SANTO DOMINGO ESTE, Dominican Republic
Victor Robles led the way to the one-room apartment on the corner of Calle 8 and Calle 17, behind a food stand called Cafetería Estela. A rush of memories followed.
Inside that dark and dank 10-foot-by-10-foot space, he had to picture the bunk bed in one corner where all three of them slept — Robles and his mother on the bottom bed, his brother on the top — but most everything else was the same. The small bathroom and closet separated by curtains. The door on the side leading to an alleyway. The smell of fried food lingering from the adjacent room.
“We come from a humble family,” Robles said in Spanish. “I saw my mom suffer a lot, and that was one of the things that motivated me.”
When Robles returned one recent morning, he was a 20-year-old man — a husband and a budding baseball star. He had with him his family and his new wife, Diannelis, whom he married a few months after he became the youngest player to appear in the major leagues in the 2017 season, last September.
He wore his Washington Nationals playoff jersey, a crisp white pair of Jordan XIIIs and glistening gold jewelry. A stout 6-foot center fielder with a radiant smile, he’s on the cusp of stardom in a foreign land, a future Nationals building block other organizations covet and one who could diminish the sting should Bryce Harper depart in free agency next winter. But, here, he’s still one of them.
He mingled with friends and family and acquaintances, doling out hugs, kisses and handshakes. Stardom may be around the corner, but to everyone here he’s still that skinny boy with the unrelenting energy who washed cars to pay to play baseball when he wasn’t playing baseball.
“The best of it all is he hasn’t changed,” his father, also named Victor Robles, said in Spanish. “He’s always low-profile and humble. He’s always friendly with his friends. He hasn’t changed. He’s stayed real.”
A cousin lives in that tiny room now. Robles may not have changed, but his fortunes have. Standing there, he could vividly recall his mother raising two boys in 100 square feet, but life was different when he headed out the door. His mother’s new house, the one Victor bought for her, was just a quick drive and a world away.
A project worth investing in
Joel Manzanillo wanted to make his point crystal clear so he summoned a slender boy, one of the 20 teenagers he trains, away from the pack.
“Montero, come over here,” Manzanillo called out in Spanish. “Stand right there.”
The boy abruptly stopped what he was doing and shyly walked over to a spot behind the rusty fence as instructed. The boy is 14 or, as people in Dominican baseball circles quantify a prospect’s time on Earth, two years away from being eligible to sign with a Major League Baseball team.
“He was like that boy almost,” Manzanillo said, pointing to the teenager. “A little bit stronger. . . .
“He was incredible. He had ability with fire — and with the desire to be a baseball player.”
Manzanillo was reminiscing about Robles, the best player he’s ever trained since he began grooming teenagers at this run-down baseball diamond in Urbanización Italia in 2000. Robles showed up when he was 13, though his athletic pursuit began years earlier on the street playing la plaquita, a Dominican cricket-style game consisting of two teams of two players, two bases (usually just empty cans or bottles), two bats (often just sticks) and a small ball (sometimes just a bottle cap).
“He was good,” Robles’s brother, Cristofer, said in Spanish. “He attacked all the time. And from there, people said, ‘Have him play baseball! Have him play baseball! That boy can play!’ ”
Robles’s parents divorced when he was young, but his father remained in his life, and he said both made the sacrifices necessary for him to begin playing organized baseball when he was 9. His favorite player was former Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. He saw Ortiz on television and liked the hulking slugger’s swagger — how he carried himself on and off the field, how he interacted with his teammates. He began calling himself David Ortiz pequeño — little David Ortiz.
But Robles didn’t resemble a little David Ortiz. When he arrived to play under Manzanillo, the trainer put him at shortstop — and quickly realized he didn’t fit there because Robles couldn’t control his body.
“He was too fast,” Manzanillo said. “He couldn’t stop to get the groundballs. So, I said, ‘Let’s move you.’ He was like, ‘No! Don’t move me.’ I thought, let’s make it easy. You can go between shortstop and outfield. But that was so I could make the change. I convinced him that way. He switched between shortstop and outfield, shortstop and outfield. Until, after two months, he only wanted to be an outfielder. He converted in two months.”
The difference between Robles and his peers, Manzanillo insists, was his intelligence. Yes, he had standout raw ability, but he retained information instantly. By the time Robles was 15, Manzanillo said, he was a finished product, ready for a fat bonus from a big league club.
It was around then that Modesto Ulloa, the Nationals’ lead scout in the Dominican Republic, first saw the lively teenager. Ulloa remembered Robles was skinny, so skinny he resembled a horse jockey more than a baseball player. But he saw the vigor and desire. He reminded Ulloa of Sammy Sosa before Sosa bulked up and became a prolific home run hitter. Ulloa knew Sosa well. Robles had that spark. He just needed seasoning.
“He was raw, raw,” Ulloa said in Spanish. “Everything he did was like, I don’t know, a crazy person. But he did it. He was a horse without brakes.”
Ulloa badly wanted to sign Robles. The obstacle was convincing the team. A couple months before he was eligible, Robles moved to an academy a few hours away, one that had the resources Manzanillo couldn’t provide, for his finishing touches. Ulloa followed, and the Nationals eventually brought him to their academy for a tryout. Club officials remember Robles trying to throw the ball so hard that he’d instead spike it into the ground a few feet in front of him.
