There’s a New York Yankees coach named Tony Pena. He was an All-Star catcher when he played in the major leagues, the only All-Star catcher ever born in the Dominican Republic.

When you ask him why there’s only been one, he first says, “Don’t ask me that question.” Then he points across the Yankees clubhouse, at the corner where 23-year-old Gary Sanchez is sitting in front of his locker.

“There’s one coming up,” he says.

There’s a major league scout who grew up as a Yankees fan and has long followed the Yankees farm system while working for a rival team. You ask him about Sanchez, and he points to Monument Park.

“That’s where he could end up,” the scout says.

You see, it’s not only fans and writers who are caught up in the Sanchez craze. It’s real, because while no one could rightly expect 19 home runs in the first 45 games of his major league career (no one had ever done that), plenty of people who know Sanchez best have long believed he would succeed, and succeed big. 

His path to the big leagues hasn’t always been smooth, but the benchings and suspensions and “time outs” can easily give the wrong impression about a kid who signed at 16 for $3 million and simply needed to grow up.

“He’s always been a good guy in the clubhouse,” said pitcher Bryan Mitchell, who signed with the Yankees a month before Sanchez and saw him at every level, starting in the rookie Gulf Coast League in 2010. “You always want that guy on your team.”

As Andrew Marchand wrote in a fantastic story on Sanchez’s development, becoming a father two years ago helped Sanchez move from sometimes-immature kid to fast-developing man.

“When he got the baby, that changed his life,” Sanchez’s friend Francisco Arcia told Marchand. “He thought about what he has to do.”

He had to do a lot, because modern data-driven baseball puts more pressure on young catchers than on any other players. They need to understand scouting reports but also adjust from them. They also need to understand pitchers, a difficult enough task even when they speak the same language and share a culture.

Sanchez had to learn all that, including English, because he barely spoke the language when he first showed up in the minor leagues. He still uses an interpreter for interviews now, although teammates say his command of the language is more than adequate.

In fact, when Masahiro Tanaka was asked what language he and Sanchez communicate in (since both use interpreters), he said they speak English. When he was then asked who speaks the language better, Tanaka quickly pointed across the room.

“Sanchez!” he said.

The language was a challenge, but so was the position. The best young players in the Dominican Republic simply don’t go behind the plate, and neither did Sanchez, at first.

He was a third baseman as a kid and only became a catcher when a coach suggested his strong arm might fit better behind the plate.

“At first, I didn’t like it,” he said. “Eventually, I came to like it.”

With few Dominican-born catchers to use as role models, Sanchez said he watched Ivan Rodriguez and Jorge Posada (both Puerto Rican) and Jason Varitek.

“The money [in the Dominican Republic] goes to infielders and outfielders,” he said. “When you grow up there and have a coach, they want to teach you third base, shortstop, second base. There aren’t too many catchers.”

He was still raw when he signed. His manager at Single-A Staten Island, former major league catcher Josh Paul, told Marchand that Sanchez “couldn’t catch a fastball down the middle” when he played for him in 2010. Paul, now a minor league catching instructor with the Yankees, also told Marchand, “I’ve never seen anyone work harder on a baseball field [than Sanchez did last year].”

That work ethic stands in contrast to some of the stories told about Sanchez. Even now, he has to fight the tag that he’s sometimes lazy.

“If somebody doesn’t know you, and they see you one time, it’s hard to have that judgment,” Sanchez said. “When you go through a season with them, they know.”

The ones who knew told the Yankees front office that Sanchez was a keeper, a potential star worth sticking with. But Yankees general manager Brian Cashman admitted to Billy Witz of the New York Times he listened to trade offers for Sanchez as recently as last summer.

“I’m glad for my sake that I didn’t do it,” Cashman told Witz. “All the people guiding me through the process were saying: ‘This guy’s going to get there. He’s going to be the difference-maker. He’s going to be special.'”

A year later, everybody can see that. But others saw it before Sanchez began hitting home runs in the big leagues.

There was the umpire in the Double-A Eastern League who made time at the end of the 2014 season to go find the Trenton Thunder coaching staff. He knocked on the office door, just to deliver a message.

“That kid made more progress this year than anyone in this league,” the umpire told them.

There was Carlos Subero, the Milwaukee Brewers first base coach who managed Sanchez in the Arizona Fall League last October.

“I’m as high on this guy as anybody could be,” Subero said.

The fall league is filled with prospects from every organization, but it can also be grueling. Almost every player in it has already been through a full season, and by the time the championship game is played the Saturday before Thanksgiving, everyone just wants to get out of there and go home.

Well, not everyone.

“Eleven o’clock, the night before the championship game, I get a text from Gary,” Subero said. “He’s sent me what he thinks my whole lineup should be for the next day, and not only where they should hit but why. Everyone wanted to go home, but Gary wanted to win.

“That’s who Gary Sanchez is. I told my wife, that’s why this kid is going to be an All-Star.”

That’s one reason, for sure, to go along with the power that enabled him to hit 19 home runs in just 166 major league at-bats this season and the arm that has already erased nine baserunners. (Did you see the one he threw out from his knees?)

Subero noticed how smart a hitter Sanchez already is, something Yankees manager Joe Girardi has also referred to. He noticed how diligent Sanchez is at controlling a game and working with pitchers, something Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild has mentioned.

“He’s not afraid to take charge, and that’s sometimes hard when you have a young catcher working with veteran pitchers,” Rothschild said. “It’s been good to see.”

Rothschild also praised Sanchez’s game-calling ability, another rare quality in a young catcher in the big leagues.

A few scouts still pick at things Sanchez needs to work on, though, especially with his receiving skills. But one scout marveled at a pitch Sanchez blocked, a split-finger fastball from Mitchell that bounced on the edge of the batter’s box.

“Only Pudge [Rodriguez] and [Yadier] Molina block that ball,” the scout said.

Rodriguez played in 14 All-Star Games and has a good chance at being voted into the Hall of Fame this winter, the first time he’s eligible. Molina is a seven-time All-Star likely headed for Cooperstown, as well.

Sanchez played in the All-Star Futures Game each of the last two years. He was an All-Star in the Eastern League in 2014, in the Florida State League in 2013 and in the South Atlantic League in 2012.

If you had to pick an American League All-Star team right now, he might make it.

You wonder if things will change, if kids in the Dominican Republic will see Sanchez and say they want to catch, they want to be him.

For now, though, Sanchez is the best bet. Only five Dominican-born catchers played even one game in the major leagues this season, and only Welington Castillo of the Arizona Diamondbacks—hardly a star—played regularly all season.

The other World Team catcher in the Futures Game, Cleveland Indians prospect Francisco Mejia, was born in the Dominican Republic but has yet to advance past the Single-A level.

Sanchez is already a star, if not yet an All-Star.

“He’s gotten better every year,” said Mitchell, who has seen all the progress close-up.

He’s 23, two years younger than Pena was when he made the first of his five All-Star teams in 1982. Pena was the first Dominican catcher in the All-Star Game.

Thirty-four years later, he’s still the only one.

There’s one coming up.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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