As Gaby Sanchez rounded the bases following his first home run of the season, a three-run shot off of Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander Vicente Padilla, chants of “It’s great to be a Miami Hurricane” filled Sun Life Stadium.
Sanchez, a local product out of Brito High School and the University of Miami, won the Florida Marlins starting first base job during spring training. He beat out 22-year-old top prospect Logan Morrison.
The 26 year old had seen limited action since his Major League Baseball debut on September 17, 2008 with a total of 29 at-bats and eight hits in just 26 games.
“He was more relaxed this year than he was last year, and I think what he went through last year helped him to make the team,” Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “It was an open competition and he won it hands down.”
University of Miami head coach Jim Morris, who couldn’t attend the Marlins’ home opener on April 9 because the Hurricanes played at Virginia Tech, wished Sanchez good luck via text.
Morris enjoys catching up with his former players now in the majors when they’re in town.
According to Morris, what sets Sanchez apart is his hitting, something that’s a necessity to making “The Show.”
“Gaby has always been a good hitter whether it was in high school or at the University of Miami,” Morris said. “He’s always played an offensive position whether it was third base or first base. He’s a dedicated guy who’s worked hard and earned the role he’s got right now in the Big Leagues. He’s worked very hard to get there and I’m very excited for him.”
The molding of this future major leaguer started at the age of four when Sanchez began to play catch with his father, Remberto, Sr., who was offered a scholarship to play at Florida State.
Until the age of 12 he played at West Kendall Park, which was right in front of his house.
It was then that the four-sport athlete- Sanchez played basketball, football, soccer and baseball- had to decide which to perfect.
“My dad said I had to decide what sport I wanted to play the best and there was no doubt in my mind that it was always baseball. He knew it, but he wanted me to make the decision,” Sanchez said. “I actually thank him for it. I feel like younger kids, when they’re getting pushed to play just one sport, they start to burn out and not want to play that sport anymore. There was always something different with baseball that I couldn’t wait until that time of the season.”
Although Sanchez played both second base and shortstop growing up, he always wanted to catch since that was his dad’s position.
He did get behind the plate a bit in the minors, but it never became his primary spot on the field. From a young age, his dad warned him of the physical strain.
Around this time, the Florida Marlins celebrated their inaugural season in 1993. Playing sports year-round, Sanchez rarely attended games.
Instead, he and his dad would watch games on TV. Sanchez doesn’t remember his first game at then-Joe Robbie Stadium, but he does recall going to the World Series parade in 1997.
“I never actually got tickets for the playoffs, but my brother was fortunate enough to get tickets,” he said. “I had to play baseball so I wasn’t able to come. When I went in 2003, I was able to go to a couple more games.”
While some of his teammates cheered for other teams as kids and skipped college to sign professional baseball contracts, Sanchez believes his three years at UM give him an advantage.
“I feel like college baseball definitely prepared me to be in the situation that I’m in now with the work ethics, the working out, playing the game [the way] it’s supposed to be played,” he said. “Off the field it just makes you more mature when you go to a college and you’re taking those classes.”
Gonzalez anticipates that Sanchez’s experience with two trips to the College World Series will help him on the road at places such as Citizens Bank Park or Citi Field.
“I think the college experience is good,” he said. “That experience has got to help playing in front of big crowds.”
Of all the college baseball programs, the Hurricane fraternity can make an argument as one of the best in the major leagues. Just recently, Houston Astros outfielder Jason Michaels, a former Cane, introduced himself to Sanchez during a spring training game.
Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun was Sanchez’s roommate their junior year.
“I had no idea how to cook,” Braun recalls. “He would cook, clean. He was awesome. I couldn’t ask for anything more in a roommate. It was great.”
The pair was even selected in the 2005 MLB Draft- Braun in the first round (fifth overall) and Sanchez in the fourth (126th overall).
To this day, Braun and Sanchez talk at least twice a week and, recently, Braun even took part in Sanchez’s wedding.
Since the two-time All-Star and former National League Rookie of the Year has four years of experience under his belt, Sanchez at times looks to his former teammate for advice.
“He’s one of my best friends and I’ll always be here for him,” Braun said. “I’ve been through everything he’s going through right now. Whenever something does come up he doesn’t hesitate to ask.”
And when the Brewers and Marlins cross paths, Braun will still be rooting for Sanchez.
“I know this has been a lifelong dream of his and he’s worked his butt off to be in the position that he’s in today and he’s been patient,” he said. “He’s probably been ready to play in the big leagues for a year or two, but the opportunity hasn’t been there. Now that he finally has that opportunity I know he’s going to take advantage of it and I’m excited for him.”
In its early stages, the dream started with a phone call that Sanchez’s father received from a former modified softball teammate.
The former teammate also happened to be the regional scout for the Marlins who had seen Gaby play. The scout called Remberto on the day of the draft to tell him that the Marlins were going to select Gaby in the fourth round, and the rest was history.
On March 3, Sanchez came full circle when he faced the University of Miami in an exhibition game in Jupiter. The Marlins handed the Canes a 19-3 defeat.
“When I went to school and we got to play against Florida, it was a big thing for us,” Sanchez said. “To be on the other side of it now… We can’t let a college team beat us, but it’s still fun, and I guarantee you that they had enjoyed it as much as we did.”
As 16 of his family members took their seats in Section 149 behind home plate, Sanchez trotted onto the field when his name was called during player introductions on opening night.
“It’s one of the things I’ve looked forward to my entire life,” he said. “Being able to go through the grind of high school, college, being drafted, the minor leagues and then finally being able to be out there on the stage where I’ve always wanted to play, it’s definitely a dream come true.”
Remberto acknowledged that the night was very emotional for the entire family. It all culminated with Gaby living out his childhood dream.
He hopes that his son will soon become a favorite like right fielder Cody Ross. Fans religiously chant his name as he walks up to the plate or makes a play on defense.
“A lot of times it surprises me how they don’t really push that much for their hometown kid,” Remberto said. “In a way he has Cuban blood, but he’s also American because he was born here. And he’s played in front of the fans here. I think once he does what he usually does, which is play really good baseball and hit a lot, it’ll change little by little and fans will get behind him.”
After Sanchez’s three-run homer gave the Marlins a 4-3 lead in a game they would go on to win 7-6, Remberto looked around to find those adorned in teal throwing up the U sign and chanting Gaby’s name.
“I have it recorded, saved for life,” he said. “That moment goes so quick. You’re watching to see what he does and then you hear the fans. Everybody went crazy because that was a key home run.”
Pride clearly evident in his voice, Remberto pauses before he finishes describing the scene.
“And now after Cody they’re going ‘Gaby.’”
Christina De Nicola may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.