His father was named Balbino, and so was his grandfather. It is a family name, with no connection to baseball, but it sounds best inside a big-league stadium, rolling off the announcer’s tongue, welcoming a baby-faced slugger who emerged from the game’s backwoods to clout pitches over fences.
“Now batting … No. 28 … Balbino Fuenmayor,” the public-address system boomed Sunday afternoon in the second inning of the Futures Game.
Fuenmayor, a 25-year-old Venezuelan refugee from independent baseball turned Royals minor-league first baseman, stepped into the right side of the batter’s box at Great American Ball Park wearing the uniform of the World team. This annual showcase highlights baseball’s most exciting prospects. Fuenmayor roped a single in his first at-bat, a few hours after his display during batting practice, when he showed why he belongs.
As his teammates acclimated themselves to their surroundings, Fuenmayor let loose. He smashed one drive off the batter’s eye in center field. He ripped another into the railing of the second deck in left field. He parked a third ball 10 rows deep in the upper tank. The younger players hollered as Fuenmayor unleashed his power.
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“This guy is incredible,” said fellow Royals farmhand Raul A. Mondesi.
A year before, Fuenmayor was a bush-leaguer in Quebec, facing competition such as the New Jersey Jackals and the Trois-Rivieres Aigles. At one stop on his odyssey, he played for a team with no home stadium. Now he stood among the best prospects in baseball. He was the oldest player at Sunday’s Futures Game, the only one born in the 1980s, and perhaps the most unlikely.
Fuenmayor bears a name fit for a folk hero. He has lived a life to match. It will be up to his bat to power himself from his current station in Class AAA into the big leagues. In the coming weeks, he will face pitchers looking to exploit his greatest flaw, a difficulty with curveballs and sliders. Fuenmayor believes he is fit to pass the test.
“My story is an example for all the other guys,” Fuenmayor said. “You need hope. You need dreams. You never know.”
He has opened eyes in his first year with the Royals. He graduated to Omaha earlier this month after hitting 15 homers with a .977 on-base-plus-slugging percentage for Class AA Northwest Arkansas. In his first six games for the Storm Chasers, he homered twice and doubled five times.
“We’ve seen him turn on good fastballs,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “We’ve seen him fight off good sliders. We’ve seen him hit home runs to right field, left field. He’s got good hitting characteristics.”
The big-league club does not feature a vacancy Fuenmayor could fill. Eric Hosmer is installed at first base, and designated hitter Kendrys Morales is under contract for 2016. But the Royals have already informed Fuenmayor they hope to re-sign him on another minor-league contract for next season. Fuenmayor is believed to be appreciative of his current employers, who rescued him from the wilderness.
“It’s a great organization,” Fuenmayor said. “I have nine years of playing professional baseball. But this year is a big opportunity to play every day.”
The Blue Jays plucked Fuenmayor out of Venezuela in 2006 with a $750,000 signing bonus. He spent seven seasons in Toronto’s farm system but never rose above Class A. He exhibited a flaw common in power hitters, as he could neither discern nor defuse off-speed pitches. When the organization released him in May of 2013, Fuenmayor was hitting .208 for the Lansing Lugnuts.
Booted from affiliated baseball, Fuenmayor became a vagabond. He played for the Laredo Lemurs of the American Association and the stadium-less Frontier Greys of the Frontier League. He spent the duration of 2014 with Les Capitales de Quebec, a member of the Canadian-American Association. Fuenmayor swatted 23 homers and posted a league-best .993 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
The numbers popped off the page this offseason when Royals assistant general manager Scott Sharp scanned a list of minor-league free agents. The team lacked depth at first base behind Hosmer, and Baseball America had just selected Fuenmayor as the independent league player of the year. Sharp suggested they take a flier. Kansas City nabbed him before Fuenmayor torched opposing pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Encouraged by his performance in the winter, the Royals assigned Fuenmayor to Northwest Arkansas. He hit .318 in April. Then he busted out with eight home runs in May.
“Even after the first month, we’re going ‘Is this for real or not?’ ” Picollo said. “We watched him for another month, month and a half. And not only was he maintaining, but he seemed to get better.”
Picollo noticed Fuenmayor could better recognize breaking balls now. He was still susceptible to them, but he was no longer helpless. Fuenmayor credited his implementation of a two-strike approach, a concept that was foreign to him in his youth.
“I’m not thinking of hitting the ball like 500 feet,” Fuenmayor said. “I’m thinking about contact. I’m thinking about right field, center field. Low strikeouts, high average. I think that’s the key, the two-strike approach.”
The strategy came to life in his first at-bat Sunday against Nationals prospect Lucas Giolito. Fuenmayor fished for a neck-high slider, tried to check his swing and tumbled to his backside. He fouled off another pitch for a second strike.
Giolito fired a 97-mph fastball, and Fuenmayor shortened his stroke. He punched a liner into right field for a single.
Fuenmayor grounded out in his next at-bat. The outcome did not temper his enthusiasm afterward. Fuenmayor appeared incapable of losing his smile. He thanked two reporters for taking the time to interview him before and after the game. He told them he hoped to see them again in the near future.
“I want to play soon in the Kansas City Royals stadium,” Fuenmayor said. “Tomorrow I’m back to Omaha to play hard, focus every day. I want to play in the big leagues.”