Vahe Gregorian

Paulo Orlando’s meandering path to the Royals resonates in big-league debut

Rookie left fielder Paulo Orlando got a Gatorade shower from Salvador Perez (left) and Erik Kratz after a 4-1 win over the White Sox on Thursday.
Rookie left fielder Paulo Orlando got a Gatorade shower from Salvador Perez (left) and Erik Kratz after a 4-1 win over the White Sox on Thursday. jsleezer@kcstar.com

It’s 5,319 miles from Kansas City to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

But that’s only if you’re measuring directly on Google maps.

The route Paulo Orlando took to Kauffman Stadium and his Major League debut on Thursday was considerably more circuitous.

Immeasurably so, really, if you count the fact that there was no map or GPS or blueprint to Point Z here from point A there.

Really, the path was impossible and couldn’t be replicated, starting at the start:

Orlando was a 12-year-old beckoned to check out the obscure game of baseball with Japanese immigrants on one of the precious few baseball diamonds in the nation that takes up nearly half of South America.

Seventeen years and nine minor-league seasons and 1,017 minor-league games and 4,093 minor-league plate appearances and hundreds of endless bus rides and infinite uncertainty later, Orlando started in left field Thursday for the Royals to spell Alex Gordon.

Seizing the moment, he tamed the nerves that were consuming him before the game and had the patience to work a walk his first time up and thump a triple in his second at-bat in a 4-1 win over the White Sox.

“That’s what speed do,” Orlando joked after the game.

That, of course, was a reference to outfield mate Jarrod Dyson’s grammatically mangled credo, words that made it seem Orlando has been here a while.

But many in the crowd of 20,236 and about every one of his teammates appreciated the opposite truth: his joy on the breakthrough day that made him just the third Brazilian (Cleveland catcher Yan Gomes and Miami pitcher Andre Rienzo) to play Major League Baseball.

That’s why even moments after the game he had already called back home to his wife, Fabricia, to share the triumph — and why he was eager to get on his phone again to “see the news in Brazil.”

That’s why Sal Perez pretended to toss into the stands the ball Orlando hit for a triple — and why manager Ned Yost could look down the bench when Orlando landed on third and feel the buzz that comes when “everybody understands the moment.”

Including Yost himself, who isn’t prone to sentimentality but went there nonetheless.

Think of all the hours and hours and years and years before you even get into pro ball, Yost said, and all the doubts that must creep in and make you wonder if you’re ever going to make it.

“And then the day comes,” Yost said, “and here you are.”

No wonder Yost seamlessly recalled his own first moment in the big leagues, in 1980 for the Brewers as a defensive replacement at catcher against Boston.

He was fine until the jolt of having Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski be introduced at the plate.

“I just stared at him for what (seemed) like a minute,” Yost said.

After all it had taken to get here, you couldn’t blame Orlando if he’d been similarly transfixed or frozen.

It was overwhelming enough when he made the team coming out of spring training. He called Fabricia, and when she started crying he began crying with her.

She was the one who urged him on, he said, when he wondered how much longer he should keep going and if his chance would ever come.

“Keep going, keep going,” she’d say. “You’re going to make it.”

The last few years were the most complicated because they were both encouraging and tantalizing.

He felt so close and so far away in 2014 at Class AAA Omaha, where he was an All-Star who hit .301 with 63 RBIs while demonstrating exceptional speed and outfield skills …

For a franchise loaded with outfielders.

But without him knowing it, he was making ripples in Kansas City. General manager Dayton Moore kept telling Yost, “Paulo’s really coming” along, and the Royals added him to their 40-man roster last fall.

By spring training, Yost was eager to give him a deep look and was struck by what he saw: a blend of athleticism, speed and pop in the bat that would make him the right choice for a fifth outfielder as Gordon continues to work back from wrist surgery.

That’s not the same as being here to stay, Orlando suggested, laughing.

But the Royals see him as still developing, and he has a new sense of control of that now, too.

And it might be surmised that has a particularly intense notion to maximize the opportunity given how far he’s come.

When he was growing up, as many around him wondered “what’s baseball?” and embraced the national pastime of soccer, Orlando became more and more invested in the game that initially had been recommended to him by a doctor friend of his mother, a nurse.

But because of the scarcity of fields and lack of broader interest in the game, Orlando could only play baseball on weekends.

Meanwhile, he still played soccer and flourished in track and field — particularly in the 200- and 400-meter dash.

The hazy trail changed direction again, though, when he was seen by a coach from Cuba who also was scouting for the White Sox. That ultimately led to him being signed in 2005 and traded to the Royals in 2008.

Even from then to now was an uncertain venture, and Orlando had difficulty expressing how or why he persevered.

But finally Thursday came, and he left the field baptized in Gatorade and knowing he’d at least landed if not arrived.

“I’m not that young,” he said, smiling, “but I feel like I’m 17 years old.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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