Sam Mellinger

Adalberto Mondesi’s long, sad and inspiring journey to the brink of stardom

Adalberto Mondesi’s progress expected to continue in 2019

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost was impressed with the progress that Adalberto Mondesi showed in 2018, and Yost expects that to continue with the 2019 season.
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Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost was impressed with the progress that Adalberto Mondesi showed in 2018, and Yost expects that to continue with the 2019 season.

They gathered around a dark wood table in a high-end steakhouse in the Dominican Republic. The 23-year-old athletic phenom with sleeve tattoos ordered salmon. The 52-year-old executive with salt-and-pepper hair didn’t care much about the food. He didn’t want to talk baseball, either.

He wanted to talk life, though in this life it’s hard to know where baseball stops and life begins.

“What do you think of Patrick Mahomes?”

Adalberto Mondesi was born and raised in the D.R., which scouts in the States will tell you is the only reason he’s not a professional quarterback or point guard or receiver. In the States, athletes like Mondesi are usually attracted to other sports. Mondesi does not follow football. He knew enough to answer the question.

“Unbelievable.”

Dayton Moore hoped to hear that. For years, the Royals general manager has known that Mondesi was his franchise’s future. The Royals signed him as a 16-year-old in 2011. Another team tried to steal him, and even put him up in a hotel for a while. The Royals have let amateurs leave before. But not this one. Mondesi was special. They found him, matched the competing offer of $2 million, and planned a future together.

After Mondesi signed, he watched a game with Moore from a fourth-floor suite at Kauffman Stadium. Mondesi narrated pitch movement. He tracked sequences. He noticed where the fielders positioned and how they adjusted to each pitch. Moore had never seen a 16-year-old see the game that deeply, that thoroughly, that confidently.

Over the years, something changed. Maybe the Royals pushed him too quickly. Maybe he was rocked by his father’s arrest, and the separation it caused. Maybe Mondesi never recovered from his mentor’s tragic death. Maybe something else is to blame. Whatever the cause, that care-free and swaggering teenager had been replaced by a burdened and often unsure professional.

Moore wanted to see that confidence again. He wanted Mondesi to know what everyone else saw. So he made the grandest comparison he could think of, comparing a guy who still hasn’t played a full season of big-league baseball to the NFL MVP.

“Mondi,” Moore said. “You’re that same type of athlete.”

Mondesi smiled. His eyes widened in a way that made Moore glad he said it, and wonder if the phenom needed to hear it more often. This is the Royals’ bizarre challenge: the most gifted player most of them have ever seen needs to believe it.

“Sometimes players perceive themselves differently than we perceive them,” Moore said. “That’s the challenge of coaching and leadership.”

Talk to Lindor, they kept telling him. Ask what he sees. Find out what he feels. Mondesi has a shy temperament that belies his athletic gifts. Moore calls him “one of the most tenderhearted people I’ve ever been around.”

Mondesi first met Indians star Francisco Lindor five years ago. This was in fall league, and the comparison is natural — five-tooled, switch-hitting shortstops in the same division.

Lindor is only two years older, but now already entering his fifth big-league season. Mondesi has the same physical gifts — more, if we’re being honest — so if he could get a little of the other stuff...

So, fine. Yes, he’d do it. He’d talk to Lindor. Mondesi slid into second base in a game against the Indians at Kauffman Stadium and saw Lindor’s smiling face. Now’s as good as ever, he figured, so he asked.

What do you think about on the field?

The answer: every time you play, believe you’re the best. Nobody’s better than you.

“Voy ha mi y pago doble,” Lindor said. I bet on me and I pay double.

Mondesi thought about what that meant. Then the ball was hit and he had to run.

This is Rene Francisco’s 27th year in professional baseball and Mondesi is the most talented player he’s ever scouted.

“The best I’ve seen,” said Francisco, the Royals’ vice president of international operations.

This is Pedro Grifol’s 20th season in professional baseball. He’s been a scout, a minor-league manager, a farm director, and now a big-league coach.

“This is the best talent I’ve ever come across,” he said of Mondesi.

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Kansas City Royals’ Adalberto Mondesi scores in the third inning on a single by Alex Gordon during Saturday’s spring training baseball game against the Texas Rangers on February 23, 2019 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, AZ. John Sleezer jsleezer@kcstar.com

This isn’t just an organization propping a guy up, either. Using MLB’s Statcast data, Mondesi was the sport’s fastest player in a 90-foot split last season. Much has been made locally of the Royals’ push for speed in signing Billy Hamilton, often regarded as baseball’s fastest man, but he’s not the fastest man in the lineup. According to Statcast, Mondesi was slightly quicker from home to first as a right-handed hitter than Hamilton from the left side.

