MEXICO CITY – Esteban Quiroz recalled the time he nervously approached one of his favorite baseball players. He asked Jose Altuve if he could stand next to him. Perhaps it was his way of sizing up the opponent.
It was a warm, humid March evening in Guadalajara, Mexico, before the host’s clash against Venezuela in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. The 5-foot-6 Altuve --the shortest player in baseball-- laughed at Quiroz's gesture, who seemingly turned out to be an inch taller. The second baseman for Team Mexico had been hitting well at the tournament, and thrilled by his encounter with Altuve, he smacked a three-run homer in his side's 11-8 win over the favored Venezuelans.
“[Altuve] told me I hit with the power of a bigger player,” Quiroz said.
Quiroz would finish the WBC hitting .667 with two home runs, five RBIs and five runs in three games, before beginning play with the Mexican summer league’s Leones de Yucatan. Altuve would go on to win the AL MVP and the World Series.
A year after their encounter, Quiroz made it to the Boston Red Sox spring training camp in Florida. A non-roster invitee, he auditioned for a spot with the big club before he was cut from the major league roster on March 10, reassigned to minor league camp after hitting .158 with one home run and five RBIs. The Red Sox are looking at second basemen as they are without regular starter Dustin Pedroia until mid-May, at least.
“God willing, I’m giving it all out there and hoping for the best,” Quiroz said. “People talk a lot about adapting, the way I see it is, I have to perform, and it doesn’t matter where I’m playing, the Mexican league or the big leagues.”
“It became a personal mission of my own to look at worthwhile players in Mexico,” said Marcus Cuellar, player personnel assistant for the Red Sox, and one of the men who initially scouted Quiroz in Mexico. “One of the things I was asked to do was be stronger in Mexico and look at guys who might warrant a shot.”
Hailing from Ciudad Obregon (population: 405,000) in the northern Mexico state of Sonora, Quiroz found a familiar face at the Red Sox’s compound in Fort Myers. Pitcher Hector Velazquez was born and raised in the same Mexican town as Quiroz.
“I’ve known Hector for years. We came up through the same [youth] leagues,” Quiroz said.
Although Ciudad Obregon is a relatively small town, it has a penchant for producing major leaguers, seven to be exact, including New York Yankees pitcher Giovanny Gallegos and former outfielder Karim García, perhaps best known for his part in the infamous brawl in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS between the Yankees and Red Sox. If Quiroz makes it eight, Ciudad Obregon will equal Tijuana as Mexico’s biggest producer of big league ballplayers.
“Maybe there’s something in the water out there,” said Cuellar. “When we found out they had some familiarity in the past, we asked Hector to show him the ropes.”
Velazquez, a 29-year-old right-hander, went 3-1 with a 2.92 ERA in eight appearances (three starts) for the Red Sox last season, splitting time between the majors and Triple-A Pawtucket. Quiroz says he has already leaned on the pitcher for advice this spring.
“It’s mostly the basic stuff: where the facilities are, how to get around, who to talk to for certain things,” Quiroz said.
Signed out of the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol prior to the 2017 season, Velazquez stresses consistency above all else.
“This is one of the best organizations in baseball. One of the most recognizable teams worldwide,” Velazquez said. “I’ve always been a hard worker, but you have to be more disciplined here, punctual. It’s all about attitude.”
So far this spring, Velazquez is 2-0 in four starts and is in line to win a spot in the rotation should regular starter Drew Pomeranz not be able to return from injury. For Cuellar, who scouted both Quiroz and Velazquez, attitude is a big part of why both players have a chance to become regular contributors.
“We want guys to have confidence and are willing to come in and prove themselves," he said. “In their minds, they are ready to go. They want to step off the plane and go into Fenway Park on Day 1. We liked that about them.”
Whether Quiroz gets his day at Fenway, of course, depends in large part on whether he’s able to produce in the minors. Aside from his preferred position, Quiroz can also play shortstop or third base if called upon. So far, Quiroz has gained positive reviews for his performance and work ethic.
“His talent and track record warrants an opportunity to play in the United States,” said Cuellar.
Assuming all goes well for Quiroz, and he is called up, the second baseman is surely aware about May 31, the date for the first scheduled regular season meeting between the Red Sox and Altuve’s Astros.
“First, I have to find my way to get on the team and show everyone what I can offer,” Quiroz said. “Everybody had to start somewhere, even Altuve.”