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‘Nothing was easy’: How a fear of the ball and a father’s push led Orioles catcher Pedro Severino to the big leagues

SARASOTA, FLORIDA — For Pedro Severino, the choice was simple. Either go back to the baseball field or find somewhere else to live.

The teenager had gotten a late start in the game. His efforts to sign a professional contract when he turned 16 were derailed by a ground ball to the face that made his hopes of being an infielder hard to achieve — he was afraid of the ball. The strikeouts didn’t help either.

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“Nothing was easy for me,” Severino said.

Now having solidified himself as the Orioles’ primary catcher in his third season with the club, Severino’s latest challenge might pale in comparison to those in his past. He’s striving to more consistently be the productive two-way catcher he’s shown flashes of for the Orioles.

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Baltimore Orioles catcher Pedro Severino wears a face mask to protect against COVID-19 prior to the first game of a baseball double header Tampa Bay Rays, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Baltimore Orioles catcher Pedro Severino wears a face mask to protect against COVID-19 prior to the first game of a baseball double header Tampa Bay Rays, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) (Julio Cortez/AP)

But Severino might disagree with the saying that staying in the big leagues is harder than getting there.

Growing up in Villa Altagracia Basima, about a half-hour outside of the Dominican Republic’s capital city Santo Domingo, Severino was far more focused on what he smilingly calls “normal kid” stuff — borrowing neighbors’ horses to ride to nearby lakes to swim, and catching fighting fish.

He’s still that boy at heart. Back home in the offseason, he rides ATVs through mud pits and has horses of his own — the calm, easy-to-ride Galan Jr. and the more rambunctious Paloma. And he’s coined his own catchphrase — Flow Mantequilla — to embody his own personality: smooth like butter.

But the success that allowed such a life in his late-20s was never a given.

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His father, also Pedro, tried to steer his fun-loving son toward a productive future. When he finally found baseball at age 12, it was more an avenue to see and be around his friends than a path to prosperity. He was a third baseman at the time who admits a ground ball straight to the nose changed his defensive style to “putting my leg high and let every ground ball pass by straight to left field.”

“I was so scared,” Severino said. But when he was 14, a team of older players arrived for a game missing their sick catcher. Severino had never caught before, but told his coach, Feliz Roa, that he could do it. The mask was certainly a draw.

“When I got the gear on, somebody stole second and I threw him out,” Severino said. “He looked at me like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ve got your position now.’”

Severino, though, still saw himself as an infielder. Roa told him if he was afraid of the ball, that wasn’t going to work. So Severino left.

“So what do you want to do?” his father asked him.

“Nothing,” Severino told him.

“Look, you don’t like to go to the school, you don’t like to play baseball, so you have to figure it out because you’re not going to just live with me in my house,” his father told him.

Mets' Amed Rosario slides safely home as Orioles catcher Pedro Severino catches the ball in the top of the 5th at Oriole Park on Wednesday. September 2, 2020.
Mets' Amed Rosario slides safely home as Orioles catcher Pedro Severino catches the ball in the top of the 5th at Oriole Park on Wednesday. September 2, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

“He did that to me a couple times, every time when I tried to quit baseball,” Severino said. “I just thought about it for like two months and he’d tell me again, ‘Have you figured it out or no? Because now it’s time to leave.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll play the game.’ I went back to the field, talked to my coach again and I started working behind the plate for like five months, 5 in the morning. Every day, 5 in the morning for five months. I was preparing myself really fast, and teams started looking at me.”

Latin American teenagers can sign professional contracts on July 2 the year they turn 16, with bonuses for top prospects in the millions and plenty more promising players signing for six figures. Severino, though, was small for a catcher at about 160 pounds, and said he’d “strike out every single time” he came to bat.

He remembers a scout with the Cincinnati Reds telling him he’s too skinny for them to sign. Another scout told him he doesn’t look like a catcher for the New York Yankees, a knock that stuck with him. But even as teams made six-figure offers, he said his coaches turned them down. He grew frustrated and left again, and this time, the ultimatum from his father changed — come work with me, or it’s time to move out.

Severino’s father bought and disassembled old cars and sold off the parts. His son found it to be overly strenuous labor — “all that stuff is kind of heavy,” he said. But when a teammate told him to come to a showcase with scouts, he still relented. His father told him to give it one more try. He signed with the Washington Nationals in December 2010 for $55,000. Severino said other clubs offered more if he waited, but he took the offer in hand and began his climb to the big leagues.

