Acuña fulfills family dream of reaching major leagues
For Ronald Acuña Jr., baseball is not just a dream he happened upon. It’s one he was born into.
The son of a former minor league outfielder and grandson of a former minor league pitcher, Acuña boarded the fast track last year and found himself knocking on the door of fulfilling his goal of making it to the major leagues.
That’s a place both his father and grandfather, like most professional baseball players, were unable to reach.
The dream became a reality on April 25, 2018, when Acuña made his major league debut against the Cincinnati Reds.
Acuña added the junior suffix to his name this spring as a way to recognize his father, Ronald Sr., who was a Mets farmhand nearly two decades ago. His grandfather, Romualdo Blanco, was a hard-throwing pitcher in the Astros organization during the 1970s before arm injuries derailed his promising career in Double-A by the age of 23.
The elder Acuña only climbed as high as Double-A in his eight seasons of affiliated baseball as well, but he went on to play another four years in Venezuela. It was there that a young Ronald Jr. got to watch his father play on a more regular basis.
The seed was planted. And it started at home.
“I had the good fortune of being able to watch my father play in the states and in Venezuela,” said Acuña through team translator Franco Garcia. “I kind of always idolized him and I mirrored him, I tried to be like him. So that was the great upbringing and opportunity that I had.”
Acuña plays the game with a cool confidence that complements his love for baseball. His ability is evident to anyone that happens to be in the same ballpark on any given night. All five tools are on display for the world to see, honed as a third-generation ballplayer.
Neither his father’s nor grandfather’s career led to big league stardom, but they helped pave the way for Acuña. The young prodigy transformed into a five-tool talent who has drawn comparison to some of the game’s great young players.
How’s that for representing the family name?
“Fortunately, I guess as they say, ‘the student has become the teacher’ or something like that,” Acuña quipped. “I’m proud to say we’ve gotten to that point where perhaps in our skills I might be able to say I’m a little better than him, but I’m very grateful for having that experience with him and for me to be able to look up to him.”
As one might imagine, Ronald Sr. is more than happy to see his son reaching these heights. Baseball has long been a game shared by fathers and sons. This success and all that’s still to come is a family affair.
“He is extremely proud and he’s very happy for me – not just my father, but my mother, my whole family and all my friends,” said Acuña. “I think they’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to watch. Like I said, they’re all very proud and happy for me.”
Nearly 400 major leaguers hail from Venezuela. The Acuña family is from La Guaira, just two hours away from the city of Maracay, where Miguel Cabrera grew up. Acuña had a chance encounter with Cabrera early in spring training, reaching first base after a single and standing side by side with one of the best right-handed hitters in baseball history and a boyhood idol of sorts.
It was a case of baseball and life coming full circle for Acuña.
“I was very fortunate to be able to watch Miguel Cabrera play, even in Venezuela when I was a little kid,” said Acuña. “To this day, he’s one of my favorite hitters and I love watching him play.
“I always admired him, and I admire him to this day. So, we’ve always kind of had that relationship. He just kind of gave me advice on all the small things and all the little things to do, especially once you get to the big leagues. The things you need to make sure you take care of and the things you do well and do right, things that will sustain your career as you move forward in the big leagues.”
Cabrera’s path was not unlike the ride Acuña finds himself on. After all, Cabrera debuted in the big leagues at 20 years old with the Miami Marlins in 2003. He was even playing in the World Series just one year after starting the prior season in High-A ball.
From the small stage to the biggest stage at breakneck speed. One minute you’re playing in relative obscurity and the next the cameras and microphones follow your every move.
Acuña has become increasingly accustomed to his new-found fame, which is currently at fever pitch with no signs of stopping any time soon.
“It really is surreal,” said Acuña. “I never thought that things would ever happen his quickly, as I’ve said before. But I’m very happy. This is everything I have ever dreamed up.
“I am very blessed, and I thank God for all the blessings and everything has happened to me and come into my life. Right now, at this point, I’m just grateful for everything and I just want to keep giving it my all, keep working hard and keep trying to go after these dreams I’ve set for myself.”
The distinction of being the top prospect in the game is a complex one. Do well and the label comes off as the player graduates to the big leagues. Struggle and that acclaim passes to the next man in line.
Either way, the mantle is inherently short-lived.
As Acuña’s star rises, he’s drawn comparisons to other teenage phenoms of the not-too-distant past, Angels center fielder Mike Trout and Nationals slugger Bryce Harper.
Those names carry with the loftiest of expectations. That’s not lost on Acuña.
“I’m very proud and humbled to be compared to superstars like that,” Acuña said. “You know, it’s great and it’s amazing. All it really does is motivate me more, to work harder and to keep continuing to improve and develop. But I’m very humbled and honored to be compared to them.”
Acuña’s well-documented trip back to Triple-A Gwinnett reunites him with Damon Berryhill, the former Braves catcher who managed him for the final two months last season. Berryhill’s playing career spanned 14 seasons and he’s been coaching for the past 15 years.
When it comes to comparisons for Acuña, only one name came to Berryhill’s mind.
“You know, the only one I can really think about would be Alex Rodriguez,” said Berryhill. “Kind of at that same age, I saw Alex when he came up with Seattle at 19. The composure that he had and the swing and just the maturity at that young age is kind of what reminds me of Ronald.”
Comparing Acuña or any young player to a proven performer may be fun, but more times than not those expectations prove difficult for a prospect to live up to. Like most Braves coaches or front office types, Berryhill recognizes Acuña’s immense talent and believes it will only get better in the weeks, months and years ahead.
“I think he just needs to stay his course,” said Berryhill. “He’s a young player and he still has stuff to work on, as talented as he is. We’ve never had a problem with Ronald working.
“He wants to get to the big leagues. He loves to play this game and we’re looking for pretty much the same as we got from him last year and a little bit more. He had a great fall ball and a great spring training. It’s only a matter of time for him to get an opportunity. Hopefully when he gets that opportunity, he keeps performing the way he’s been doing it.”
To his credit, Acuña has handled everything that has been thrown at him thus far, both on and off the field. The tremendous pressure that can come with the spotlight seems to be nothing more than white noise for the young outfielder.
How is that even possible? Even Acuña had trouble explaining it.
“I never really felt pressure, even with it being my first spring training, I just never felt pressure of being with the big league club,” said Acuña. “I guess I was pretty grateful, appreciative and surprised I didn’t feel that pressure.”
As he returned to Gwinnett to begin the 2018 season, the chapter entitled “Top Prospect” is on its final pages. But the book of Ronald Acuña Jr., “Major Leaguer” is about to be written.