Juan Soto, 20, plays left field for the Washington Nationals. He debuted in the majors last year as the youngest player in the league at the time and is the youngest player in Nationals franchise history to hit a home run. He is from the Dominican Republic.

What was it like when you stood in Nats Park for your first big league game?

It was amazing. I feel myself like that small. I see everybody else as, like, huge and big and grown-up men, so I’m feeling like, ooof. It was against the Dodgers, and I remember the first guy I saw was Yasiel Puig. I was like, “Wow.”

Were you intimidated?

I’m going to say it: I was scared. I saw Puig hit a homer, the pitcher striking [players] out, the crowd and everything. I tried to control all my emotions. I was sitting on the bench and the manager tell me, “We want you to rest today. You’re going to play tomorrow.” But then they [send] me out to pinch hit. And I feel like — I don’t know how to explain — I was too fast. I feel my heart is coming out of me! They struck me out in three pitches. But when I’m walking back to the dugout the crowd stands up and starts clapping. That made me feel good, like, phew, just coming down a bit. And the manager tells me, “Hey, you’re playing tomorrow.” So I can’t sleep, I’m preparing myself the whole night.

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How did you prepare?

I was laying down in my bed, [thinking about] all those players that [had been] in the spot I was, what they did to get successful. So I start looking at videos and all this stuff. Ronald Acuña Jr. [had] come up just two, three weeks before me, so I want to see what he did in his debut. I see him getting [bubble] gums. So I’m thinking, “Maybe the gums can help your nerves.” So next day I came back ready. And when I [was] gonna hit, I just grabbed nine gums. Because I get three and I feel like, “Hmmm, I need more.” I see [Pedro] Severino hit a double. So a situation with men on bases. I just go in there thinking, “I got to get it done.” I go in the mind of how the pitcher is thinking. I say: I’m the pitcher, it’s a rookie coming up, I got men on third and second, I don’t want this guy coming [home]. If you throw a fastball, he gonna get a groundball and bring the guy in. I want that he get a groundball to third base, not a groundball to shortstop, so I gonna throw him a fastball away. So I get in the box and say he gonna throw me a fastball away, so be ready for that. And he throw me that. I hit it the hardest I can, I smash it. And when I heard the crowd, I almost jumped it was so loud! Because it was a home run. It was amazing because my family was there.

You were just 16 when you signed with the Nats’ training academy in the Dominican Republic. You went through that very quickly and then up through the minors faster, probably, than anyone expected.

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When they put me in an academy, I leave all my family. It's tough because, like, you are a kid. So I see my family on the weekends. And I just say, I wanted this to be [as] fast [as] I can, so I gonna work hard. I never think it was going to be that fast. But I'm always believing I can play up here. I always thinking: "I'm going to prepare myself to play in the big leagues." Always in life I try to look for something to get me excited and motivated, something to [push] me. So when I signed at the academy, they always talking about Victor Robles, how he work hard, how he's disciplined in the game, and I say, "I want to be like this guy." Because if I do the same things, I'm gonna be like him and get called up fast. So I work hard, and they did call me up. But I want to get called up again [to the next level]. Then when I got to Double-A, I was sleeping in an air bed. The manager tells me, "Hey, we don't want you to do that; it's a long season, you got to be sleeping in a bed." But I tell him, "Don't worry, I don't going to be here a long time." So just keeping that [mentality]. Seven days later, they called me up to the big leagues. I said, "Now I gonna get a real bed."

This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the Magazine. Her latest book, Activist: Portraits of Courage, will be published in October. Follow KK on Twitter:  @kkOttesen.

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