that span. 

 “The contract and the money isn’t what drives him,” Showalter said. “He wants to be good and he wants to contribute and he wants to repay the confidence that the Orioles had in him. What drives somebody? It’s his personal pride, too. I think he’s kind of realized a bit who he is and who he’s got to be and he’s really attacked the things that make him good.”

Even when he hasn’t been great, Jimenez has given the Orioles the opportunity to win because he has managed to escape the big inning. Last month, he walked six in a five-inning start in Cleveland, but allowed just one run. He has allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of his past eight starts and 13 of 14.

“There have been times where he hasn’t really dominated, but he stuck with the approach and he stayed aggressive and he might have gone just five innings, but he kept us in the game,” catcher Caleb Joseph said. “He’s done a fantastic job of rebounding. We’ve always believed in him, we always knew it was there, and it’s exciting not only for him, but everyone on the team.”

Last year, Jimenez would come off the field to his share of boos at Camden Yards. Those have now been replaced by standing ovations from the home crowd.

And on those nights, Jimenez's parents aren't far away, often sitting behind home plate wearing his No. 31 jersey, supporting their son as always.

"Family is everything," said Jimenez's mother. "Money is not important or success is not important unless you have your family, because we are just like how we started, with a lot of love. We thank God for the fact that we've been able to improve everything. We've been able to get things we never thought we'd be able to get. We've been able to get a better life, but the only thing that matters to us is love and being together. There's nothing greater than that. It's priceless."

eencina@baltsun.com

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