Vahe Gregorian

Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez had to face identity crises to become who he is today

Edinson Volquez, slated to be the Royals’ Game 3 starter on Sunday vs. the Astros, has reached a comfort level with himself as a person that’s helped translate to success on the field.
Edinson Volquez, slated to be the Royals’ Game 3 starter on Sunday vs. the Astros, has reached a comfort level with himself as a person that’s helped translate to success on the field.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez returns every offseason to his hometown: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

But he doesn’t retreat just to the posh place he lives in now with his wife and twin daughters.

He almost immediately returns, too, to the humble home in which he grew up, the one that’s unoccupied and unfurnished but that he proudly owns now.

When you visit, he’ll tell you, let him know, because this is where he’ll most want to take you.

“Nobody lives there,” he said, with his perpetual grin, “but I keep it.”

Sometimes, he’ll just drive back and forth a few times. Or just park and stare at it.

Other days, he’ll stop, pull up a chair right out front and play dominoes with the old men all day on the street where he was a “tornado” as a child. He’ll think about how far he’s come to have this life now — including starting Game 3 of the American League Division Series for the Royals on Sunday at Houston.

He might think about how his father, Danio, always made enough money as a mechanic for them to have food, and for him to have shoes, and to get him his first baseball glove, the model of countryman Pedro Martinez.

He could think about his mother, Anna, and how she’d work at a hospital and still do everything around the house for him and his three sisters.

“We were rich,” he said, “because we had everything you could want as poor people.”

The Star's Andy McCullough and Blair Kerkhoff preview Game 3 of the AL Division Series between the Royals and Astros at 3 p.m. Sunday in Houston (TV: MLB Network). The series is tied 1-1.

He might think about the huge poster of Martinez he had in his bedroom, the first thing he’d see every day, or the family’s black and white TV — the one on which they’d watch every game Martinez pitched, whether live or taped on a VCR in case Edinson had a conflict in his schedule.

“I told myself, ‘You have to be like this guy,’ ” said Volquez, whose “every movement, every motion” became an emulation of Martinez.

He might pause, too, to think about how that led to a $27,000 signing bonus in 2001 that seemed like all the money in the world.

When he got the first check, for half that amount, he immediately went to the bank and cashed it all.

“Oh, my God, so much money,” he thought, and then he brought it home for his parents.

He put it on their bed and said, “Mom, this is the money I got for my signing bonus.”

When his mother told him she didn’t want his money, he used it to “make their house a little better,” as one of his sisters put it.

When he’d come to make a lot more money, he’d buy them an entirely new one but take ownership of his roots in the two-story wooden house so close to the street that the act of opening the front door might hit a passerby.

“You can’t forget where you’re coming from,” Volquez said. “When people forget where they’re coming from, they’re wrong.”

He knows all this now and lives it passionately.

But there was a turbulent passageway to becoming a man with such a certain sense of who he is now, a man who has been the Royals’ most stable starter, a man who is the most consistently pleasant presence there is in the Royals’ clubhouse, a man who is happy to tell you he pitched terribly when he does.

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For nearly six years after being signed by Texas, Volquez was engulfed in various forms of identity crisis he would have to solve before the next phase of his career became one of radical spikes and swings until his harmonious last two seasons.

The identity crisis went well beyond having to learn to be himself instead of Martinez, and it went beyond the confusion he would feel when so many people soon were trying to change his delivery, and “too many different ideas” were put in his head.

First, it was about having to confess that he was not Julio Reyes, the name he had siphoned from a younger friend in order to make use of his birthday, to enhance his credentials to be signed.

“I said, ‘Hey, can use your name?’ ” recalled Volquez, whose friend was 10 months younger. “He said, ‘Yeah, you’re my friend. What(ever) I can do.’ ”

It was a relatively typical practice at the time engineered by street agents known as “buscones,” who’d convince their clients that the younger they were, the more they could reap for a signing bonus.

In his case, that might have been the difference between the $20,000 Colorado offered and the $27,000 he got from the Rangers.

As eagerly as Volquez had agreed to it, though, he felt something sick inside, too.

“I had to remember, ‘This is my name, this is my name, this is my name,’ ” he said, adding, “ ‘Oh, that’s me’ when everybody called me.”

Game 3 of the AL Division Series is 3:10 p.m. Sunday (MLB Network) and will pit Houston ace Dallas Keuchel, 15-0 at home, against KC's Edinson Volquez, 3-0 lifetime at Minute Maid Park.

Worse, though, he knew in his heart he was cheating, which loomed larger as he stood on the verge of advancing from the Rangers’ Dominican program to their U.S. operation in 2003.

Amid an industry-wide awakening to the issue, particularly as it pertained to immigration matters, Rangers prospects were asked to verify who they were.

Churning inside, thinking Rangers Latin American coordinator Manny Batista would “kill me,” Volquez summoned his conscience and channeled his fear.

“ ‘Hey, Manny, I’ve got something to say … I’ve got a different age and a different name,’ ” he remembers saying. “He was, like, ‘You too?’ He thought I was kidding, because he said my face was like a little baby.”

But Batista just was grateful Volquez fessed up, as Volquez recalled. And so was Volquez, who dutifully went home to get his real papers.

“I was like, ‘Ahhhh,’ like, ‘Phew, you’re breathing,’ ” he said. “You can’t even sleep when you’ve got a different name.”

But Volquez’s emotional liberation wasn’t exactly his salvation. Instead, it led to another warped sense of himself.

