Mike Rizzo once had to deconstruct the entire Nationals academy in the Dominican Republic, flying down for a whirlwind trip in which he extricated players and was left to find somewhere to start anew. His top man in the Dominican, Johnny DiPuglia, has overseen the growth of the Nationals’ international scouting presence from ineffectual to a force to be reckoned with, a system that molded future big leaguers like Reynaldo Lopez, Wilmer Difo, Pedro Severino, Victor Robles and, now, Juan Soto.
Both Rizzo and DiPuglia smiled as they left Nationals Park together Monday night, having watched the latest of those big leaguers, Juan Soto, become the first teenager to homer in the big leagues since Bryce Harper did it in 2012. He is the latest in a group of promising Dominican players that is as talented as it is meaningful to the burgeoning Nationals academy in their home country. Members of the Nationals coaching staff put the game on for those players, who watched Soto’s debut from a room in that academy. When Soto homered, the room exploded.
Rizzo, not prone to sentimentality, said he got goose bumps when he saw the video. Nationals players reacted positively on Twitter, liking the footage as soon as they saw it — the modern day equivalent of a smile. Dave Martinez, who did not see the video but watched Soto round the bases live, said the teenager didn’t know what to do when the crowd kept clapping and clapping after the swing. He, Michael A. Taylor and others urged Soto to step out and acknowledge the crowd with the first teenage curtain call here since Harper’s in 2012.
“The smile, the joy out of his face. It’s what baseball is all about,” Gio Gonzalez said. “Just being so young and enjoying the moment. 19 years old, I don’t even know where I was at 19, just getting to high-A or something like that. It’s unbelievable. That’s a pretty cool story.”
Veteran Mark Reynolds, who was on the Diamondbacks when Justin Upton debuted at 19, said he appreciates moments like these more than he would have then — now that his career is years along, and nearly ended this winter.
“I think sometimes in the past I’d maybe take it for granted that I was here,” Reynolds said. “Now I reflect a lot more and really cherish every moment that I have because after this offseason, I don’t know how many more I’m going to have. But to see him come and do what he’s doing at 19 is crazy. ”
But if the home run meant something to all those who saw it life, it seems to mean a whole lot more who watched from afar, on a television at the academy in the Dominican Republic where Juan Soto was a hopeful teenager not too long ago.
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