Vahe Gregorian

Paulo Orlando gets the opportunity of a lifetime

The Royals’ Paulo Orlando has become the frontrunner in competition to become the starting right fielder in the wake of an injury to Jarrod Dyson.
The Royals’ Paulo Orlando has become the frontrunner in competition to become the starting right fielder in the wake of an injury to Jarrod Dyson. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Dayton Moore gazed over George Brett Field at the Royals’ spring training complex on Thursday morning, his eyes on the dozens of prospects and veterans chirping away as they prepared for batting practice.

“I’ve got a story,” he said, “about every one of those players that we’re watching right now.”

Try as he could, it’s hard to imagine that any of those tales of considerable twists, quirks or adversities made for a more far-fetched, winding way than the one navigated by Paulo Orlando.

By virtue of some freak fortune, his own remarkable resolve and now an injury to Jarrod Dyson, Orlando suddenly is the frontrunner to start the season in right field for the Royals.

Suddenly, that is, after turning 30 in his rookie year of 2015.

And all because in the barren baseball landscape of Sao Paulo, Brazil, his mother, Tanya, did janitorial work at a hospital …

Where a Japanese doctor for years urged her to have her boy try this peculiar sport introduced to Brazilians through Japanese immigrants …

And since after five years she caved, ultimately leading to him being signed by the White Sox in 2005 mostly because a coach from Cuba met him at an obscure tournament …

From where the rebuilding Royals traded for him in 2008 as they were randomly trying to stockpile athleticism, if not refined skills, any way they could …

Which finally became part of his near-decade in the minor leagues, a stint that featured him playing 1,017 games and making 4,093 plate appearances, and enduring all the grinding travel and doubts that implies.

So no wonder when he called his wife, Fabricia, to tell her he had made the Royals out of spring training last year, she cried … and then he did, too.

Kansas City Royals outfielder Paulo Orlando shows his new tattoo, which shows him swinging at the plate. Video by John Sleezer/The Kansas City Star

No wonder that in the offseason the image he had tattooed on his back was of him swinging in that first game, the one in which he tripled in his first official major-league at-bat after walking earlier and found himself at third thinking about all that had to happen to make that moment.

No wonder he wrapped himself in the Brazilian flag almost instantly after the Royals won the 2015 World Series in Game 5 at Citi Field in New York.

Orlando, only the third Brazilian to reach the major leagues, had just become the first to play in the World Series — a triumph in which he played a supporting role that extended beyond unremarkable numbers at the plate (.251 with seven home runs and 27 RBIs in the regular season) but was distinguished by strong defense.

“Paulo’s numbers from last year, they’re not sexy. They’re not eye-popping,” manager Ned Yost said. “But the thing about Paulo is that he found a way to contribute every single time he was in the game and find a way to something to help us win that game.”

Although Orlando’s exploits were widely chronicled in the Brazilian media, and much as he hopes his success breeds more interest in baseball there, it turns out there weren’t exactly parades for him when he returned.

“I walk on the streets like normal. Nobody knows me, just friends,” he said, smiling. “I’m not that famous guy.”

Which is about right.

Because the relative anonymity speaks better to what got him here and the ongoing hunger that compelled him to again play Winter League baseball in Venezuela just weeks later.

Between that work ethic and being what Yost called a “late bloomer,” Royals officials consider the sculpted, swift Orlando a young 30 years old with his peak years before him.

“He still has the ingredients of a guy who’s 20, who’s 10 years younger than he is,” outfield coach Rusty Kuntz said. “A lot of 30-year-olds don’t look like he does.”

That and his attitude make him “an absolute pure joy” to coach, said Kuntz, who said he gets goose bumps when he thinks of where Orlando started his journey and how it meandered.

To say nothing of the oddities of his initiation in the game that Orlando saw as a curiosity, while track and soccer were his true passions.

Somehow, though, it intrigued him in ways that he can’t quite elaborate on, even though friends wondered what he was talking about when he said he was trying “baseball” on weekends.

Yet even playing on some of the few rough diamonds in Brazil, Orlando proved to be a diamond in the rough.

That might have played out otherwise had his baseball coach not held some apparently hypnotic power over him to convince him to leave soccer alone for a few years.

Moreover, Orlando could well have decided that track was his best sport. As a member of the Brazilian Junior Olympic team, he reportedly had run the 200-meter dash in 21 seconds and the 400 in 46.36.

Watch Royals' Paulo Orlando hit a triple in intrasquad game 

But whatever doubts he had later, he was still all in on baseball — enabled by Fabricia’s encouragement and sustained by his will and even the flag he’d earned at the 2007 Pan American Games and tends to put in his apartment windows.

“This is, like, motivation for me,” he said. “I wake up and see the flag and feel like I fight for all the opportunity they gave me” back home.

The fight in some ways was most exasperating near the top.

Over a three-year period before getting the call-up last year, Orlando played 286 games for Class AAA Omaha (and 41 more last year). In 2014, he hit .301 with 63 RBIs and still had no passage guaranteed in 2015.

“He’s had a lot of reason, probably, to complain and to second-guess the thinking of the organization, and I’m sure he has in his private moments,” Moore said. “But never publicly, and he never made an issue of it.

“So he’s not let the game beat him up, and he’s only focused on the things he truly can control: attitude, work ethic and being a great teammate. … And that’s why he is where he is.”

Which already had been projected to be a platoon role with Dyson before Dyson suffered an oblique strain on Wednesday that is projected to keep him out for six weeks.

Unfortunate as that is for Dyson, this chance has been a long time coming for Orlando.

“That’s why you do this. That’s why you’re involved in this game,” Moore said. “You love to be part of stories and processes like that.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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