The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Nationals prospect Josh Palacios is dancing in Rochester

Josh Palacios has brought a lot of energy and excitement to the Rochester Red Wings, the Nationals' Class AAA affiliate. (Joe Territo/Rochester Red Wings)
Placeholder while article actions load

Dancing his way down the third base line on a homer, doing another little something after hitting a double, Josh Palacios isn’t asking for forgiveness. He’s not expecting it, either, even if baseball’s long-held code says a player has to “make it” before being himself — if, that is, being himself means acting outside a White standard set in the 19th century. Palacios doesn’t laugh or scoff at being asked whether he feels he’s permitted to act the way he does on the base paths. He just doesn’t give it much thought.

For Palacios, Frontier Field, where he plays for the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings, may as well be a dusty patch of dirt and grass in Brooklyn’s Red Hook Park. Rogers Centre, where he played for the Toronto Blue Jays last season, may as well be the Parade Ground of Prospect Park, where he talked trash with the same dudes he went to middle and high school with. Palacios, a native of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, grew up shouting and smiling his way through intense baseball games, bragging rights on the line, anything and everything goes.

So, no, he’s not changing now, not because the outfielder is with a new organization or on the edge of reclaiming his dream.

“If I only did this when I got to the show, then I would be fake, right?” Palacios, 26, said in a recent phone interview. In 13 games with Rochester, he has two homers, three doubles and a .356 batting average, a .442 on-base percentage and a .556 slugging percentage. The Washington Nationals claimed him off waivers from the Blue Jays in mid-April, liking his high contact rates, left-handed bat and defensive versatility.

And this week, as they had to crunch their 40-man roster down, they kept Palacios on it, hoping to test him in the majors at some point. It helped that, in his Red Wings debut, Palacios finished with a homer, two singles, two walks, a steal and walk-off hit.

“I would feel like it was just an act if I saved it for the highest level. That’s not me,” Palacios said. “Being raised in New York, every game felt like the World Series. In order to play, though, it’s not easy. It’s not convenient. You have to be taking trains and buses all across the city, going hours left and right. So when we get there, everybody treats it like the biggest thing ever. Every strikeout, every catch, it’s exciting. There’s a lot of noise. That’s why I’m so comfortable having that flair and passion and emotion.”

When he homers, as he did in his first two games with Rochester, Palacios does the Griddy between third and home. When he doubles, a quick dance move pays tribute to Pop Smoke, a Brooklyn rapper who died in 2020. Since Palacios was a kid, baseball has been about expressing himself and his family. His dad, Richard, made it to the low levels of the minors. His uncle, Rey, played in parts of three seasons with the Kansas City Royals. His brother, Richie, debuted for the Cleveland Guardians in April.

On their first phone call, De Jon Watson, the Nationals’ head of player development, formally welcomed Palacios to the club. But when Watson saw him in Rochester, he issued a challenge in a way Palacios was used to.

“Your brother just get to the majors?” Watson recalled asking Palacios last month. “Come on now, brother, we have to get you going. Can’t be letting little bro have all the fun.”

To land with the Blue Jays in the first place, Palacios had to do a bit more than most amateur players. The star of an undefeated high school team, then the athlete of the year in New York City, he drew interest from nearby Stony Brook and few other Division I programs. From scouts and coaches, he often heard compliments offset by the word “but.”

You’re a great player but not in an area with much talent. You can hit, but it’s against pitchers in the Northeast. But could you thrive in Florida or California or anywhere warmer?

Palacios wasn’t deterred. Instead, he went to San Jacinto College and hit his way to a scholarship from Auburn. The Cincinnati Reds selected him out of San Jacinto in the 31st round in 2014. Two years later, the Blue Jays drafted him out of Auburn in the fourth.

“He plays like someone who was doubted,” said infielder Lucius Fox, a Red Wings teammate who befriended Palacios as an opponent in the minors. “I just love the way he doesn’t seem to care what others think. It’s fun and it’s really exciting, even when you’re going against him. I watched him from the other side and just thought, ‘I want to be on his team.’ ”

Palacios says that, at its core, the dancing is about firing up his teammates. Another reason for it, though, is making the most of any and all time on the field. In 2020, the minor league season canceled, he spent the whole summer doing the same drills at the Blue Jays’ alternate site. In 2021, he broke his hand on two occasions and appeared in only 32 games, 13 of them for Toronto.

He blinked, and his life’s work was gone. He promised himself that he would get there again soon. When healthy, Palacios has always hit and positioned himself as a call away from the majors. He just knows that next call isn’t guaranteed.

“If I’m playing baseball, I’m being me through and through,” he said. “I don’t see another choice.”