By his second full year in the Rangers’ system, he had come to think of himself — and perhaps roommate John Danks — as the prime prospect in their organization.

Danks, now with the White Sox, remains a good friend of Volquez’s, and among the things they shared was better learning each other’s language, another freeing element in Volquez’s arsenal.

On typical mornings, they’d watch Telemundo together for a spell, with Volquez tutoring Danks, then they’d watch cartoons such as Tom and Jerry or Scooby-Doo for Danks to work with Volquez.

“It was like a little baby trying to learn,” Volquez said.

[ Royals hope to hand Astros ace Dallas Keuchel his first home loss in Game 3 of ALDS ]

He was also was like a little baby after having represented the Rangers in the 2005 All-Star Futures Game.

His rationale at the time: “ ‘Because I’m the No. 1 prospect, I can do whatever I want to do.’ ”

When Danks was disciplined for some forgotten transgression and took seriously his punishment to undertake clubhouse duties like cleaning spikes and hanging jerseys, Volquez taunted him and said, “ ‘You don’t have to do that; if they made me do that I’d go home.’ ”

Danks looked at Volquez like he was crazy, and other started to, too.

Coaches would say, “You’ve got to run today,” and he’d just say, “No, I’m not going to. My feet hurt.”

Coaches would say, “You’ve got to work out today,” and he’d shrug and say, “I’m not going to work out today. I’m tired.”

For that matter, he added, “I did everything opposite. They’d say, ‘Don’t go that way,’ I’d just go straight there. They’d say, ‘There’s a hole over there, you’re going to fall down.’ I’d just start jumping in the hole.”

Asked what had come over him, Volquez laughed and said, “I don’t know, but that was me. Everybody was talking about ‘Pedro-Pedro-Pedro,’ and I let all that go to my head.”

Between his erratic behavior and his 1-10 record in two major-league stints in 2005 and 2006, Texas divined that Volquez would require an attitude adjustment to remain a viable prospect.

So the Rangers in 2007 constructed a list of rules to be followed by Volquez, and reinforced it by busting him to Class A Bakersfield to start the season.

Enraged, Volquez asked for his release and told his agent to book him a flight home, and it flickered through his mind to quit the game to spite them for trying to change him.

Then it occurred to him he would be spiting himself more, and he acquiesced to all of it — including a contractual obligation to terms that might have seemed demeaning but also could be seen as shock therapy for the cocky, contrary Volquez.

He would have to use a No. 2 razor to shave his head, and he’d have to run back and forth from the dugout to the mound in fewer than 12 seconds.

They told him how he had to wear his hat and jersey and pants, and they told him he could talk only to the pitching coach and catcher on days he pitched. He had to be the first guy in the stretching line and on the bus, and he even had to check in regularly with a battery of sports psychologists.

“Oh, and write it all down,” he said. “Like, today, write down what’s the plan for tomorrow.”

He bristled at this, of course, and all the more so as he made the four-hour drive from Arizona to Bakersfield, Calif., and came in view of the fossilized facility.

But something inside soon changed, something Volquez can’t quite identify, yet surely had to do with the prospect of losing it all.

His outlook changed so much that when the Rangers were ready to move him back up to Class AA, he initially refused.

Not because he was being defiant, but because he was struggling for Bakersfield (0-4 with a 7.39 ERA) and wanted to meet his obligation there.

They prevailed upon him to move up to Class AA Frisco, and he’d win 16 of his next 20 starts between that stop, Class AAA Oklahoma City and back in the big leagues that season.

“It was a long process, but it was good,” Volquez said. “It made me a better person, and a better professional baseball player.”

By then, instead of trying to further change him, Volquez remembers director of player development Scott Servais telling him to “just be yourself and enjoy the game.”

A year later, Volquez was an All-Star who went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA for Cincinnati, but more upheaval was ahead. He required Tommy John surgery in 2009 and, amid that recovery, was smacked with a 50-game suspension after testing positive for PEDs.

“That’s a good story, too,” Volquez said.

He is adamant that he wasn’t taking “esteroids,” other performance-enhancing drugs or a masking agent but, in fact, was taking fertility treatments.

MLB went to the Dominican to speak to his doctor, obtained prescriptions and appointment dates and further medical records, and was reckless in punishing him, he said.

“I’m being honest: I’ve got no monkey on my back,” he said. “I’m free. In the bottom of my heart, I’m really clean.”

Three years later, after years of trying and once losing a pregnancy before birth, his wife, Roandry, had their twin daughters, Eylin and Aylin.

Their births came just after Volquez finished a terrible 2013 season with San Diego and Los Angeles. But being with his wife between releases by the Padres and Dodgers was “like the best three days of my life.” He’s not sure he’s ever been happier than he was on their birthday, Nov. 5.

“So I don’t care about the money I lost (in 2010),” said Volquez, now in the second year of a two-year, $20 million contract with the Royals. “I’ve got my twins, and I’ve got 15 years with my wife.”

Volquez himself was reborn the next season in Pittsburgh under coach Ray Searage, to whom, he says, “I tip my hat. He knows how to fix people; he knows how to make you better.”

This season with the Royals, guided by coach Dave Eiland, Volquez pitched 200 innings for the first time and went 13-9 with a 3.55 ERA.

That’s all because he knows himself now, he says, better than ever.

He knows how to let the pressure go so you don’t have a heart attack, and knows he doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone but himself.

He knows, too, from where he comes and how far away it was even as he holds it close.

“I got a lot of motivation from that house,” he said, “to be who I am right now.”

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