BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic — In 2010, the kid who could be patrolling the middle infield for the Washington Nationals in the near future was 18 years old, short, scrawny and concerned that time was running out on his dreams of becoming a professional baseball player. The aspirations that began when Wilmer Difo first learned the game from his mother and uncles when he was 7 seemed just out of reach. The hopes of being able to financially help his family and single mother teetered.
Nearly every Dominican boy’s dream of being a big league player starts on the mostly dirt neighborhood fields of this baseball-crazy Caribbean island. Prospective agents and major league teams scour these sandlots looking for talent, and although teams can’t sign prospects until they turn 16, oral agreements are often struck earlier. Such a competitive environment means windows close early, and Difo has plenty of friends who couldn’t sign at 18 or older.
“When you’re 18, people think you don’t have talent; you’re an old man and you get such little money,” Difo said. “I didn’t lower my head.”
Today, Difo is a barrel-chested, speedy middle infield prospect the Nationals value so much they added him to the 40-man roster to protect him from being poached in the Rule 5 draft. The 22-year-old has the chance to become the Nationals’ first homegrown Dominican prospect to reach the majors since the Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez controversy of 2009. He got here by pushing himself hard, and then learning how to not be so hard on himself.
“He’s a very talented, exciting, athletic middle infielder that can hit for power and steal bases,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He has an extremely high ceiling, and he’s going to help the Nationals in the near future.”
Difo’s mother, Carmen Santos, worked as a hair stylist at Centro de Belleza Cibao, a salon in Santiago, the nation’s second-largest city. She earned just enough to feed her family. Carmen and her two boys shared a simple three-bedroom house with her parents and brother. Lunch and dinner was usually the same: rice, beans and plantains.
“The nutrition wasn’t good but there was always food,” Santos said. “To buy equipment, I could never afford it. No cleats, not even a glove. Most of the time, he would practice like that with nothing.”
Difo was allowed to play in local baseball leagues for free. His first baseball glove was a gift from one of his mother’s clients.
When he was nearly 15, another player introduced him to William Valdez — a buscón, essentially a trainer and agent rolled into one. Although Difo was 5-foot-nothing and maybe 140 pounds, Valdez saw potential.
For the next three years, Difo trained under Valdez and went to countless group tryouts for major league teams. Valdez shepherded a group of his players to tryouts, including Difo, in a car or by bus all over the island. Difo would miss school often with his mother’s blessing, the family’s future depending on his baseball success. Sometimes he went to three tryouts in a day, all to chase a dream.
“You’re so tired, but you want to get signed so bad it doesn’t even register,” Difo said.
Valdez often brought Difo uninvited to workouts and talked him up to scouts.
“They were tired of seeing him,” Valdez said.
One of the Nationals’ Dominican scouts, Modesto Ulloa, took interest in Difo after seeing him several times. During a tryout at the Nationals’ academy, they fell in love with Difo when the infielder volunteered to catch a bullpen session for a pitcher when all the catchers were gone.
Difo signed for $20,000. He paid Valdez his commission (typically 25 percent) and bought himself jeans, tennis shoes and nice polo shirts so he could dress like a professional baseball player. Then Difo gave the rest to his mom to pay off all her debts. Difo still sends her $100 to $200 out of his minor league paycheck. Last year, he bought himself and his mom their first cellphones so they could talk and video chat daily.
When he first signed with the Nationals, Difo had little experience lifting weights. But he took to it so much that he had to be dragged out of the weight room. Today he’s 5 feet 11 and 190 pounds and considered pound for pound the strongest player in the Nationals’ minor leagues. Performance-enhancing drugs tempt many aspiring ballplayers, particularly in countries like the Dominican where financial incentives carry even greater weight, but Difo said he eschews so much as the perfectly legal protein shakes that are a staple among skinny teenage Dominican prospects at baseball academies.
“Puro arroz y plátano power,” he said in Spanglish, with a broad smile across his sweaty face while he worked out, which means “pure rice and plantains.” At lunch a few days later in the cafeteria at the Nationals’ Dominican Academy in coastal Boca Chica, Difo had enough rice, beans and Dominican-style chicken piled on a plate to feed three men.
Immediately after signing, Difo played in the Dominican Summer League. The switch-hitter finished the 2011 season in the Gulf Coast League in Florida, his first trip to the United States. His first three seasons went well for a young player but, when he met failure for the first time in 2013, he couldn’t handle it. He hit a combined .217 in 61 games across the GCL, rookie ball Auburn (N.Y.), Hagerstown (Md.) and Class A Potomac.
If Difo struck out in one at-bat, it affected his next. His body language was bad. At one point, minor league coaches were so concerned with Difo’s attitude that Nationals director of international scouting Johnny DiPuglia, who is close with the prospects and is also of Dominican heritage, called Difo in Auburn and told him to get his act together or he would return to the Dominican. In their daily phone calls after games, Difo’s mother reminded her son to stay positive.
“I demand a lot from myself,” Difo said. “When you work really hard and don’t see the results you want, you’re mad at yourself. I wanted to help my family. I always had the pressure of doing well to help them.”
Difo learned to let go of failure in 2014. After showing flashes before, he became a complete and dynamic player, his work in the weight room paying off. He hit .315/.360/.470 with 14 home runs, 90 RBI and 49 stolen bases in 136 games at Hagerstown. After playing mostly at shortstop in previous seasons, he split his time between second and shortstop and was named the South Atlantic League MVP.
“If he comes out of the draft this year as a college junior, he goes in the first round,” DiPuglia said.
The Nationals added Difo to the 40-man roster on Nov. 20. His mother cried when he told her the news. He will be in big league spring training in February despite never playing a game above Class A. Difo likely won’t be ready for the majors for at least two years but his goal is clear: “If I had my way, it’d be this year. I’ve always dreamed big.”
Now that Difo has made a name for himself in his home town, Difo’s mother says people ask her often about her son’s father and if the two are similar. She and Difo don’t ever hear from him. Difo says his father went to the United Sates to work for a telephone company nearly 19 years ago, stayed, started a new life and never returned. Difo doesn’t want to track his father down.
“He left us,” he said. “I’m not going to do that to my family. My mom was my mom and dad. She gave us everything. She worked hard for us, my brother and I, and it wasn’t always easy.”
As Difo lifted weights at the Nationals’ academy two weeks ago, recently signed Dominican prospects taking part in the instructional league stopped and peeked through the window to watch him work out. When Difo hit, players took note. During an instructional league game, Difo sat near the dugout and talked with players who looked like him four years ago.
“I want to inspire any kid from here or any team who has a dream and show them that the bonus doesn’t matter, their size doesn’t matter or you don’t have to have much growing up,” he said. “Sometimes people doubt you. Just trust in God and the talent you’ve got.”