The following is a story that I wrote about Valencia, Spain’s club baseball team, the Club de Béisbol Astros, during my recent month-long studying trip in the country.
Adrian Porres has vivid memories of his first baseball experience – he steps up to home plate with bat in hand, takes his stance and anticipates the white blur of the ball. It whooshes through the air. He tries to knock it out of the park.
He was 11 years old.
Most youth learn America’s greatest pastime with friends and family. Seldom are the moments when that little kid approaches home plate and instead locks eyes with a different figure at the pitcher’s mound – a veteran of the sport, a man. He’s neither friend nor family. He has no intention of instructing the youngster about the nuances of the game. He’s there for blood.
It had only been a few years later for Porres, but the little kid learning how to strike fastballs with the front of his bat was now throwing down with people almost twice his age.
“I was 16 at that time, and I was playing with men,” said Porres, now a 29-year-old. “It was scary for me […] It opened my eyes and made me say, ‘This is baseball.’”
Porres joined the Club de Béisbol Astros, Valencia’s club baseball team, when he was 13. He has been with the club since the beginning in 2001. The baseball team competes in the División de Honor, the top league in Spain. It’s not out of the ordinary to have boys versus men.
It might seem as if Porres jumped into the competition right away, but he had some help.
Raul Rosell is currently the 37-year-old vice president and third baseman of the Astros who co-founded the team with the club’s head coach and president, Juan Garcia. He trains the young talent on the roster, among them Porres.
Rosell said he saw Porres’s determination to better his skills.
“With him, it’s apparent that this is a relationship that’s filled with kindness and respect,” Rosell said, translated from Spanish. “He looks at me like his trainer.”
Rosell began his baseball career at 11, just like Porres. Similarly, they are among the few people who are still around since the club’s inception.
The Astros steadily grew during their first few years, but turmoil came in 2005.
That season was the club’s first in the Division de Honor. Rosell said there was an imbalance – the lower division had been easy, but now the higher division proved to be too much.
The players were competing in matches on a weekly basis. Every contest in the 32-game season was a true test of the Astros’ abilities. Each game, each inning, each play– the players were hoping to simply secure some type of victory in their division.
The win never came , and the Astros finished the season 0–32.
“It was crazy,” Porres said. “You would go everywhere knowing that you were going to lose.”
An overhaul would be necessary if the team would ever be successful, let alone win a game.
Coach Garcia attributed the poor play to a lack of strategy and fundamentals. The club had been around for four years at the time, and the players lacked the ability to get a good steal, a good jump, a hit-and-run and a game plan for the batter’s box.
“You need to know what needs to be done at any given moment, and to do that, you have to know the game,” Garcia said. “It takes time. This is a very difficult game. There are so many intricacies. There are so many things to learn.”
Competitors overwhelmed the Astros with their strength at the bat and on the mound, Garcia added. Porres said seeing a pitch at 90 miles per hour, although now common practice, was almost unprecedented at the time for those who had exclusively watched Valencia baseball.
The team’s lack of play outside of the city contributed to the inexperience.
“We were all so young and trying to learn,” Rosell said. “It was a play of baseball that, here in Valencia, we had no experience with […] In that time, we didn’t understand the appropriate strategies of the sport.”
The team did manage to fare better the following season by improving its record to a whopping 1–31. It might as well still have been 0–32, because frustration was starting to set in, especially for Porres who was still trying to find his worth on the baseball field.
“Sometimes, I thought about leaving baseball because I was frustrated, and I was feeling I couldn’t do it anymore,” Porres said. “I [could] not hit. I [could] not do anything. It was frustrating, not only for me, but also my teammates.”
Garcia said those two seasons were difficult, but he always emphasized aiming for reachable goals as a team. He said Porres was a young prospect with plenty of potential, but he still needed to dedicate more time to improving his game.
“Believe me– it’s easier to coach now than it was back then,” he said. “I always try to emphasize attainable goals as a team, but some players just need time to mature.”
Porres used the emotions from those two seasons to his advantage and started training even more. He said he had aspirations of becoming a professional player, and the only way to accomplish the task was to continue improving his skill.
If the team wasn’t going to get better, at least he would, Porres said.
But he also understood that becoming successful involved getting a sense of how things are on the other side of the spectrum. There is failure before success.
“We were new, and at some point, we had to pass through that before becoming a winning team,” Porres said.
And, surely, the victories did start coming in.
As the years progressed, one win became a few wins and so on and so forth. The team began learning the fundamentals Garcia had been emphasizing throughout the seasons. Players became more experienced, and new recruits that were signing with the club had potential.
The Astros were starting to leave the thoughts of 0–32 and 1–31 in the dust much like a runner does when he sprints for home base.
“Little by little, we have grown to the point where we have very solid players,” Rosell said. “We are very happy with our growth. We’re at a point during our time where our growth has now become exponential.”
But the past has a way of showing up again, and the Astros were reminded of their vulnerability despite recent success in the past decade and season.
The team led the standings throughout the entirety of the 2017 Federations Cup, a European baseball tournament in the Division de Honor held annually from June 13 to June 18, with a clean win record of 5–0.
All of that changed in one fateful Sunday game.
On the final day of the competition, the Borgerhout Squirrels, a team from Belgium who were on par with the Astros during the tournament record-wise, earned a 4–2 victory over the Astros during the championship game on June 18. It snapped the Astros’ five-game winning streak in the tournament.
It was a narrow defeat for a team that had its eyes set on victory, and it certainly served as a gut punch after the players reached so far and finished the tournament by such a close margin, but it harkened back to the lessons learned during those two tumultuous seasons years back.
“Despite the fact that we are a winning team, we always try to be humble persons,” Porres said. “Always try to work as hard as we can. Always try to work harder than our opponent. Don’t take the season for granted. Don’t think we’re going to win the season for sure. So we always try to work harder than our opponents. Just try to be humble and keep going.”
His mindset has remained much the same since he first started. He still hopes to become professional, and he still holds the passion for the game.
As far as he’s concerned, Porres is a baseball player for life.
“I don’t really believe in religion, but if I believed […] I would say that baseball is my religion,” he said. “So, I try to keep myself here in the field because this is my life […] Sometimes I felt that I had to leave because I felt I couldn’t do it anymore because of timing and stuff, but I can’t leave it. I love baseball. It’s my life.”