Remembering 2014: Salvador Paniagua Profile
The off-season is upon us, but we have plenty of content to keep you occupied here at BlogToBlogChamps. Each Monday, we’ll publish a feature from the 2014 York Revolutionary Times, the official game day magazine of the York Revolution, for you to re-enjoy, or read for the first time in case you missed it at the ballpark. This week, dive into this profile of longtime Revolution catcher Salvador Paniagua, who has been with the club since 2011.
By Ron Gardner
Like many other young baseball players growing up in the Dominican Republic, Revolution catcher Salvador Paniagua’s dreams of one day playing professional baseball were not born on grass-covered fields like the ones we’re all accustomed to watching our sons and daughters play on. Instead, picture nothing but bare dirt, except for a few rocks thrown in as adornments.
“My family was like four hours away from Santo Domingo, the capital, in my little town our field had no grass, just dirt,” Paniagua (now 31 years old and playing in his 12th season of professional baseball) said. “We maybe had one aluminum bat, an old bag, two or three baseballs and it worked like that. We were throwing with an old baseball. It was hard to get a new one – because you had to buy it. We didn’t have that much money to buy a lot of lot of baseballs or buy a new bat.”
The facts say there isn’t much money for just about anything in the Dominican Republic. For most Dominican families, daily life is a difficult challenge with few opportunities for economic success. Consider the fact that the gross national income per capita in the DR in 2012 was around $5,470 in U.S. dollars (according to figures compiled by the World Bank). By contrast, the GNI per capita in the U.S. was $52,430.
Which means if you’re a pretty good teenage Dominican baseball player, you’ve got a whole lot of financial motivation to hone your playing skills to their fullest potential and do whatever you need to do to get in front of Major League scouts who are combing that country for talent. Then, if you’re fortunate enough to even get a look from the scouts, hopefully do well enough to be offered a contract with a big league organization and earn that cherished shot at a chance for a better life for themselves and their family.
“For us, playing baseball was the biggest thing,” the 6-0, 230-pound Paniagua said. “We’d play like twice a week and we didn’t get that many chances to play every day and (also) go to school. Sometimes, for us, it’s a little difficult to play baseball at times, because we don’t have time – we have to work with something with the family. As soon as we grow up, then we’ve to got decide to just play baseball or be a student – (which is) a little difficult for us.
“The town where I grew up, not that many players were signed from there,” Paniagua said. “When I was 13-14 years old, that was what my dream was. I wanted to play professional baseball. (But) sometimes, no matter how good you are, sometimes you need a little good luck and they give you a chance to play.”
Luck smiled on Paniagua one day when he was around age 16, when a former scout for the New York Mets came in to look at other players and ended up noticing Paniagua.
“He went to my town to see a couple guys playing and he told me you look like you could be a professional baseball player, so do you want to come over to Santo Domingo, to the capital?” Paniagua said. “Maybe they can see you over there and see what happens. That’s the first time I went to a real academy. They saw me and said you can be a ballplayer. At that time, I decided I’m going to play baseball (as a career).”
Nowadays, many Major League organizations own and operate their own baseball academies in player-rich Latin American countries like the Dominican Republican where they can scout, develop and evaluate young players over a period of time. But back when Paniagua was coming of age as a prospect, a number of private baseball academies, which were not affiliated with any big league team, did help players improve and provide them a better chance to be seen by big league scouts, but with the requirement that players contractually commit to pay the academy a portion of any signing bonus that a player might receive.
So, about a year after he first was offered the chance to go to Santo Domingo to attend this baseball academy, Paniagua made the decision to leave home and commit completely to pursuing his dream of being signed by a MLB team.
“They had their own program, their own field, their own house where we all stayed all together,” Paniagua said. “I was practicing there every day and (they) had a lot of connections with all different scouts for minor league teams. (Scouts) would always come to our field and watch us play. We did tryouts every day or twice a week.”
After he arrived at the academy, Paniagua was almost immediately converted from playing third base to being a catcher, a move necessitated by Paniagua’s conspicuous lack of foot speed.
“I never did run fast,” the soft-spoken Paniagua says with a smile, joking that the passage of time hasn’t helped that aspect of his game either.
With the help of the various coaches at the academy, Paniagua developed as a hitter and at his new position as a catcher. After about a year-and-a-half training there, Paniagua was signed by the Boston Red Sox in May 2001 as an international free agent, and making good on his obligation to share a portion of his signing bonus the academy.
“I signed with Boston and he gave me a bonus and I paid, because they signed us to a contract, I had to pay (a part) of what I got (to the academy),” Paniagua said. “That’s how most of the players were signed (at the time). Now, they have different things. Most (MLB) teams have academies there now.”
