Sometimes it's easy to forget that baseball players are people too. They exist in a bubble during the baseball season, seen when they are in the game and not much thought about otherwise. When a player steps to the plate or takes the mound, only that moment matters to the fans. The story of a player's life up until that moment is not something to think about when the main immediate concern is whether or not the batter is going to swing at a ball in the dirt. All that matters right then is their swing percentage outside of the strike zone.
We might get to know a little about the star players and the outgoing players. Some things trickle out from beat reporters or even from the players themselves if they make use of social media. You might know of Adam Jones' dog Missy because you saw a picture on Instagram. You might remember that Matt Wieters named his son Maverick because that was reported when the kid was born and that is a distinct name.
For a random Triple-A callup, there might be the obligatory set of "triumph over adversity" stories written by the reporters, stories that have lost their meaning because they always write the same one. Only the details are different. One of those 2013 callups was 26-year-old outfielder Henry Urrutia, who defected from Cuba in 2011 before being signed by the Orioles.
Interest in that life story is swiftly replaced by interest in how a player will help the team. In Urrutia's case, this meant 58 plate appearances over 24 games, batting .276/.276/.310, with one lone extra-base hit that came as a result of now-teammate David Lough diving too early on a bloop, playing a single into a triple. He did not take a walk.
That is a first impression that is not impressive in any way. It's hard to get past that to think that Urrutia is suddenly going to blossom into a MLB-caliber player.
Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Dan Duquette is not a person who seems to enjoy taking questions from people, be they fans or media. His stock book of platitudes is frequently deployed for any move, marginal or otherwise. He's expected to say something, so he does in order to get it over with. "Qualified major leaguer" is a favorite; another one is "he can do a lot to help a ballclub."
This creates much less controversy than if he were to say, "Well, he probably sucks, so that's why he had to settle for a minor-league deal from us," even if that might be what he thinks.
Part of the job is putting the best spin on everything. This is the case when considering existing players on the roster as well. Before last season, when he proclaimed that Chris Davis, Jones, and Wieters would form a legitimate heart of the lineup, it's possible he believed that, but more likely that's what he was supposed to say. He was two-thirds right. In general, anything he says is news because he says it, but most things he says are not news.
At FanFest, Duquette weighed in on the topic of Urrutia in a Q&A panel in front of fans, as well as behind the stage when he spoke to media. "I really like Henry to help our ballclub this year," he said. That kind of comment gets the snooze button. Duquette didn't stop there, adding, "He's had a .400 on-base and .500 slugging every place he's played other than Baltimore, and that's Cuba, Double-A, Triple-A, and Arizona. ... He can hit and also has some power."
This is a more interesting statement than the standard Duquettian fare. It hints at some belief on Duquette's part that he thinks Urrutia's track record means he will do better than he's shown so far. As a bonus, it's even three-fourths correct: Urrutia was a .300/.400/.500 player in Cuba, Bowie, and the Arizona Fall League. He came short of that in Norfolk, but it was only 29 games.
These things sound great until you remember that he was 26 and getting his results against early-20s prospects in the Eastern League and AFL. Taking it all with a grain of salt is not an unreasonable response.
As spring training approaches, there is never a shortage of stories about players and how they've either gained or lost weight for the upcoming season. It's not far removed from the widely-mocked phrase "best shape of my life," which is often uttered in spring training and nearly as often amounts to absolutely nothing.
One recent example of this for Orioles fans was two years ago, when third baseman Mark Reynolds was widely reported to have lost 15 pounds prior to the 2012 season. Reynolds himself cited the weight loss as intended to improve his agility.
There is likely no amount of weight loss that could make Reynolds a good, or even OK, third baseman. On the other hand, shedding 15 pounds may have contributed to his 54-point drop in slugging percentage from 2011 to 2012.
There have been similar reports through this offseason about Urrutia gaining 20 pounds. "OK, so what?" is the response through a lens of skepticism. After watching so many players turn out to not be what assorted media said that they would, even the most-hyped of prospects, the idea that one thing could change for a player and he would suddenly vastly improve his performance is hard to swallow. What does it matter if he gained 20 pounds?
At FanFest, the time that Urrutia was made available to the media occurred immediately after we spoke to Wei-Yin Chen through a translator. This is a weird process to an outsider. Chen was invisible, not addressed directly. There was a small contingent of Taiwanese reporters who spoke to Chen separately. For the American reporters, they asked questions to his translator. "Ask him if..." "Ask him what..."
Chen did not seem to mind, even when reporters had their arms held out in front of him to put their recorders closer to the translator. There was no effort made to record Chen's words since no one spoke that language anyway. None of the regulars seemed to find anything weird about this. That is the most efficient way of getting what they need.
Following on the heels of Chen, I was expecting the same when Urrutia was involved. He and his translator, one of the army of orange-shirted volunteers for the day, wedged in against the MASN backdrop, the half-circle of Orioles reporters crowded around him.
A reporter asked a question, looking at the translator. Everyone was looking at the translator. Urrutia answered the question in English, a language I did not even know he spoke. This was the moment I realized that while I knew a few things about the baseball player, I knew nothing about Henry Urrutia, the person.
The journey for Urrutia from Cuban professional baseball player to Major League Baseball player was not a smooth one. He was suspended in 2011 after his first attempt to defect was unsuccessful. By the time he got out of Cuba and was able to sign, he had visa issues preventing him from getting in any games until spring training in 2013, meaning he missed about two years worth of playing experience.
When Duquette answers a question about the Orioles' not adding any big hitters as free agents by saying it's okay because Delmon Young is good versus left-handers and Henry Urrutia can hit and have power, the temptation is there to roll your eyes. The same is true when every Orioles media outlet includes the same note about Urrutia gaining 20 pounds.
Standing there in front of a guy who gave up two years of his life and left his home country behind to escape and try to be a MLB player, that pierces the permanent veil of skepticism. Asked about the reports that he's gained 20 pounds, Urrutia proudly responded that he is in the gym working out six days a week, twice every day, taking only Sunday off. He said he has been "hitting, running, everything." He was proud to be talking about his hard work, in English, something on which he has also been working hard.
Not only has he had to adjust to better competition, he's had to adjust to a whole new life. In general, with a baseball player, it would be nuts to assume they will suddenly be better at age 27. For most, there is no physical growth left, and unless something clicks, no major development of baseball skills left to get either.
Maybe with Urrutia, it's not so crazy to think he could do better now that he's had a full year of playing baseball in the United States to shake off the rust. Between that and a rigorous workout regimen that's resulted in his gaining 20 pounds, something he either never needed in Cuba or was never able to accomplish, there is real potential for improvement.
Urrutia is not going to suddenly turn into Mike Trout no matter how much weight he's gained and how many swings he's taken in a batting cage. He doesn't have to morph into Trout to be an upgrade over the .234/.289/.415 line that Orioles designated hitters put up last year, especially if he ends up being used primarily against right-handed pitchers.
That doesn't sound so unlikely after all. Things are remarkably better for Henry Urrutia the person, so maybe they will get better for the baseball player too.