When balls were hit over his head, “he wanted to climb the wall to get the ball,” Ulloa said. “We were practicing at a field with a wall, not a fence. It was concrete. We were worried he was going to kill himself.”
Robles’s camp sought an $800,000 signing bonus. The Nationals rebuffed, unconvinced that Robles was worth anything close to that, and Ulloa grew desperate. He fought for Robles, pleading his case to Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals’ vice president of international operations. He threatened to resign. Rumor has it that he was so stressed, he barely ate anything for three days.
“If it wasn’t for [Ulloa], the Nationals wouldn’t have signed me,” Robles said. “They didn’t want me because they said I was too electric. But Modesto said he prefers electric and taking some back than having someone who isn’t electric and needing to give him energy. Because you can’t give a person energy.”
Robles’s price eventually dropped to $225,000, and, in part to appease Ulloa, DiPuglia approved the expense. Robles was the second-most expensive international player the Nationals signed that year — they gave $900,000 to third baseman Anderson Franco, who was considered the better prospect. Franco, also 20, hasn’t advanced beyond Class A. Robles was considered a project, one that required refining more than most.
“He was crude, but he was a Home Depot toolshed,” DiPuglia said. “He had every tool you wanted. He just had so much energy that he had trouble focusing. You always had to tone him down. That was my concern. But Modesto was very adamant.”
‘He left but he’s stayed with us’
To Héctor Manuel Marte, Victor Robles was always a baseball player. It’s why Robles worked for him in the first place. Baseball never interested Marte, but he heard about Robles’s talents in the neighborhood and when Robles would show up at Chavita Car Wash, down the street from his grandmother’s house, to earn money for baseball expenses.
Robles said he began working 10-hour weekend days when he was 12, washing around 20 cars a day on average. He would usually get a 30 percent cut — 50 percent on a good day — and save up to pay the 800 Dominican pesos (around $18) to sign up for a baseball season. His mother bought him a pair of cleats every few years, but he had to borrow gloves from teammates. He didn’t get his own glove until Frankie de la Cruz, a former big leaguer who often visited Manzanillo, gave him one. Robles was 15.
Kids in his neighborhood don’t have to worry about those resources anymore. Robles goes to the ballpark in Urbanización Italia during the offseason with equipment to donate. Montero, the thin teenager who reminded Manzanillo of Robles, was wearing a pair of Adidas cleats with “VR” stitched on the heel.
“Everything they have is his,” Manzanillo said. “He left, but he’s stayed with us, and he comes and helps the kids. He’s the best, and if he stays like that, humble, God is going to take him to where he can go.”
The hype was real when Robles arrived in Washington last September as the best homegrown Dominican prospect in Nationals history, drawing comparisons to former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen as he became a consensus top-10 prospect across baseball. He proceeded to meet the lofty expectations, needing just 13 games at the highest level to convince his bosses he deserved a spot on the playoff roster.
“He’s going to be a force for us in the very near future,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said.
Robles has curbed that tenacious energy some, though not completely. He wouldn’t be Victor Robles without it. So when he appeared in the Nationals’ clubhouse for the first time, after ripping through the organization’s farm system in 31/2 seasons, it came with him. He said teammates and coaches sometimes laughed, thinking he was crazy, but the energy stuck — even after he was tagged out sliding past third base attempting to stretch his first career hit into a triple.
“I told him don’t change on me,” Manzanillo said. “Stay like that. Have that be your rhythm all the time. The worst would be letting the gringos stop you.”
A group of family members and friends watched his first career hit at a sports bar back home. They erupted when they saw Robles lash a curveball off the right-center field wall and dash like a madman around the bases a couple thousand miles away at Nationals Park. To them, he was still the spunky, skinny kid from el barrio. He was still one of them.
“It fills everybody here with pride,” Marcia Brito said in Spanish of her son, who’s expected to begin the 2018 season with Class AAA Syracuse to play every day. “He’s achieved what he’s always wanted.”
Brito’s unabashed motherly delight is strewn all over her living room. Robles’s South Atlantic League all-star jersey hangs in the middle of one wall. Photos and newspaper clippings from his rapid rise as the Nationals’ top prospect surround it. There’s a shrine to him in one corner — an end table with two framed photos, two candles and a vase with blue flowers. Behind the vase is Cristofer’s eighth-grade diploma. Nearly everything else in the room commemorates Victor’s exploits as a professional baseball player.
Robles bought her that yellow house just over two years ago. It’s modest. It’s not a penthouse atop a luxury apartment building or a mansion tucked away in a gated community. It has three bedrooms with a spacious front patio. It’s in the same neighborhood he was raised, a short walk from the baseball field where he honed his craft as a preteen and a five-minute drive from the dark and dank 10-by-10 room.
It’s everything his mother ever wanted and more.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Kelvin Gutierrez received a $900,000 signing bonus. It was Anderson Franco. It also stated that Robles will begin the season with Class AAA Harrisburg. It will be Class AAA Syracuse.