Mondesi also homered 14 times in 291 plate appearances, including a 437-foot shot into the Kauffman Stadium fountains that was the 109th longest of the 5,585 homers hit last season — the 98th percentile of power. Mondesi’s 2018 was a full-season pace for 28 home runs, and here is the complete list of shortstops who hit more than that in 2018: Lindor, Trevor Story, and Manny Machado.

Francisco says that with some players, you can tell them how good they are a thousand times, but they’ll believe it on their own time. Around here, they’re starting to think Mondesi has found that time.

Body language is everything in baseball and Mondesi’s posture is straighter. He looks coaches in the eye more. He went from waiting for direction to taking control of his baseball day, designing a routine focused on quality over quantity — 20 grounders in the hole instead of 100, but all at game speed.

He’s also taken to a more game-like batting practice. One swing, then wait 30 seconds. Watch a pitch, then wait another 30. That’s how it goes in games, so that’s how he wants to practice. A bad swing can mean you wait 45 minutes for another chance.

So, maybe it was Lindor’s words, maybe it was finally seeing success in the big leagues, maybe it was some combination. But the message seems to have absorbed.

“He’s a different person,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He’s a lot more confident than I’ve seen him ... I see a conviction in his eyes that I haven’t seen before. He’s starting to understand what it takes to be an everyday player.”

Mondesi’s view is slightly but importantly different. He understands his talent, but didn’t always know how to best apply it. He was a magician trying to force all his tricks into the first act.

“I wanted to do everything in one game,” he said. “Now it’s just one game at a time.”

Grifol is closer to Mondesi than anyone else on staff and compares the player’s body and talent to a Ferrari. Mondesi’s shift, then, is learning to not drive 150 mph on city streets. The lesson is knowing when to hit the gas, and when to cruise. Don’t wear out the gears.

This journey is not unusual. In shorthand: “he had to learn how to be a big-leaguer.” Mondesi has done it a bit slower than expected, perhaps, but in the broader view that’s not nearly as important as getting it right.

The delay isn’t his fault, and can be blamed on circumstances. His major-league debut came in the 2015 World Series, for goodness sake. The Royals wanted his speed, and there can be no regrets after a championship. But Mondesi wasn’t ready.

Wasn’t ready then, and wasn’t ready when the Royals made him their opening day second baseman in 2017. The Royals have historically stuck with struggling players as long as they believed in themselves. Mondesi was demoted after 14 games and a .103 batting average, replaced by Whit Merrifield, who is six years older and led the league in steals.

At that point, maybe you thought Mondesi was a bust. You wouldn’t have been the only one. But something happened then, something important, something he hasn’t talked about publicly yet. Most of his teammates haven’t even heard.

“This is something people don’t know,” he said. “But I talk to my dad now, too. I talk to him every day.”

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Kansas City Royals second baseman Adalberto Mondesi on Monday, February 18, 2019 in Surprise, AZ. John Sleezer jsleezer@kcstar.com

Two things coaches and teammates have learned not to ask about. We’ll get to the second soon, but the first is Mondesi’s father. Raul Mondesi was a baseball star in his day, a hulking outfielder with a rocket arm and home run power.

He won the 1994 National League Rookie of the Year award and played 13 seasons with 271 homers and 229 stolen bases — something like the starter’s kit of the speed-power combination his son would later show.

Raul was a natural alpha personality and after baseball became the mayor of his hometown. Two years ago, he was sentenced to eight years in a Dominican prison for corruption and mishandling public funds. Around that same time, the Royals’ top prospect announced he would go by a different name.

Before then, he’d used Raul, the middle name he took from his father. Now, Mondesi said, he wanted to be Adalberto.

Kansas City Royals infielder Raúl A. Mondesi has requested to be called by his middle name, Adalberto Mondesi, after being referred to by his first name since being promoted to the major-league team. He is the son of former major-leaguer Raúl Mond

“He wants his own legacy,” Francisco said. “He is Raul’s son, but he wants to do his own thing. He’s never told me that, but I know.”

Mondesi’s explanation is simpler. He said people were confused. His older brother is Raul Jr., so this was easier. But the truth is nobody ever called him Raul anyway. In the clubhouse and on the field, he’s Mondi. To people who knew him growing up, he’s Guinea, a nickname given after a fast chicken-like bird in the Dominican.

So a common perception exists that the name-change came to distance himself from his recently incarcerated dad, but in reality the opposite was happening. Dad watches all of his son’s games, and offers tips on both what to improve and how to do it.

There was a time that everyone involved believed it was best that the two not talk. Now, those conversations are helping Mondesi in the only profession he truly ever imagined.

