Mariners 285-pound first baseman finally arrives in the major leagues despite those who see only his girth.
Luis Antonio Jimenez has learned to roll with the taunts he hears about his 6-foot-4, 285-pound body.
It’s the man inside he wants people to know. A man who spent 13 years of professional baseball being told he wasn’t good enough only to show he was. A man at peace with who he is and where he’s headed, even if that doesn’t involve a lengthy major-league career.
Long before the 30-year-old first baseman made his debut in the big leagues Tuesday night with a pinch-hit appearance for the Mariners, he’d accepted that his ultimate baseball dream might never happen. And that was OK for the native of Venezuela, who had discovered he was happy being just who he is.
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“Sometimes people don’t understand and don’t know what they have,” Jimenez said. “But as soon as you understand it and you realize how everything is, you feel better.”
For Jimenez, that means being pleased that he speaks three languages — Spanish, English and Portuguese — and can rattle off nine countries he’s visited because of baseball, including China, Korea, Germany and Italy. He’s grateful for his wife, Anny, whom he met in school, stayed friends with, then began a relationship with after turning pro.
“She understands everything about baseball and understands what’s going on and the sacrifice that’s involved,” he said. “She appreciates everything that I do, and I love that about her.”
She’s been in Venezuela with their sons, Luis, 8, and Arturo, 3, but will travel to Seattle with both in a couple of weeks.
Jimenez doesn’t dwell on negatives of what happened after Oakland signed him in 1999 out of his hometown of Bobare. Or about minor-league promotions slow to come as he bounced from the A’s to the Orioles, the Dodgers, the Twins, the Red Sox, back to the Orioles, then the Red Sox again, the Nationals, and finally the Mariners.
“You knew he enjoyed baseball,” said Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, a Class AA teammate in 2006, then again at AAA in 2007 when Jimenez returned to Boston. “He always came to the field with a positive attitude and just enjoyed the game.”
The hitting numbers were always there. But so was the massive girth.
“When teams look, that’s the first thing they say,” Jimenez said. “They say ‘Look at Jimenez, he’s a real fat guy.’ “
He played with the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan in 2009, only to be cut by that team in spring training the following year. No AAA team would take him, so he went back to Venezuela and played in an amateur league in the northwestern town of Carora, near Barquisimeto.
After missing the entire 2010 pro season, he played winter ball for the Lara Cardenales and was the championship series MVP. Mariners scouts liked what they saw and signed Jimenez to a minor-league contract.
Jimenez tore up AA and was promoted to AAA Tacoma. He hit .294, with 16 home runs and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) of .850 at the two levels.
Still, no September call-up was waiting.
Jimenez returned to AAA this season, hit .310 with 20 homers, a .907 OPS, made the Pacific Coast League All-Star Game and was named Tacoma’s offensive player of the year. The day the AAA season ended, he was told his 13-year wait for the big leagues was over.
He told his mother, Maria, and she cried.
“The thing is, everybody thinks professional athletes have to look like models,” he said. “But they don’t. It’s all technique.”
Jimenez has needed that technique at the plate to silence the fans taunting him in opposing ballparks.
“The first two or three innings, they’ll be OK,” he said. “But after the fourth or fifth, when they’ve been drinking, they’ll start telling players how bad they look, or how good they look.
“They say all kinds of stuff. I don’t really like it, but that’s the first thing everybody says about me. It’s my weight.
“When everybody looks at me, they say ‘Oh, my God, he’s so big!’ I don’t like it, but I have to live with it because there isn’t much I can do about it.”
Jimenez always was the biggest kid in class and on baseball and volleyball teams. He competed in the shot put, discus, javelin and hammer in track and field.
Over the years, the weight kept climbing, going over 270 pounds a few seasons back. Jimenez says he might try something this winter to keep it from going higher, but also knows he’s always going to be big.
“That’s just me,” he said with a shrug.
Tacoma hitting coach Jeff Pentland said he and Jimenez did some lower body work this year to help him drive balls better. Pentland said Jimenez remained upbeat and served as a positive influence on a mostly young team.
“It’s hard, it really is,” Pentland said. “You see a lot of older guys in that league who have been up there and done fairly well and are playing it out. As the year went by, I think Luis realized he might get a shot, so he performed much better.”
Jimenez plans to keep on performing. He’s dabbled a bit in a family pork and vegetable business, but has no idea what he’ll do post-career.
“I’ll worry about that later,” he said with a smile. “Right now, I’ve got everything I need.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @gbakermariners