In so many ways, Mauricio Dubon’s ascent to the big leagues has been unusual.
Point No. 1 is simple: No major league player has ever been born-and-raised in Honduras. On Sunday, the Milwaukee Brewers prospect became the first.
The rest is more complicated. It’s a matter of perspectives, and Dubon has had many.
Minor league baseball is a system marked by vast inequality, and Dubon has experienced it from all sides. He’s been an outsider, an underdog and a nobody who can barely afford his own equipment. He’s come out the other end, then been knocked down a few pegs and forced to fight his way back. Along the way, he’s seen up close what life is like for players with more fortune and players without.
On Sunday, the Brewers called up the 24-year-old for his major league debut.
“I’m blessed,” he told the Associated Press during spring training in Phoenix.
It all started with one exceptional bit of good luck, and a bold and difficult decision.
Unlike most international baseball prospects, Dubon wasn’t discovered by a scout. His journey to the U.S. was started by a chaperone for a Christian mission group that was donating baseball equipment in Honduras. Dubon was 15 when he met Andy Ritchey, who was struck by the youngster’s strong arm and fast feet. A few days after their first meeting, Dubon was on a plane, ready to start a new life with the Ritchey family in Sacramento, California.
That was the first major stroke of luck for Dubon, but it also presented a most difficult challenge. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he was in a foreign country, removed from everyone in his life to that point. Though he knew some English, language was still an issue. But the homesickness is what left him crying each night.
Dubon told himself it would be worth it if it meant a chance at an American baseball career. The Boston Red Sox made that dream a reality, selecting Dubon in the 26th round of the 2013 draft.
Dubon turned 19 that summer, and after signing his contract, he played out the season with the club’s rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate. His transition to pro ball wasn’t as jarring for some teammates. The team housed players in a hotel near its complex in Fort Myers, Florida, and Dubon saw many players fighting the same homesickness he experienced moving to Sacramento.
“They’d never been away from their parents until then,” he said. “Going there and struggling and everything, it’s a little overwhelming.”
The finances were also tough. Boston kept Dubon housed and fed, but he was on his own for everything else. Players in the minor leagues are responsible for their own equipment, and buying gloves and bats can be difficult for players making as little as $3,300 per season. Some players are lucky enough to get hefty signing bonuses that cover those costs. Others might get help from their agent. Dubon had neither.
His older brother bought him six wood bats, and at first, Dubon was hesitant to use them against hard-throwing pitchers for fear of breaking one.
For the rest, he and his teammates used to go to a Ross department store. He remembers buying cleats for $13 and trying to make them last until season’s end.
“That’s the type of stuff I had to do to be where I am right now,” Dubon said. “It’s not good at all. But, I mean, you’re just trying to save and make my money last.”
Dubon struggled that first year, batting .245 with six errors in 20 games. He showed more promise the next year, hitting .320 in short-season ball, and that sent him into the 2015 season hopeful for a starting job with Class A Greenville.
That spring, Dubon made two of his now-closest friends in baseball. The first was Rafael Devers, a slugger who had signed out of the Dominican Republic for a $1.5 million bonus. The other was Yoan Moncada, a generational talent from Cuba who got $31.5 million from Boston, which also paid a 100 percent tax to Major League Baseball for surpassing international spending limits.
Dubon became instrumental to the development of those young players, both of whom are now starring in the majors. Dubon was fully bilingual by that point and familiar with life in the U.S. For Devers, Moncada and other Latin players, he became a go-to translator. It helped around the clubhouse, and it really helped outside it – like when the group made its near-nightly burrito runs to Moe’s.
“When I got here, he was always helpful with me,” Devers said via translator. “Always being available for me and just teaching me things I didn’t know before.”
“He had a connecting personality,” then-Greenville coach Darren Fenster said. “He was a glue guy in our clubhouse and on the field.”
Dubon, Devers, Moncada and three other players rented an apartment together in Greenville for the 2015 season – despite the disparity in their signing bonuses, Dubon insisted on paying an equal share. Occasionally – and always on the sly – Devers or Moncada would pick up a restaurant bill or some other expense, a quiet gesture that helped Dubon and other teammates get by.
On the field, everything clicked. Dubon hit .301 and stole 18 bases in half a season, then got promoted to high-A Salem. His pay was still meager, but by that point, he had been picked up by a major agency that was sending him high-end equipment.
“Before, I used to go (through) two pair of spikes a year,” Dubon said. “Now, I got at least three pairs a month. It was a relief.”
The next year, Boston traded Dubon to Milwaukee, and he continued to blossom in the Brewers’ system. He batted .343 in 27 games with Triple-A Colorado Springs last year before tearing his ACL, sidelining him for the rest of the season.
A year later, he returned to Triple-A, where he was batting .307 with a career-high 14 homers. He has been on the 40-man roster the past two seasons, meaning he got a raise from a few thousand dollars to at least the MLB-mandated $44,500 per year.
He hasn’t forgotten his Honduran roots. He’s a bit of a celebrity when he goes home, and he thinks his ascent is helping grow the game there.
“It’s changing a little bit for the good,” he said. “It’s slowly, but it’s going in a good direction right now.”
He also hasn’t forgotten his days in $13 cleats. Although he’s not out campaigning for better minor league pay, he’s eager to see that change.
“I mean, why not?” Dubon said. “This is a hard job. It’s a hard job. Those guys deserve better than what they get right now. I’m blessed enough to be on the 40-man now, I make decent money now, but still, some of the guys, like I see some of the guys don’t even eat, just trying to save money.
“Skipping meals just to try to get money and everything. It would be good to get a raise for guys like that.”
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