Edwin Encarnacion ambles across the Cleveland Indians spring training clubhouse. Most of the team is heading the opposite way, exiting toward an awaiting bus that will depart for today’s spring training game against the San Diego Padres.
Instead, Encarncion is coming off the Indians’ sun-splashed Goodyear, Arizona, fields after an extended morning of conditioning and baseball workouts. A light afternoon lies ahead, befitting his veteran star status.
The prized free agent slugger often appears unfazed, walking the facility’s fields and halls with his glove atop his head in place of his navy-and-red, block-C cap.
As he idly removes his mitt from his head while dropping equipment at his corner locker, another team wearing red and blue holds his attention on the clubhouse television. His new Tribe teammate and fellow Dominican countryman Carlos Santana is onscreen playing in the World Baseball Classic, the international tournament that brings together the game’s best players.
In his first season here, Encarnacion passed on representing the reigning WBC champions to fully integrate into his new family in Arizona.
Still, the 34-year-old remains transfixed on his original family.
Every bit of Encarnacion’s journey to become an elite major league hitter and his three-year, $65 million contract with the Indians comes from those who raised him in the Caribbean — those represented by “DOMINICANA” across their jerseys.
For the defending American League champions, Encarnacion represents a shift that registers like one of his mammoth home runs. His contract is the largest in team history and adds one of the league’s best power hitters to a roster that expects to compete for a World Series title again in 2017 — and beyond.
On the screen, the scrappy Colombia team is giving Santana and company a first-round battle. Without Encarnacion, who hit .333 with 7 home runs in the last WBC, the Dominicans hold just a one-run lead late in the final game of pool play.
Encarnacion leans forward at a small clubhouse table as Colombia comes to bat in the eighth inning. He’s telling a story about a much different career point, a time when he was struggling to stay in the big leagues.
“I didn’t want to go back to the minors but … ayyyyy!” Encarnacion exclaims midsentence as Colombia’s Jorge Alfaro circles the bases with a tying home run.
Encarnacion grew up in the coastal city of La Romana, where the Chavon River splits the town like an old American railroad into the haves and have-nots.
While almost impossible to envision from his poor Rio Salado barrio, the grand life he currently enjoys was never difficult to see. All Encarnacion had to do was gaze across the river’s tranquil waters to the lush, green hillside dotted with lavish homes.
“I never thought I was going to get one of those big houses in the hills,” Encarnacion recalls. “How was I going to get it? No chance.”
In La Romana, where people either survived or thrived off the major sugar cane company, the Encarnacion home revolved around the sweetness of mangoes.
Eight mango trees surrounded their small lot and supplied much more than food and shade. Encarnacion and his friends sold the abundant fruit by the river and used the money for groceries, school supplies or gifts. The trees — and baseball — also helped make the Encarnacion home a gathering place.
Reared by a strict, military-groomed father, Elpidio, and a quiet, doting mother, Mireya Rivera, the three Encarnacion sons and lone daughter were not allowed to play at friends’ homes.
But the large mango tree that towered beyond the house’s patio stairs served as a perfect home run fence for vitilla — the Dominican game of stickball. Even then, Encarnacion’s broomstick smashes frequently drove the water bottle cap that served as the ball into the leafy tree.
“I was a kid,” he says. “I just played for fun.”
The neighborhood baseball field, just a short walk from their home, was among the city’s best. The sugar cane company, where his parents both worked for a time, helped support it by clearing debris from the dirt paths and maintaining the patchy grass.
“It’s crazy how we’d play the game,” he says. “We love it, that’s why.”
Elpidio, however, would not let his son play Little League ball until he learned to hit and catch on his home patio. So when Encarnacion was 7 years old, his father spent 500 pesos — about $10 — to buy fish netting from a neighbor and erect a batting cage between two poles on the large outdoor space.
“I always liked to hit,” Encarnacion recalls. “My dad said he didn’t want me to be a pitcher when I was little, because I could hurt my arm.”
His younger sister, Evelin, recalls those days fondly.
“You could just hear the sound of the bat in the mornings,” she says. “Oh my gosh, Saturday mornings. They used to walk to the baseball field at the park. But before and after the games, all of the neighborhood boys were always meeting at our house.”
When they weren’t playing outside, the boys and their friends gathered around a Cal Ripken Jr. Baseball video game Elpidio had brought home from a trip to Puerto Rico.
“I never imagined this was going to turn into something,” says Evelin. “Never. It was just fun to have a great time. It was our childhood, and we just had to have fun in the moment.”
Yet even as Encarnacion started to realize he had talent, something nagged at him — his size. Short and skinny in a loose-fitting jersey, he was constantly reminded of what was going to hold him back.
“I was pissed at my mom and dad,” he says. “When I was 10 years old, I knew I was a good hitter, but I was so little. My mom is a little girl, so I told my dad, ‘Why did you marry her? She’s not that big. Now I’m not going to be a baseball player because I’m going to be a little guy.’ ”
As Encarnacion got older and stronger, he branched into other sports, especially basketball and volleyball. He jokes that his new Indians teammates might be surprised by his talent. “They don’t know it, but they’re going to be scared of me when they see me play,” he says, breaking from his normally reserved nature.
Elpidio, a former track and field athlete, helped developed his son’s body by putting him through workouts up and down the town’s tree-lined hills during his teenage years. When his father took a job as a college track coach in Puerto Rico, 14-year-old Encarnacion moved with him.
A regular on Puerto Rico all-star baseball teams, Encarnacion caught the attention of a scout who thought he had the skills for the major leagues — something he’d never previously considered.
“I just played for fun because I liked it,” Encarnacion says. “I was never thinking about, If I’m going to play this game, I’m going to be rich, and I’m going to get my family a better life.”