It takes a special person to wait as long as Ricardo (Ricky) Valencia did for an opportunity to play and sometimes baseball has a way of rewarding that patience.
Valencia’s selection to the South Atlantic League all-star game played at Columbia, S.C. a couple of weeks ago was all that is right with the minor-league baseball world. At 24, the Valencia, Venezuela native, who signed with the Texas Rangers in 2012, has done everything he’s been asked to do. Unfortunately, through the first half of 2016 very little of that had been during games. He played for four of the Rangers affiliates in 2015, but that totaled 15 games. And that was up from seven games in 2014. Over his first four pro seasons, Valencia played in just 78 pro games.
Injuries to several Crawdads got Valencia out of bullpen catching duties and into the lineup on June 11 at Kannapolis. He walked and doubled in that game, then two days later Valencia singled in a run and walked. The next day he added a single and double. Valencia put together a four-hit game on June 28. His season ended with a six-game hitting streak. His run through the second half of 2016 earned him a chance to play on a regular basis this year.
Playing time aside, Valencia is one of those guys that you want to see succeed. He is a kind soul and here is an example of that. In the interview below, Valencia named a list of those who had helped him improved. After the interview, I walked away to my next task. Ricky caught up to me and wanted to make sure I included Crawdads hitting coach Kenny Hook in his list of mentions.
Valencia is about the team – catching the bullpens, or working with a pitcher through a tough outing, or providing a steady presence in the lineup – he will give his best to help the team succeed. It’s guys like that I love seeing get his own recognition. Our interview happened two days after his all-star selection.
First of all, what was your reaction when you found out you made the all-star team?
Valencia: First of all, I didn’t know about it until my host family texted me and told me, “Congrats”. I didn’t know and then when I found out, I didn’t believe it. This is my sixth year and the first time I’m playing every day and I’m just doing my best. I knew I had some chance to make it, but I still couldn’t believe it. I was so happy that right away I texted my mom and she was so proud and my dad, too, and all my family were really happy for me.
This has to mean a lot more to you because of all the time you put it. You haven’t got to play a lot until this year. Describe what this means to you.
Valencia: it means a lot to me because, first of all, this opportunity I have right now, I’ve been waiting for it since I signed back in 2012. It means a lot to me, because it means that I can actually play. Before, I was only catching bullpens and not even playing was frustrating. But, I knew that I can do it and that’s what I’m showing right now, that I can actually play and do my best every time I go out there on the field. That is a goal that I wanted to achieve this year.
Before the season started and I found out that I was going to be the catcher every day, what I had in my mind was, “okay, I’m going to do my best.” I wasn’t even thinking on making the all-star game, I was just thinking about doing my best for the team. Being the old guy on the team, they expect you to be the leader and talking to the guys, helping them. That was really my focus, to help the team do better every night. That was pretty much what I was thinking from the beginning. But then, when I started good, I was trusting myself that I can do it. This step makes me feel more comfortable and more trusting in myself that I can do good. So, it means a lot to me to make the all-star team.
What was it like to sit so much the last few years and watch other people play and not really get an opportunity to play?
Valencia: It was frustrating, because I know who I am and I know I can do good. It wasn’t sad, because I knew in my mind that at some point I’m going to get an opportunity. I was working really hard, even though I knew I wasn’t playing. I was still working every day and getting my work in and keep faith.
Who was the people that helped you to keep focused, even when you weren’t playing?
Valencia: My mom and my dad, even though we are apart for seven months. Every day they would tell me, “You are good, keep trusting yourself.” Every day they would talk me because I would go back home and be sad. They would tell me, “Ricardo, you’re good; you’re fine. You’re going to get your opportunity. Just keep working hard and you’ll see. You will get the chance, too.”
As far as working on your catching skills, who have you worked with to improve that to get this opportunity.
Valencia: All the catching coaches and coordinators. They focused a lot on me with anything that could help me. Last year, here, I spent a lot of time with Matt Hagen, our assistant coach. He was also our catching coach. I learned a lot from him last year. He talked to me a lot about calling games and all of that.
