SEATTLE — Long before Luis Ortiz was a first-round draft pick, he made a promise to his great-grandfather.
Santiago Esquivel, the man who essentially raised Ortiz, lay in his casket before he was to be buried, and Ortiz signed his first baseball, placed it in the coffin and told him that one day he would make the major leagues.
“I wasn’t even on the radar yet,” Ortiz said. “I was just playing baseball and having fun and going to all these [showcase] events. … It was him who helped me push. … But the promise I made to him, it came true. I’m here now. … I’ve had a long journey, going from team to team to team. … The promise I made to my great grandfather, I completed it.”
At the same time, the 22-year-old Ortiz — one of three players the Orioles acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers in the Jonathan Schoop trade in late July — realizes his first big league call-up is just the beginning of a new series of challenges.
Ortiz was promoted from Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday in Seattle after six starts for the Tides. He was in the Orioles bullpen on Wednesday night but wasn’t used. Orioles manager Buck Showalter has plans to give Ortiz his first major league start sometime this month, but will first likely let him cut his teeth in the bullpen. He could make his debut in this weekend’s three-game series in Tampa Bay.
When he does make his first big league appearance, Luis will continue his personal tribute to his great-grandfather, taking the mound with one of his old handkerchiefs in his back pocket, writing his name in the dirt and blowing a kiss to the sky.
Ortiz has already been through a lot, raised from humble beginnings outside Fresno, Calif. His mother, Maria Esquivel, worked two jobs to put food on the table to support Luis and his older sister, Kimberly. One time, his mother had her car repossessed to save money to send Luis to play for the U.S. national team.
When he wasn’t playing baseball, he was with his great-grandfather, going through town helping him recycle cans and bottles for spare change. Luis would never ask his great-grandfather for a dime, but his great-grandfather would always reward him with an ice cream cone. On Esquivel’s acre of land, he made a makeshift homeless shelter, an area that was full of tents, an RV and a homemade outdoor shower, so Ortiz learned quickly that he wasn’t above anything. Luis would help his great-grandfather feed the people there.
“My brother helped him feed them and also get them the things they needed,” Kimberly said. “He used to run around the backyard in his little white boxers and all the homeless people loved Luis. These people weren’t bad people and my great-grandfather would never let him out of his sight, but just imagine this little young boy running around a dirt field attending to these people. … That taught Luis a lot because my great-grandfather wasn’t rich or have nice things, but he still helped the community any way he could.”
Said Luis: “I just did everything he did. He was basically like my dad. He was my father figure.”
Still, Ortiz was able to make a name for himself as a teenager. He found a mentor in former major league pitcher Matt Garza, who was also from the area and heard of the up-and-coming pitcher and invited Ortiz to work out with him. He was able to latch on with the Central Cal Baseball Academy, a nonprofit that focuses on helping at-risk and low-income families send kids to tournaments and showcases while offering important mentoring services.
Before long, word of Ortiz’s mid-90s fastball — which approached 97-98 mph -- and a complimentary slider reached professional scouts, and the Rangers took him with the 30th overall pick in 2014 out of Sanger High.
Living up to those expectations hasn’t been easy. The minor leagues were a challenge for Ortiz. Suddenly at the age of 18, he was on his own for the first time. He battled injuries and most notably his weight, obstacles that became intertwined in holding him back.
The Orioles are Ortiz’s third organization. The 2016 deadline deal that sent Jonathan Lucroy to the Rangers brought him to the Brewers. And this July, he suddenly switched organizations again when the Orioles’ fire sale included moving Schoop before he reaches free agency after next season.
“The first trade, I didn’t expect it,” Ortiz said. “The second one, everyone was talking so I was kind of expecting it. I liked Texas and I liked Milwaukee, but everything happens for a reason. Now I’m an Oriole and I love it here. There’s a great group of guys, especially the guys in Norfolk. … All those guys were awesome, especially the group of guys there, it was amazing. Now that I’m here with this group of guys, I just want to come in and be quiet.”
Ortiz, who was 2-1 with a 3.69 ERA with Norfolk after going 3-4 with a 3.71 ERA with Double-A Biloxi with the Brewers, would have to be protected in the offseason anyway, so it made sense to add him to the roster now and in the process get a glimpse of how he fares in the majors.
“I sat down with him a little bit yesterday, got to know him a little better,” Showalter said before Wednesday’s game in Seattle. “I know a lot of people who have had him before with Milwaukee and [Texas]. I have an idea and you just try to make up your own mind, get your own impressions. But the thing about it, he’s a 22-year-old man who showed up in the big leagues last night. I stole a few glances at him last night and wondered what was going through his mind. … It’s a great time in his life. He’s going to pitch.”
Ortiz’s fiancee, Ayleen, and his two young children, 2-year old Santiago (named after his great- grandfather) and 5-month old Kataleya, were able to get to Seattle to be with him during his call-up, and he hopes they get to see his debut in the coming days.
Ortiz said he has plenty of innings left in his arm. He’s thrown 99 2/3 innings this season, the most in any of his pro seasons. He believes hamstring problems that have hindered him in the past are behind him, saying he’s felt healthier the past three months than he has in a long time. Still, he knows his ability to remain healthy will dictate whether his big league path is in the rotation or the bullpen.
He admits that his weight remains a concern. At 6 feet 3, 250 pounds, Ortiz is carrying more than most pitchers. And he knows that his weight might give others the impression that he doesn’t work out or isn’t working hard, but that’s not the case, Ortiz said.
“Me and Garza and his brother, Mike, the trainer, we do a lot [in the offseason],” Ortiz said. “We work out at 5 a.m. every day at … and at 8 we have Pilates and at night we have boxing. So we do a lot. It’s just the food for me. I come from a Mexican family and I love my beans, rice and tortilla. That’s something I’ve got to cut down on.”
“It probably makes it look like I didn’t care about anything, and also showed I didn’t work out in the offseason, but you know, that’s false,” Ortiz said. “I work out, it’s just the food is what’s going to determine everything. I’m a strong and big boy, but the weight is a problem for me. And it’s something I need to fix and it’s going to take time for that. I think I finally realized it this year that I let it get out of hand, and I need to get back to it and fix it and clean it up, which I’m going to do this offseason and show the Orioles that I’m ready and I’ve matured. Weight is always going to be a challenge, but I can eliminate it myself.”
He’s done it before, shedding 40 pounds as a teenager the year before he was drafted.
As with every challenge, Ortiz has faced, he has the confidence to accomplish it. He knows the Orioles have high hopes for him, and before long, he will be one of the recognizable faces of the team’s rebuild.
“I know the opportunity that’s here for me,” Ortiz said. “This team is real young. I’m pretty sure everybody sees it. Now it’s a matter of going out there and performing. … I see the opportunity.”