Everybody calls him Onion. Jhonatan Solano, the Nationals newest catcher, has the best nickname in the Nationals’ organization. “It’s a long story,” Solano said. “I think we don’t have time for that story.”
In 2005, as a teenager up in Colombia, a soccer-mad country that has produced only a fistful of major leaguers, Solano needed to look outside the country for his break. He heard about a tryout across the border in Venezuela, and he had no way to get there, and so improvised. Solano hitched a ride to Venezuela in a van carrying both people and produce. He sat next to the onions.
The Nationals signed Solano at that tryout. Today, at 26 years old, Solano is major league, the 13th from Colombia. As if his story needed another layer, earlier this month his brother, an infielder named Donovan Solano, became the 12th Colombian to reach the majors when he debuted for the Miami Marlins. As Jhonatan Solano pulls on his first big league jersey, his brother will be in the opposing clubhouse.
“Wow,” Solano said. “The only thing I can say is Thank God for everything. To be here, especially, this is like Memorial Day for the Solano family.”
Monday night, Donovan picked up his brother at the Miami airport. They hugged and cried, and Jhonatan said to Donovan, “We did it.”
“It’s amazing,” Donovan said. “Two brothers from Colombia, playing together.”
This morning, the Solanos parents, a nurse and an electrician, flew from Colombia. On their first day in a big league ballpark, they watched batting practice behind the cage. Myriam Preciado, their mother, wore a Marlins jersey. Luis Solano wore a Nationals a Nationals uniform. Tomorrow, they will switch shirts.
“This has been their dream all their lives,” Preciado said, via a translation from a family friend. “The labor that they put in and the amount of work that they’ve done to finally get here, they’re happy.”
Preciado hopes to see Donovan walk to bat with Jhonatan behind home plate, pause before getting in the box and hug his brother. “Probably not gonna see that,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
There is one part of the story that is too good to be true and isn’t: Johnson said Carlos Maldonado knows the Marlins’ hitters better than Solano, and so Maldonado will likely start Wednesday night, too.
But Solano is still a major leaguer after six years in the minors. Solano reached Class AAA Syracuse at the end of 2009, but he struggled and the Nationals realized they had rushed him. They moved him back to Class AA Harrisburg, where he spent all of 2010. The Nationals always they had something in him, a good contact hitter, an excellent receiver and a solid thrower.
“He’s a high-energy kid,” Nationals director of player development Doug Harris said. “You’re kind of drawn to him because of the energy he portrays and the effort he brings.”
“He’s always been a clutch hitter,” Harris added. “When you needed a big hit, Jhonny got it done.”
Solano could have reached the majors sooner. He had established himself as the first catcher the Nationals would have called up from the minors. But when Wilson Ramos tore his ACL, Solano was in Florida rehabbing a strain in his neck. He had to wait longer, but all he could tell his manager was how happy he was for Sandy Leon.
“When something happens in life, it’s because God made it happen,” Solano said. “I’ll wait for my opportunity, and now it’s here.”
Solano sent Maldonado a text message this morning asking if he would go to the park with him. Maldonado laughed. It was 10:30 a.m.
Solano had waited for his chance for seven years. He had gone from an onion van to Marlins Park, where his brother would sit in the opposing dugout and his parents would watch from the stands, and he did not want to wait another minute.
“Everything is together,” Solano said. “I’m happy. I’m really happy.”
…. As for Flores, he said his mild hamstring strain is feeling “way better.” He could play tomorrow, he said, but as a precaution Johnson will wait until Friday, at least, to play Flores again.