“Everything’s good now,” he said. “And hopefully it’ll get better.”

The second thing that stays off limits is even more personal. It’s about Yordano Ventura. The general consensus is that nobody in the organization took Ventura’s death two years ago harder. They were more than teammates, and big brother/little brother only begins to describe it.

They were from the same country, but had never met. Ventura was five years older and looked at helping Mondesi as both privilege and obligation. Ventura had his own challenges at learning how to become a major-league pitcher, and some in the organization saw his generosity toward Mondesi as proof he’d get there.

Ventura was in low Class A when Mondesi signed. Ventura was the first to buy the young kid a meal in the States.

“Subway,” Mondesi said with a chuckle. “He didn’t sign for big money, and he has his family and all that. So at that time I had more money than him. And he was the one that buys me food. Those are the things that don’t have a price.”

Mondesi thinks about Ventura every day, and that’s not just one of those things people say when a loved one dies. He keeps pictures of his old friend in his room, and saved the last conversation they had over text messages.

The conversation for this column went 30 minutes. When the topic turned to Ventura, it’s the only moment that Mondesi lost eye contact. He looked toward the sky when he said that “only God knows why things happen.” His words came slower, his voice growing softer.

At one point, his thumb wiped the edges of both eyes.

“I know one thing he wanted,” Mondesi said. “He wanted to see me reach, to do my best on the field in Kansas City. I started doing that last year. It’s tough, not being able to have him here with me. Things happen for a reason. It’s tough. That’s the only thing I have to say.”

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Kansas City Royals players held a banner with Yordano Ventura’s number during a tribute to the late pitcher before an April 10, 2017, game against Oakland at Kauffman Stadium. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

It’s a spring Thursday in Arizona which means a high sky and an air so light it can feel like a trick of gravity. The public address announcer says Mondesi’s name and he comes to the plate, left foot digging toward the back of the batters box.

The first pitch cuts the inner half of the plate, and Mondesi drops the bat low, hands in front of the barrel to nudge the ball toward the third baseman. It’s not a great bunt, to be honest. A little too hard and directly to Angels infielder Jose Rojas. But the normal laws of baseball physics do not apply here.

Rojas charges the ball, fields it cleanly, and makes a strong throw. But Mondesi’s strides are not just fast but long. His full sprint is like an optical illusion. He beats the throw easily. A few days earlier, he hit the second pitch of a game off the right-field scoreboard.

“He could be the best player in the game at any time,” Grifol said. “That’s putting a lot on his plate. I’m not saying he’s going to be. I’m saying he’s talented enough to be the best player in the game in 2019 or 2022 or 2021. He’s talented enough to do it.”

The message is beginning to hold. His first big-league home run was off Justin Verlander, his longest off Jose Quintana, and his most recent off Andrew Miller. That one still makes Mondesi smile. The score was tied, two men on, and Miller threw a backfoot slider that hung a blink too high.

“One of my favorite moments,” Mondesi said.

He didn’t say this specifically, but as much as anything else that’s the pitch that’s kept him from already being an All-Star. He’s always hammered fastballs. Breaking pitches — sliders and curves, but especially sliders — have always been difficult.

That’s where this routine comes in. It’s more than the grounders and the swings. It’s homework. He’s studying that day’s starters and the relievers he might face, paying particular attention to what they do ahead in the count. Information is sparse in the minor leagues. In the bigs, Mondesi is now addicted to it.

Grifol shows Mondesi heat maps to emphasize the point — blue zones are cold, red are hot. They spend a lot of time on breaking pitches low in the zone.

“How do you hit that? Mondesi once asked.

“You don’t,” Grifol replied. “That’s why those guys drive Mercedes. Don’t swing.”

Mondesi is getting better at this, and now the improvement is coming fast. Grifol said the Royals’ numbers showed a significant improvement against sliders toward the end of last season, and Mondesi is so hooked on homework now that he wants it for spring training games — even when the Royals don’t have (or care about) information on the opposing starter.

Baseball’s dynamics mean a franchise’s future never truly rests with one player. This isn’t basketball, where one guy can take every shot. Or football, where it all revolves around the quarterback, like the one Moore compared Mondesi to.

Even still, every vision that club officials have of the future includes Mondesi as one of the game’s best players. This is the foundation, and everything else can build from there.

Mondesi’s journey has not been a straight line. His development from here won’t be either. He’ll relapse on sliders. He’ll strike out. He’ll think about the dad who can’t watch in person, or the mentor no longer here. He’ll get sad. He’ll struggle. And when he does, the men who make this franchise go will try to pick him up.

“Vas ha ti y pagas doble,” Grifol will tell him.

Bet on yourself and pay double.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.
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