Martin's father earned title of 'Mi Campeon'
Cuban outfielder developed passion for game while coached by dad
ARLINGTON -- The count was 2-2, there were two outs and his team was down, 3-0, in the championship game of the tournament.
"It was down to the last pitch," Leonys Martin said.
The pitcher threw that pitch and Martin connected, driving it over the outfield wall for a walk-off grand slam. The 10-year-old Cuban slugging prodigy danced joyously around the bases and then noticed what his coach was doing in the dugout.
"He was crying," Martin said. "My father was crying tears because he was so happy. He was really happy. After that game, my father started calling me 'Mi Campeon.'"
In English, that means 'My Champion.'
Martin certainly was that to his father and others on that memorable day 15 years ago in Villa Clara, where Martin was born and raised on the baseball-mad island of Cuba.
But Martin has his own Mi Campeon, and that is his father, Oscar, a one-time pitcher who almost made it to the Cuban National Series but instead transferred his passion into a life-long devotion to coaching youth baseball.
"He does it 24/7, 365 days of the year," Leonys said. "He is a great father. He is everything to me. He was always there for me. Now that I have my own two daughters, I understand what it means to be a father and what he did for me."
Leonys left Cuba in 2010 to come to the United States and play in the Major Leagues. He is often reluctant to talk about his past and the circumstances surrounding his decision to leave his homeland. He still has family in Cuba.
But, as Father's Day approaches, Leony was eager to talk about the man who helped him go from rural Cuba to playing center field for the Rangers.
"I couldn't have done it without my father," Leonys said through Rangers broadcaster Eleno Ornelas. "He taught me a lot of wisdom about baseball and life. Sometimes, when I was younger, I wouldn't pay attention or understand. Now that I'm grown up, I do understand.
"He worked hard. He was a very straight person, very responsible and very educated. My hometown knew me because I was the star of my team, but everybody who knew my dad gave him more respect than me. It was very impressive. They saw him as a great person."
Villa Clara is farm and ranch country in the central region of the island. Upon landing there, Christopher Columbus once believed the "King of India" lived there. The cattle industry was king in the 18th and 19th century and then the region turned to massive sugar production. Now, with sugar in decline, the region is becoming a popular tourist destination, with resorts being built on the pristine beaches and cays of the north coast.
Oscar Martin was a pitcher with a good fastball and good control. The scouts found him when he was young, but they didn't sign him, preferring to go with older and more developed pitchers for the immediate gratification of the Cuban National Series.
"All the people tell me he was an excellent pitcher, a tough one to hit," Leonys said.
Unable to reach the highest level of Cuban baseball, Oscar turned to coaching, and his son -- from age 8 to 13 -- was one of his best players. His son was also one of his best pitchers.
"I pitched from when I was eight until I was 13," Leonys said. "I was a good pitcher, but everybody said I was a better hitter, so I had to be a hitter instead."
So Leonys concentrated on playing shortstop, and that was his position for four years while playing at one of Cuba's many baseball academies. He was in the academy from age 13 to 17. Then he went back to Villa Clara to play for Corralillo, which is the local Minor League team, and his manager was his father. He was only 17, but he was a star.
"I think I hit .360 during the regular season and made like one or two errors at shortstop in 60 games," Martin said. "I hit like .500 in the playoffs and we won the championship ... the first time in like 25 years for my hometown. It was like one big party."
After that, Leonys joined Villa Clara in the Cuban National Series. His coach was Victor Mesa, who was an outstanding center fielder and also managed Cuba in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Martin was the youngest player on the team and began his career sitting on the bench as a utility infielder.
"Then one of our left fielders wasn't working hard and wasn't hustling because he was having a bad year," Leonys said. "So one day, Victor Mesa told me, 'You're playing left field.' So I went out and played left field. I hit good and played good and never went back to the bench again.
"The following year, I became a center fielder. I remember clearly in Spring Training my father saying, 'You have to work hard all the time. Let me tell you something. You can be one of the best center fielders in Cuba.' I still remember that."
Leonys played five seasons for Villa Clara. He also played on the Cuban National Team and was a fourth outfielder on their 2009 World Baseball Classic squad. Then he defected in 2010 while his Cuban team was in Japan. His father was not in favor of his decision.
"He was against me leaving Cuba," Leonys said. "Remember, he was a very straight person, a very reserved person. But it was my decision. He wasn't in favor of it, but he supported me and didn't complain. It was very hard for him. All his family is still there, he still has his mother over there. That's what makes it tough."
Leonys first went to Mexico to establish residency and clearance from Major League Baseball. His father came to the United States to help pave the way.
"It was a very tough time," Leonys said. "Not only for both of us, but this was the first time our family was not together."
The Rangers signed Leonys on May 4, 2011. On Sept. 1 of that season, he achieved his dream of being called up to the Major Leagues by the Rangers, although he and his father had mixed emotions.
"I can tell you it went two ways," Leonys said. "The way I came up, it was because somebody was injured. My dad was happy for me, but he wasn't happy for the situation. But it was great because we both had never really expected to play for a Major League team and against the best baseball players in the world. It was a great moment, but we didn't want players to get hurt."
The player was Nelson Cruz, who had a strained left hamstring and was out for two weeks.
"He's now my best friend," Leonys said.
Cruz got over it. He was the Most Valuable Player in the American League Championship Series that season. A week after being called up, Leonys' father got to see him play when the Rangers were in St. Petersburg. Now, Leonys, after bouncing back and forth from the Minor Leagues, is a full-time player in the big leagues, platooning with Craig Gentry in center field.
Oscar lives in Miami, where he still devotes his time to his never-ending passion of coaching youth baseball and watching his son play on television every chance he gets.
"He is very happy," Leonys said. "I'm here because of him. I have loved him all of my life."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.