Inside a placid clubhouse at Camelback Ranch, moved by the memories of the World Baseball Classic and its importance to Puerto Rico, Enrique Hernandez showed his forearm to a small group of reporters.
“When you’re from there and you know what’s going on,” Hernandez said, “I mean, I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it.”
Hernandez returned to the Dodgers on Friday after spending two weeks representing his homeland in the tournament, but he still bore evidence of the experience. His hair sported the platinum blond bleach worn by the rest of his teammates. His eyes looked watery when he talked about the problems in his home.
His passion for baseball, he explained, felt restored after a 2016 season marred by ineffectiveness at the plate and his father’s battle with cancer.
“After last year, the year that I had on the field and off the field, I lost a little bit of love for the game,” Hernandez said. “Heading back out there was pretty refreshing. That energy and that passion were pretty contagious, pretty quick. I could step back and think about everything, and realize that last year was just a bad year. I started to have fun playing baseball again.”
Hernandez filled a variety of roles for Team Puerto Rico, which fell in the championship game to Team USA on Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. He hopes to play a similar part for the Dodgers, where he is the favorite to make the club as the last man on Manager Dave Roberts’ bench.
The bench puzzle features Hernandez, Chris Taylor and Charlie Culberson. Unlike Hernandez and Taylor, Culberson is not on the 40-man roster. The Dodgers may need the one current vacancy to add reliever Brandon Morrow.
Despite his recent absence, Hernandez holds a favorable position based on his ability to play the outfield. The team seeks a player who can both back up at shortstop and in center field, as an alternative for Joc Pederson against left-handed pitchers. In his first spring learning the outfield, Taylor has been eager but raw. Hernandez is a more polished defender.
Roberts declined to name a favorite in the competition. He has been impressed by Taylor, whom scouts consider a more capable shortstop than Hernandez.
“It’s a high-class problem,” Roberts said. “These are three good players who fit what we’re trying to do.”
Hernandez made the decision to play for Puerto Rico despite his tenuous position on the big-league roster. In 2016, he failed at his designated specialty when he batted only .189 against left-handed pitchers. His trouble at the plate paled next to his fear for his father’s health.
In July, Enrique Hernandez, Sr., a long-time coach and scout in Puerto Rico, underwent a bone marrow transplant. Hernandez shaved his head as his father started cancer treatment. He hit a game-winning homer on Father’s Day, but the moment could not offset his angst. He felt torn between his profession and his family.
“You want to be there to support your parents,” Hernandez said. “Not only my dad, but my mom, whose taking it like she’s the one who was going through the situation. You can’t be there. And you’re here, and you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do. It just gets hard.”
Team Puerto Rico acted as a unifying force for the commonwealth. Hernandez described the island as riddled with crime and buried in debt. Puerto Rico is “not at war,” he said, “but everybody is going against each other and making things worse.”
Before the championship game, the governor of Puerto Rico informed the players that the team had scheduled a parade back home regardless of the outcome. After Team USA captured an 8-0 victory, Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones noted how the parade motivated his own team. Hernandez pushed back at Jones’ implication.
“It wasn’t about showing anybody up,” Hernandez said. “It was meant to be our thing, with our island, with our people.”
He added, “Being Latin American, being Puerto Rican, we’re really passionate about everything. Every little thing that we’re passionate about, we’re going to make it a big thing. That’s where the cultural difference comes into play. Some people may not be able to understand it.”
Hernandez did not attend the parade. He wanted to get back to the Dodgers. But his parents did fly home with the rest of the Puerto Rican delegation. His father’s cancer is in remission, and his mother called to greet him upon landing. The crowd awaiting the plane caused her eyes to well with tears. Her son could relate.
“That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball,” Hernandez said. “To be able to wear your country on the front of your chest, it could get heavy at times, but it’s a pretty special feeling.”
Puig hits, and hits
Yasiel Puig was scratched from the lineup of Friday’s game against Arizona after a round of batting practice with hitting coach Turner Ward turned into a marathon session. Roberts said Puig was focused on removing the excessive movement from his swing, which plagued him throughout 2016.
“He and Turner were just working on his path to the baseball,” Roberts said. “I think sometimes he gets a little rotational with his swing. So it’s about continuing to keep that direction to the big part of the field.”
Seager gets day off
After playing five innings in a minor-league game on Thursday, Corey Seager (oblique stiffness) was scheduled to return to action on Saturday. Roberts indicated Seager would play seven innings at shortstop in another minor-league game.