Most Latin American prospects will spend a year or two in the Dominican complex leagues learning the game and preparing to come stateside, but Severino’s experience at the Nationals’ complex was a bad illness — and enough promise for the team to send him right to Florida.

His first professional game was in the Gulf Coast League a month before his 17th birthday. Baseball was still a work in progress for him, but the adjustments were harder off the field.

“When they sent me to Florida, no English, different country, I don’t know anybody,” he said.

There was a Burger King across the street from his hotel, he said, and he went there morning, afternoon and night for the same dollar-menu order because it was the only thing he knew to say.

“When they’d see me, they’d give me it right away because they knew what I would buy,” he said.

It took until his second season for him to really try American food, and he only really forced himself to because he was losing weight off an already slight frame. Minor league teammate Adrián Nieto, a Cuban-born infielder who grew up in South Florida, would bring him to Miami for Latin American food and help him acclimate.

Still, Severino was young wherever he went. He was 18 when he went to play full-season ball at Low-A Hagerstown in 2013. Two years later, he was at Double-A Harrisburg — nearing the point of being a big leaguer but hardly living like one.

For two weeks at the beginning of the season, Severino and a group of Latin American players slept at the field. Eventually, a teammate offered his house for them to stay. Others bought beds, but Severino got the couch.

“That was the dog’s bed, the couch, and I took it from him,” Severino said. “He was so angry.”

He played with a sore neck, and still struggled as a hitter, but shut down the running game and could manage defensively enough that he was progressing. Severino said Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo came into town at the end of August and asked him who his favorite catcher was.

Yadier Molina, Severino told him. When the general manager told Severino that he was going to join the Nationals in St. Louis to see the Cardinals’ catcher up close and join the big league team, he didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until his plane was landing and he saw his destination outside the window that it hit him.

“I saw the stadium and said, ‘Damn, I’m here? Seriously, I’m here? Wow, I’m in the big leagues now,’” he recalled.

The still-skinny Severino found himself in a land of giants, and immediately deemed himself too small to play at that level. He took advantage of all the meals provided at a major league stadium to try and bulk up like Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmermann, spending a month in the big leagues and appearing in just two games.

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Baltimore Orioles catcher Pedro Severino holds a ball after making a block on a pitch on the dirt during the first inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Baltimore Orioles catcher Pedro Severino holds a ball after making a block on a pitch on the dirt during the first inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez) (Julio Cortez/AP)

He spent the next three years between the big leagues and Triple-A Syracuse, slowly coming along as a hitter and waiting for his chance to show what he could do in the majors full time. That chance came in the last week of spring training in 2019 when the Orioles claimed Severino, who was out of minor league options, on waivers.

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He’d been preparing all winter for a full-time big league job in Washington or elsewhere, and knew at the time that a fresh start was best.

At first, he thrived. Severino was batting .288 with a .937 OPS the day after a three-homer game in Texas when he took a foul ball off the mask that chased him from the game June 5. It didn’t land him on the injured list but still halted his production. He hit .230 the rest of the way.

In 2020, he had another hot start but fell off after as he tried to chase power. Both he and the Orioles know what it will take to make him the consistent player he wants to be.

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said he’s “really impressed” with Severino’s progress.

“Offensively, I thought the first 40 games last year he was a force in the middle of our order and really hit the ball hard,” Hyde said. “I felt like he was just putting too much pressure on himself, really, those last 20 games, tried a little bit too hard, doing some things that were a little bit uncharacteristic. Some things that, when he first got to us, I felt like those were the at-bats he was taking. Not letting the game come to him offensively and just pressing.”

Severino feels that’s the difference for himself as well. He said he starts thinking too much and doesn’t react to the pitch, bogging himself down.

“I know what pitch they’re going to throw to me and they throw it and I still miss it because my mind is still thinking with the pitch coming,” he said.

Even with the presence of top prospect Adley Rutschman looming, Severino wants to consistently produce so he can be part of a team that is constantly in the playoff mix like the one he enjoyed with Washington.

“This team has given me an opportunity,” he said. “I want to be one of the parts to play in the playoffs in Baltimore.”

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