This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated. Read it in Spanish here.
When a 22-year-old Marcell Ozuna made his major league debut in 2013, few could imagine how quickly the Dominican-born center fielder would become a bona fide star for the Marlins. Despite a 2015 demotion, Ozuna came back stronger than ever in 2016 and made his first All-Star Game after notching 17 home runs and 47 RBI in the first half of the season.
Ozuna spoke about his transition to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 2008, discrimination in the major leagues, and the players and coaches that most helped his swing.
What was the most difficult thing when you first came to the United States?
The most difficult thing was getting used to speaking in English. When you get to the U.S. you don't have the ability to ask for something or go shopping or do things to support yourself. Thank God you start getting used to things a little bit more every day.
Who helped you?
Well, it was mostly American people. I always spent a lot of time with Americans, learning. I was never afraid to speak or to ask for something. I would ask and they would help me. Thank God at least I learned the basics so I could order food at McDonald's, which was what I ate, or at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
What did you order?
I would say "Number 1 please. Large." I didn't know what I was going to eat. Sometimes I would order things that were spicy because I didn't know. I would leave them and ask for something else. [I asked], 'How do you say 'picante'?' And someone told me 'spicy.' So then I would say, 'No spicy.' So I kept learning more or less what would help me adapt.
Was there ever a time that you wanted to give up and go back to the DR?
Never. Never. I got here in 2008, and thank God I had the opportunity to have teammates who were mostly Latino and they helped me. They had already been here. They would tell me where to go; we'd go to a gas station to get phone cards so you could call your family, and we would all call from one cell phone. I had to borrow it, because at that time I had no cell phone or anything like that. The following year, in 2009, I got a phone and a Bank of America account and from there on I started getting used to things.
Who helped you in that process, getting a phone, opening an account, handling money?
When I went to open my account, I had a teammate named Ernesto Manzanilla, and he went with me to open the account because every time you took a person they gave you $25. I didn't know that. He took me, and from then on, he'd take each one of us, 'let's go open an account' so all the guys would go and open up accounts.
What does it feel like to be a Dominican who made it to the majors?
It makes you feel proud. Every time a Dominican player makes it here to majors, it makes them feel like they have already achieved their dream, they already made it. That's a gift from God, who gives you the chance to play in the major leagues whether it's for a few days or play a year or two. But the hardest thing about this job is staying up here. You have to do it all over again year after year. You can't be lazy for a year or for a few months. You have to [work hard] year after year, all the time, trying to develop that consistency.
Have you ever seen discrimination against Latinos in the minor leagues?
No, the only discrimination is that you have to work harder every day because this business belongs to them.
What do you mean by that?
When a Latin player comes up to the major leagues, they have to work twice as hard, because they come from another country. You don't speak the language, which is paramount in this sport. So you have to get used to the language. So your mind has to work twice as hard, first on doing your work and before that to figure out the language, and protect yourself from some of the questions you're asked. Sometimes you screw up, so it's better to just be quiet if you don't know what is being asked, or ask someone.
What player did you want to be like when you were growing up in the Dominican Republic?
I had four idols: Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero and David Ortiz, and my favorite ballplayer, who I have had the chance to spend time with him and to talk him and ask him questions about the game, Pedro Martinez.
Those are some of the best players in history, not just in the Dominican Republic. What does it mean to have had the opportunity to talk to them?
Those are goals that I had, idols that I had since I was little, and to have been able to play with them is something incredible. I would do nothing more than just watch them every time they hit, every time they played. Manny's attitude was not so bad; he just played so relaxed, and that's something that can help a lot. You can't get all worried if you fail at an at-bat, you can't go crazy the first time you fail, you just have to focus in the fact that you can end up with a good at-bat at the end of the game.
Do you remember the first game in which one of them was on the field?
The first game was against Vladimir Guerrero, in winter ball. That was his last year playing winter ball. I'm talking about 2011, 2012. I had the opportunity to say hello to him and talk to him. He didn't play for long because Licey released him. But I talked to him, and said, 'how are you caballo, you're my idol.' Then the second one that I had the chance to play with was Manny Ramirez, who was with Águilas, in winter ball. He gave me his number and so far we have kept on talking and he always gives me advice.
Did you ever play against David Ortiz?
No, I never played against him in an official major league game, but I did in spring training. When he came here [with the Red Sox] in 2015, I was injured. But I played with him in spring training and we spent time together there. We also run into each other sometimes in the Dominican Republic and we can talk and all that. All good.
After you debuted at age 22, you have improved in the past two seasons, and performed as the Marcell Ozuna that many expected. What has helped?
My career started in a way that I couldn't have even imagined. I was not sure I would be able to come up so fast to the majors. When I got there I did a good job and they gave me the chance. Later on, I think it was in 2014, Seattle came to play against us here. When I got to second base, Robinson Cano said, 'Hey where do you live?' [I said], 'in Boca Chica,' and he said, 'I'm in San Pedro, come on over, I built a new ballpark and all the guys come over.'
He's that kind of person who has that sense to know when someone needs work, to know when a person wants to do something to better himself, and he went out of his way to help me. He recognized that I needed help, and he gave me the opportunity. He said, 'Come over to my ballpark. I start on this day.'
When did you start working with Cano?
After the 2015 season and at the end of the 2016 season. Usually one gets to Santo Domingo at the end of November, and you have a good time with family and all those people. But you start looking for ways to start training. I relaxed for a few days, and we started around Dec. 5. We worked every day, Monday through Friday, for seven weeks. We worked together until early February.
What was your work schedule like every day?
This year, I would get up early, and around 7 a.m. I would go to the gym with Cano. I didn't do it the year before, but this year I included a gym workout and all that. We would work out and then take batting practice. He has a personal pitcher who would throw BP. The day would end around 2, so it was from 7 in the morning until around 2 the afternoon. Luis Mercedes is the hitting coach; he would organize everything. The main hitters would be Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, Eduardo Nunez and me. Welington Castillo was there, too. Gregory Polanco came over for a few days. Leonys Martín was there too for a few days. So was Yasiel Puig. Carlos Santana was there for a few weeks.
When you work alongside players of that caliber, do you learn as much by looking at them as by doing it yourself?
Yes, one learns more. Especially with Luis Mercedes, who has a wonderful eye for that kind of stuff. He would give us a few tips so that we'd be able to execute them when he got here. When I arrived, he said your hands have to be down; try them there. I told him that doesn't feel right, but he told me to do it anyway. I used to hold my bat higher, so I lowered my hands and for a few days it felt kind of uncomfortable, but later it was fine.
Has that been the most important change you've made in your swing?
Yes, because sometimes it makes me feel stronger. I'm able to stay on the pitch a little longer and I feel more focused. I don't make so much movement. It was just a little detail. But the work I did with them has helped me a lot.
How did Barry Bonds help you when he was here?
Sometimes I would say wow, Barry Bonds is my hitting coach! Ever since the first day I started working with him. Working with Barry Bonds was also key for me, because he kept me in a situation that I had to be focused all the time. He always told me you have to focus more on the strike zone and that opened up my mind a little more. I would focus more on pitch selection and have recognition of what is the strike zone. Not swinging at every pitch. In the second half, I got pretty wild, and that's why I didn't perform as well. He was always there reminding me, but there are times when you feel overwhelmed and you just want to figure things out yourself, but thank God he helped me hit well and it led to me playing in my first All-Star Game, which was a dream come true for me.