Henry Urrutia a player we can all root for

With one swing of the bat last night, Henry Urrutia delivered a hard-fought 5-4 victory for the Baltimore Orioles. Leading off the bottom of the ninth, Urrutia lined a Carlos Torres fastball that just cleared the wall in left. It was the first home run of Urrutia’s career, making him the first Oriole since Chris Hoiles in 1990 to make the first home run of his career a walkoff shot.

There was a lot to like about Urrutia’s blast — opposite field power is always a plus. What I liked more, however, was the raw, unbridled joy Urrutia showed while rounding the bases, crossing home plate and being mobbed by his teammates, and then taking the customary cream pie to the face from Adam Jones. To some, the pie-in-the-face routine has become trite and played out, but watching Urrutia wait patiently and excitedly for Jones to emerge from the dugout, pie in hand, was a breath of fresh air. After the game, Urrutia called the home run, “the best moment of my career.”

I have seen plenty of walkoff home runs in my time watching Major League Baseball, but very few players have shown the type of emotion Urrutia displayed — a near childlike joy. He ended his postgame interview with MASN by apologizing for his nerves and nearly flawless English.

The cynical fan looks at the the 28-year-old Urrutia and thinks, “It’s about damn time.” Thinking that way, however, misses the mark. It has taken more than most of us will ever know or be able to understand for Urrutia to reach the Major Leagues.

Urrutia’s professional career began in Cuba in 2005 at the age of 18. The Las Tunas native struggled in his rookie year, batting just .240. After those initial struggles, Urrutia reeled off four straight .300-plus seasons, batting as high as .397 in 83 games in 2009. All told, in his Cuban career, Urrutia batted .350. For comparison, Yoenis Cespedes batted .319 in Cuba, Jose Abreu .341, and Hector Olivera .323. Among some of Cuba’s biggest names, Urrutia’s found the top.

It was after that stellar 2009 season that Urrutia made up his mind to leave Cuba. He detailed his arduous journey to the United States in an interview with Dillon Atkinson of Orioles Uncensored.

“I wanted to [defect from Cuba] because I come from a family with a lot of talent in baseball and saw that they were not given what they deserved,” Urrutia explained. “I thank God I’m good at what I do…I want better for my future and my family.”

Urrutia began attempting to escape in early 2010. He was not successful the first time, or the second time, or the third time. In between attempts to defect, the Cuban government handed down punishment. Urrutia was not allowed to play baseball. He had his opportunity to attend college taken away, and could not even train.

The fourth time was indeed the charm for Henry Urrutia, but his successful escape attempt was not without its hardships. For starters, Urrutia spent 13 days hiding in the fields of Cuba waiting for a boat to carry him away to the Dominican Republic. When that boat did arrive, a supposed three-hour ride turned into a three-day journey.

“It was [over] three days at sea when it was supposed to be three hours,” Urrutia said. “Three days without eating or drinking water.”

Finally on foreign soil, Urrutia then had to establish residency outside of Cuba before obtaining a visa to enter the United States. For those unfamiliar, that in and of itself is a lengthy process. For Urrutia, it was even longer. He waited 11 months in the Dominican, but his visa did not clear. Urrutia then had to spend another seven months in Haiti.

“February 24th, 2013, I finally got the visa.  On the 25th, I was traveling to Miami.  Five days after I was in Sarasota training at the minor league complex.”

Remember now, the last time Urrutia played professional baseball was 2009. From the time he took his final at-bat in the Cuban league to the moment he touched down in American soil, nearly four years had passed. That time off, however, did not appear to affect Urrutia.

Urrutia’s debut season in the Orioles’ organization produced a .352/.411/.514 slash line in 99 games. He received a late season call-up and batted .276 in 58 at-bats, but did not show much power. That’s to be expected of a player who has spent nearly four years away from the game, banished by his government, and spending many more months in Haiti than a professional athlete ever should. Listed now at 200 pounds, Urrutia looked closer to 175 when he made his debut in 2013.

The Orioles clearly rushed Urrutia to the Majors in 2013 when he was not yet ready. Two more seasons in the minors regaining his swing and developing strength have paid off. It’s hard to imagine the skinny player who debuted in 2013 knocking an opposite field home run off a good fastball. As the Orioles get set to play their 120th game of the season, it is very possible they have finally found their answer in left field after a fruitless, season-long search.

If Henry Urrutia takes over left field and begins producing runs for the Baltimore Orioles, many will loudly cheer his name. At the end of the day, that’s what Urrutia is paid to do, but there is so much more to his story. You can root for Henry Urrutia the ballplayer, but there are so many more reasons to cheer his name and trumpet his story. With all his emotions on display last night, Urrutia showed us who he really is — a genuinely good person who just happens to play baseball. 

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