Carlos Triunfel was 5 when he first put on a snow-white uniform and played baseball in the Dominican Republic, and for the rest of his childhood he would never be as happy as when wearing one like it.
Friends who chose soccer tried to pull the quiet, smiley kid into their sport, without success.
“I loved baseball from the time I started playing. I was always good at it, but I just loved playing,” Triunfel said.
Tonight, Triunfel will be in a Tacoma Rainiers uniform, and he will be the starting shortstop. Six years after he signed his first professional contract – one that made him a millionaire bonus baby – Triunfel is no longer the can’t-miss kid.
That changed in 2009.
Triunfel was doing what he had done all his life, playing hard, running hard, all but immortal at age 19, when he slid hard into second base in Montgomery, Ala.
There was his leg, clad in a baseball uniform, at a grotesque angle.
“I think about that slide, and what I might have done differently,” Triunfel said this week. “I slid to the center of the bag – I should have slid to the outside of the bag.
“I looked at my leg and thought ‘I can’t play any more.’ My career was over. My mother never believed that and she kept me strong.
“I wasn’t sure for a year and a half whether I could still play.”
Pedro Grifol, who spent 13 years in the Seattle front office as a scout, coordinator and the director of minor league operations, doesn’t doubt Triunfel.
“I saw him at 16 as an amateur and he looked the part. He was wearing a white uniform and just looked like a ballplayer,” Grifol said. “His preparation for a workout with us was great.
“Most kids get there, get loose real quick and go at it. Carlos stretched, ran and threw – with purpose. It was like he knew this was the opportunity he’d been waiting for.
“I watched him take ground balls, and when he threw from the hole – that was a power arm. He was a confident young player with all the talent in the world.”
Grifol insists the Mariners have not stopped believing in Triunfel.
“I don’t think Carlos is the forgotten player in our organization,” he said. “As we acquired more talent, he became part of a larger pool. The Mariners aren’t focused on any one player in the system.
“I think he can hit for average, and I think power will come, and he can field. Carlos missed a full year with that injury, and that’s tough at any stage in your development.”
Triunfel is more aware than anyone that he is now 22 and in Triple-A baseball. Another young player – Mariners catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero – signed the same year as Triunfel.
Montero has played 489 minor league games, Triunfel 476.
Montero has 18 games in the big leagues, Triunfel has played 27 in Tacoma.
“I’m closer to the big leagues than I’ve ever been. The next level is the majors,” Triunfel said.
“I’m more motivated since the injury. I’m motivated by my family, my mom.
“My mother has never seen me play in this country, but she always told me I would make it. When I was first injured, I didn’t think I’d play baseball again,” he said.
Rainiers manager Daren Brown has seen a month of Triunfel in Tacoma. The raw talent remains beguiling.
“You watch him get to a ball in the hole and make a throw, that arm is special,” Brown said. “He needs to be more selective at the plate, and he knows that. Carlos works on his game. He wants to get better. He wants to get to the big leagues.”
Will he? At 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, he is not the prototypical shortstop. At the plate, Triunfel has been a .278 career hitter in the minors, and now he’s completely healthy again.
Splitting time last year between Double-A and Triple-A, Triunfel batted .281 with 28 doubles, three triples, six home runs and 45 RBI.
“The key for me is, he really loves the game,” Grifol said. “He’s made progress. He can play in the big leagues, he’s matured mentally and he’s a very focused kid. This is his dream.”