Before he became an All-Star and a World Series champion and the Royals’ closer, Kelvin Herrera sat in his childhood home in Tenares, Dominican Republic, and took a pair of scissors to all the newspapers he could get his hands on.
He scoured the printed pages for pictures and articles of his baseball idols and clipped them out to tack them on his bedroom walls. Rogers Clemens and Pedro Martinez were the first he gravitated to, a pair of Cy Young Award-winning pitchers who by the time Herrera began paying attention to baseball at the age of 7 had already established themselves as the best of their generation.
But in that same 1997 season, Indians rookie pitcher Bartolo Colon emerged. Then much smaller than the current 285-pound girth he totes as the oldest member of the Rangers’ starting rotation, Colon mesmerized Herrera and received a spot of honor on Herrera’s wall.
“I started wanting to copy his mechanics,” Herrera told The Star in Spanish on Friday, one day after the Royals’ arrival at Globe Life Park coincided with Colon’s 45th birthday. “I wanted to use my legs like Bartolo. I’ve always admired him.
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“When I wanted to start learning about baseball, I started watching him and how he used his legs and learning his arm action. Today that’s what I still do, is use my lower half like him.”
Herrera became smitten by Colon’s mid-90s fastball that occasionally touched 100 mph. He wanted to throw as hard as Colon and the others — just to prove to outsiders that he could get more out of his arm than his short stature would indicate.
Colon, who was sent home from three tryouts for being too short before finally being signed by the Indians out of the Dominican Republic in 1993, had to do the same thing.
"How he used his back leg to push off, that’s something that if you use it 100 percent you can throw harder," said Herrera, who at 5-foot-10 is one inch shorter than Colon.
At that point, Herrera didn’t know whether he would be talented enough to play major-league baseball.
He just loved to play. He’d spend his weekends playing for a local league and pitching in one game of a double-header and fielding in the other — sometimes he’d start on the mound in the first and close the second game out. He would pitch in amateur leagues against recently released minor-leaguers, men 10 years his senior who hit with aluminum bats, and learn to hone his craft.
For years before signing with the Royals as an amateur free agent in 2006, he'd either pitch or roam the outfield. There were few other things he did in his spare time.
But Herrera had never imagined himself here, relaying this story while he sat in a major-league clubhouse at Globe Like Park, 21 years after he first watched Colon take the mound.
“I always wanted to be in the military,” Herrera said.
This was the version of Herrera that Royals assistant general manager for major league and international operations Rene Francisco saw in a tryout at the team’s old academy in Salcedo, Dominican Republic during the fall of 2006. An unrefined product who never actually meant to find his way onto the mound at the Royals’ facility.
He hadn’t even been invited. He showed up with a buscone and impressed a Royals scout with his curveball during a workout for walk-ons.
Francisco and Orlando Estevez, the Royals coordinator for Latin America scouting who was then a scout in the Dominican Republic, were rushed to the field to evaluate Herrera themselves.
“Kelvin was gonna go home and we asked him to get his shoes on again and throw again for us,” Francisco said. “He had a quick arm and had a good breaking ball.”
The Royals signed Herrera on the spot for about $15,000.
Herrera couldn’t believe the process was so simple. A year earlier, a scout had watched a scrawny Herrera, then barely 15, throw 84 mph. He told Herrera, “If you get in better shape, you can play professionally.”
Herrera had barely begun to dream of wearing a major-league uniform when he arrived in Salcedo, some 20 minutes from his hometown. Yet he found himself on the verge of a career that’s now lasted long enough for him to watch his childhood idol pitch against the Royals for the eighth time since Herrera's own debut in 2011.
“(Bartolo’s) an example of ‘Yes, you can,’” Herrera said. “Baseball will last as long as you want it to if you work hard.”