All the coaches I had before and our old catching coordinator Hector Ortiz, he taught us a lot, and then catching Chris Briones. He was the one that told me to keep working because he knew that I was going to get this opportunity. All of them together, all that information that I got from everybody, it kept me going to get better every day. And then, even though he’s not a catching coach, Sharnol Adriana, anything he could do to help me, he would do it. Also, the pitching coaches, like Jose Jaimes. He helps me a lot with calling games from the pitching side.
Did it ever go through your mind that you wouldn’t get the chance to play every day?
Valencia: Yeah, it went through my mind, because I had never got the chance to play. This year, the fact that I finished up last year playing good baseball, and then I went to play winter ball in Venezuela, and I played really good – and I played with some big leaguers – it helped me to say, “I can do this.”
So, I real prepared myself really good because, in my mind, I told myself, “This is going to be a good year.” I don’t know how, but I knew this was going to be the year. So, I prepared myself really good and working hard every single day during the offseason. I went to spring training focused on doing what I do, not saying, “maybe I’m going to play every day.” No, that wasn’t my thinking. My goal was, I’m going to work as hard as I can every day and do my job and see what happens.
What was the area of your game that you had to work the hardest on to be able to play every day?
Valencia: My body. Last year, I went to spring training at 226 pounds and they at the end of the season told me I can play, but I needed to focus on my body. They said if you can drop some pounds, you may have the chance to play more, because your body can handle that. So, I focused on that and came back at 206 pounds. I dropped 20 pounds just working and putting in some strength in my body. I think that impressed the team more to give me the opportunity, because they saw that I was able to do it.
Everybody’s goal is to get to the major leagues. What do you see as your path to get there?
Valencia: Baseball is not about skills or about how many tools you have, it’s about your mentality of what you can do in the field. Mostly, for me as a catcher, it’s how you handle a game, how you call a game, how you can help the pitchers. Most of the catchers get to the big leagues as good catchers and then they’ll focus on their hitting. You have to be a plus catcher to get to the big leagues, so that is my focus every single day is to be the best catcher.
How’s your throwing?
Valencia: It’s been good. It’s getting better. I’ve been working with Sharnol and Chris Briones. At the beginning of the season I was working on some different things, but then it’s getting altogether and lately it’s been good.
When you go home in September and you go to winter, what’s a good year look like for you?
Valencia: First of all, finish up strong here and then go back to Venezuela and rest up a little bit and then have a good winter ball season. They gave me a chance last year to play and this year hopefully I get more of a chance to play there. Winter ball is a pretty tough league because you play with big league guys, but at the same time that’s good experience.
Do you see yourself coaching or managing some day?
Valencia: A hundred percent, I see myself coaching. I like baseball a lot. I don’t see myself out of those lines. I’ve doing this my entire life since I was three-years old. At some point at my life, I’ll be coaching and I really like managing. I see myself managing at some point.
Have you started to look ahead at those plans and talking to those guys and learning what they do?
Valencia: Not that much. What I do is, I see what they do. I don’t talk that much. I don’t go to them and ask them how they do it, but I see what they do. I’m not going to go to them and say, “Tell me how to coach.” I’m not at that point of my life right now. I want to play as long as I can, but at some point, obviously, in everybody’s career there is an end and that’s when I’ll start asking. But right now, all I see, from any coach and any team I go to, I will take something from them.
What catchers have you learned the most from?
Valencia: Robinson Chirinos. Since I got to the states in 2015 for my first spring training, he’s been there. I just listen to him and watch him and all that. This year, we had a meeting with him and Jonathan Lucroy and I starting learning more from them. Last year during winter ball, I learned a lot from Jesus Sucre – he’s the catcher from Tampa Bay – I learned a lot from him last year because he was the catcher for the winter ball team and I was his backup catcher. He taught me a lot how to call games and helped me a lot with pitch sequences. I learned a lot from him.
Looking ahead as a possible manager, who do you see yourself being like? Who has impressed you as a manger that you might be like?
Valencia: The one that impressed me the most in the big leagues is Jeff Banister. The way he treats the guys, the way he fights for the guys out on the field. I had the opportunity, he had a meeting in the Dominican a couple of years ago when he had his first year with the Rangers. He went to the Dominican and talked to us the same way he talked to the big league guys. That means a lot because he cares for everybody in the organization. It’s just the way he’s in the game. He’s managing, but at the same time it’s like he’s playing. He’s there for everybody and caring for everybody. He’s strong mentally and that impressed me a lot.