After signing with the Red Sox, Paniagua spent the next two seasons playing in the Dominican Summer League, before heading to the U.S. in 2003 to play in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. As you might expect for any 20-year-old going to live and work in another country, Paniagua had to quickly figure out daily living in the U.S. as he worked to improve as a player.
“Big adjustment, because it’s a different country, different language and different food – not the way I was used to eating in my country,” Paniagua said. “It was hard for me the first couple days to get comfortable, living in a hotel, eating, playing at different times, but soon I was talking to the older guys that were here before, they told me how to do everything. I figured it out and I liked it.”
While being able to speak English well enough to cope with basic everyday tasks like ordering a meal is one thing, as a catcher, Paniagua needed to learn English faster out of necessity to be able to communicate with his pitchers on the nuances of how to work to opposing hitters.
“It was real hard. Like right now, I’m (still) trying to get better,” Paniagua said of his English skills. “It’s hard to for us (players from the Dominican Republic), before we always speak Spanish (at home). Soon as I leave here and go back to my country, then nobody speaks English over there. It was a little hard for me. I think I learned a little more quickly because the manager told me you’ve got to speak English because you’ve got to talk with the pitcher and it’s going to be hard for you if he only spoke English.”
Over the next five seasons, Paniagua worked his way up through the Red Sox minor league ladder, reaching the Double-A level with Portland (Maine) in 2007. He signed with the New York Mets in 2008, again working his way up to the Double-A level with Binghamton in 2008 and 2009. In 110 games scattered across parts of three seasons at Double-A, he batted .235 with 12 home runs and 40 RBI, striking out 105 times in 322 plate appearances.
In 2010, he played in the United League for Laredo and Rio Grande Valley (batting .310 with 23 HR and 82 RBI in 88 games) and Nuevo Laredo in the Mexican League (.233 BA, 1 HR, 9 RBI in 15 games), before making his Atlantic League debut with York in 2011.
Paniagua caught 109 games for York in 2013, hitting .279 with 14 home runs and 54 RBI and was named a first-team Atlantic League all-star in his first season as a full-time starter with York. His .279 batting average was tops among all regular catchers in the Atlantic League.
This season, Paniagua’s handling of the Revolution pitching staff (second in the Atlantic League in earned runs through 63 games) helped keep York in contention for the Freedom Division’s first-half title.
“(As) a catcher, (I am) very proud when a pitcher throws a good game,” Paniagua said. “I always enjoy when I see my pitcher go throw seven innings and give up only maybe one or two runs. That’s a quality start. I’m always happy when my pitcher would have a good game. It’s part of a catcher’s (job), to make sure the pitcher feels comfortable, that you call a good game no matter how bad you’re hitting. Your focus must be on calling the game. For the catcher, the biggest thing is to win the game – that’s our goal.”
When Paniagua isn’t busy playing baseball in the U.S., he plays winter ball back home in his native Dominican Republic. While he says he can’t go too long without playing before he starts missing simply being on a baseball field, Paniagua also makes financial ends meet for his family, which includes his wife Christina, daughter Massel (age 5) and son Chris (age 1), by earning more money playing winters in the Dominican League than he does playing in the U.S.
“We play over there the whole year,” Paniagua. “Soon as we’re done here, I think our season starts like October 16, something like that. Right now, let’s say we make the playoffs here (in the Atlantic League), we’re finishing October 6 or 7, so it’s only a week or so before the season starts over there.”
Paniagua currently plays for the Tigres del Licey in the Dominican League, which is the Dominican equivalent of playing for the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees.
“Yes, it’s like that,” Paniagua said. “Licey, this is the thing, they have more championships (21) in the Dominican, more Caribbean Series championships (10) than anyone else. (We play) in the capital city (Santo Domingo). The people, like with the Yankees (where) everybody wants to go to New York and see the Yankees play. So, when you go to the Dominican, everybody wants to watch Licey play because there are a lot of big-league players playing there. It’s one of the oldest teams in the country (founded in 1907) and this is why there are a lot of fans over there for Licey.”
While Paniagua envisions coaching baseball somewhere once his playing days are through, he still keeps his hopes alive that he could still earn one more opportunity with a MLB organization. While those opportunities are rare for players in their 30’s, Paniagua says he’s no where near being ready to stop playing the game he loves.
“For me, I’m going to keep playing until my body tells me no,” Paniagua said. “I feel like I can keep playing. Sometimes you want to keep playing, but your body tells you not. Your body’s going to get a lot of injuries, that’s why a lot of players don’t keep playing more. I feel like I want to keep playing … I feel healthy and feel strong, so I’m going to keep playing as long as my body says yes.”