Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia already picturing himself at Camden Yards
By By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun|
Apr 29, 2013 at 10:52 PM
BOWIE — On his first off day as an Orioles minor leaguer, Double-A Bowie outfielder Henry Urrutia took a trip to Baltimore, where he got a tour of Camden Yards — the place he hopes his uphill and divot-filled baseball journey reaches its pinnacle.
Thursday, Urrutia checked out the Orioles clubhouse, strolled up the steps of the home dugout and walked onto the field, where he took a 360-degree look around him and soaked in what seemed impossible growing up in Cuba. It was a memorable trip for the 26-year-old Urrutia — because it was the truest sign yet that his dream of playing in the big leagues was in reach.
But his trip to Baltimore also had another purpose.
"Honestly he needed a pair of pants," said Eric Cormell, a minor league coach whom the Orioles have assigned to help Urrutia with his transition to playing baseball in the United States. "That was the real reason, because we didn't have pants long enough for him here since he's such a tall guy."
Getting a suitable pair of white pants for the 6-foot-5 Urrutia — who played his first minor league home game for the Baysox the next night — seemed to be less seamless than his transition to the game after being out of action for more than two years.
Through the first eight games of his professional career, Urrutia (pronounced ooh-ROOT-e-ah) is already showing glimpses of the promise that led the Orioles to give him to a $778,500 signing bonus in July. He reached safely in seven of his first eight games entering Monday, had multiple hits in three, and he already had two homers — including one on the first pitch he saw in his first home at-bat Friday against Harrisburg.
"There's not anything about his game that shows any rust on it," Bowie manager Gary Kendall said. "He's aggressive with his bat. He throws the baseball. He ranges OK in the outfield. He moves along on the bases. So what he's showing us is a guy who's fitting in here, and he's productive here. Our job is to keep him productive and keep him sharp and keep him on the field and in shape and doing the right things."
Since signing with the Orioles last summer, Urrutia has spent most of the time as a near urban legend. It took nearly nine months until he wore an Orioles uniform — he arrived in Sarasota for spring training in early March after 18 months in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Urrutia was suspended from baseball in Cuba after a failed defection attempt, so before arriving in Florida he had not played competitively since an international tournament in Japan in 2010. He successfully defected to the Dominican Republic in September of 2011 and later tried to get his work visa to play in the United States out of Haiti, but that process took much longer than expected.
"It's been a very, tough and hard process," Urrutia said through catcher Luis Martinez. "Not only for me, but for everyone who has been involved in the process and has been helping me out, as well as every other Cuban ballplayer with everything they go through just to get out and be here.
"It's what has me motivated," he added. "I've always dreamed of being here and playing professionally. That's what motivates me even more to get to the big leagues, because I just have a passion for it more than anything. I'm more dedicated and motived more than ever to get to the big leagues because of all the difficult situations I've been through over the past few months."
The Orioles have assigned Cormell, who was the third-base coach at Triple-A Norfolk last season, to help with Urrutia's adjustment.
Cormell — who previously spent time working with the organization's Dominican academy — speaks Spanish and is familiar with Latin American culture. His coaching experience in Triple-A helps him express to Urrutia what he'll need to do on the field to reach the next level.
"Professional baseball has its little intricacies that obviously you want to cover before he moves forward," Cormell said. "Obviously coming from a different country, just ordering food is as hard enough as it is. I'm helping him with that, just establishing way of life for him here in the states. That's a part of the process, just guiding him. It's a process, just like any other development.
"The first day you may order him a cheeseburger, second day you may have him order it himself and eventually he's doing it all by himself," said Cormell, who found a Latin American restaurant in Baltimore for their trip there Thursday. "It's just acclimating him to life in the United States little by little and just being there as his training wheels, if you will, and then slowly removing them."
Urrutia's wife is still in Haiti, and his family remains in Cuba, so he's learned to lean on Cormell for help.
"It's been very difficult especially because I have no family here," Urrutia said. "Just the lifestyle coming from the United States to Cuba is overwhelming in itself. I'm trying to take it in little by little and learn as much as I can each day and get used to the customs over here. It's been hard, but at the same time I'm happy to be here and very excited for the opportunity."
On the field, Urrutia said the most difficult adjustment is developing better plate discipline, because he said the strike zone is smaller than he was used to in Cuba. He'd already worked five walks in eight games. On Friday, after he hit the first pitch he saw over the center-field wall, he worked a 3-2 walk.
"Overall, it's just the adjustment at the plate, because back in Cuba you swing at anything, and I'm finding here that you have to be more disciplined and know the zone better," Urrutia said.
Urrutia has a smooth stroke through the strike zone and a gazelle-like stride in the outfield and on the basepaths. He wears No. 51 in honor of his favorite player, Puerto Rico-born Bernie Williams, and his stance, swing and lean frame are much like the former New York Yankees outfielder.
Kendall, who has seen Urrutia since spring training, said he doesn't look like a player who has had extended time off. Kendall said he's impressed with the way the left-handed hitting Urrutia has hit against left-handed pitching.
"He's a good looking player," Kendall said. "He's got a lot of tools. He stays on the ball well. His bat stays in the strike zone really nicely. He's got a good bat plane, and he's been getting his hits. He's been really solid in right field. He's looked real good so far. He hasn't looked frustrated. He hasn't looked overmatched."
Urrutia has received most of his playing time in right field, but the organization could also test him in left field and maybe even center field. But where he fits in the Orioles' immediate future is unclear. Their big league outfield is entrenched with Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and the combination of Nate McLouth and Nolan Reimold.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said it will take more time to determine how quickly Urrutia might help the Orioles.
"Let's see how he's doing after 75 games or so. Then we'll have a chance to evaluate him," Duquette said. "[It] will depend on how he comes along ... how he adjusts and how he can hit consistently. He's got a pretty good knowledge of the strike zone. He has a nice stroke."
After Urrutia's trip to Baltimore last week, he can definitely see himself playing at Camden Yards.
"I think it gave him a level of excitement, and obviously going through everything he did to get here, it just kind of reaffirmed what he came here to do," Cormell said. "I think, if anything, I wouldn't say he was in awe. It kind of fueled his fire a little bit. He was really excited to see it, but also to get on the field and kind of imagine him there."