Leon Paulino was living the dream he had harbored growing up in Lawrence, the dream of every Red Sox fan — to one day play baseball for a team that’s woven into the collective culture of a region. Following the Red Sox is more religion than recreation. Paulino had gone from the pews to the chancel, albeit as a minor leaguer in his first spring training.
Now, Paulino’s first spring training as a member of the Red Sox organization will be memorable for an unfortunate reason, the coronavirus public health crisis. Instead of plying his trade in Fort Myers, Fla., at the Fenway South facility in extended spring training or playing for one of the Sox minor league affiliates, Paulino is back home in Lawrence, uncertain when baseball and his career will resume or what it will look like when both do.
Since spring training was canceled in mid-March and players were instructed to return home, Paulino has kept the same schedule he had in Fort Myers, waking up at 6 a.m. to work out in his basement. He follows the individualized training regimen the Sox provide for him on a team app. He’s lucky enough to have a batting cage and hitting tee in his yard and a father with an amateur baseball background who is capable of throwing quality batting practice. But like minor leaguers across baseball, he faces an uncertain and unnerving future during this sacrifice play for public health.
“I wanted to give a good impression, especially it being my first spring training. When they told me it was being cut short, and that it was being canceled, it was a little sad,” said Paulino, a 23rd-round pick of the Sox in the 2019 draft who engaged in a workout at Fenway Park for Boston two days before the draft. “But things happen for a reason. You just got to go with the flow and be ready and adjust. You’ve always got to be ready and adapt to the situation you’re brought into.”
Just like other businesses, the coronavirus shutdown figures to adversely impact the Little Guy in the baseball industry. This missed time of organized baseball could particularly hinder nascent prospects such as Paulino, who are in the early stages of their development, trying to transition to professional baseball. We hear about the top prospects, but for every one of them there are scores of players such as Paulino, scratching and clawing to make a mark as part of the pro baseball proletariat. The COVID-19-initiated stoppage could irrevocably alter their careers, especially if Major League Baseball follows through on its stated desire to downsize the minor leagues.
The 19-year-old switch-hitting outfielder played in 25 games last season for the Red Sox’ rookie ball affiliate in the Gulf Coast League. He struggled making the move from high school, even though he spent his senior year prioritizing baseball training at Elite Squad Baseball Academy, which played some games against junior colleges, while taking classes online to complete high school. Paulino batted .153 with 36 strikeouts in 72 at-bats for the GCL Red Sox.
A protracted postponement, or cancellation of the season altogether, would hurt players in Paulino’s position.
“Oh yeah, for sure, no doubt about it if that does happen it will set me back development-wise because you need all the at-bats, all the game experience possible to develop every year and get better,” said Paulino. “A year without playing is a downfall, for sure, but especially me, it being my first year. That’s a little bit harder than for the other players who had a couple of years in the organization and already know how to go through the system and things like that.”
But we all have to sacrifice during these challenging times.
Sacrifice is nothing new for Paulino and his family. His family relocated to Hollywood, Fla., to help him pursue his baseball dream after his freshman year at Lawrence High. His father, Leo, who played baseball in his native Dominican Republic, flew back and forth between South Florida and Boston to maintain his construction business. His mother, Kassandra, and younger sister, Lailah, also put Paulino’s baseball aspirations first in Florida. The family moved back to Lawrence after Paulino began his professional career last summer.
“Yeah, it’s something I will always appreciate from them, and I always think of,” said Paulino, who was discovered by Sox scout Willie Romay.
It’s one of the reasons Paulino has remained faithful to the social distancing practices while seeing other players gather for informal baseball training sessions, even if that means he’s unable to face live pitching.
“That’s the hard part. We really don’t have anything,” said Paulino. “I’m fortunate to have a little gym in the basement, but there are a lot of players that don’t have access to none of that, so they can’t do anything.”
Major League Baseball has committed to paying players such as he Lowell-born Paulino weekly allowances — he’s getting $420 — through May 31. The Red Sox paid for the plane tickets of prospects who flew home from Fort Myers, or reimbursed them for their mileage expenses getting home. The Sox check on the health of their players every day through an app, according to Paulino.
“We’ll get a text at like 11 a.m. asking us how our bodies are feeling,” he said.
Paulino is close with one of the Sox’ top prospects, shortstop Matthew Lugo, who is hunkered down at home in Puerto Rico. Lugo is the nephew of Carlos Beltran. The two text frequently about the situation. Like a lot of people, they’re anxious to return to work.
“It’s scary. You want to hope that you get to play this year,” said Paulino. “If not, that’s scary because it would be a downfall for me and other players. It would be a downfall for the whole community of baseball to have the year 2020 with no baseball being played at all.”
However, for now, Paulino and other minor leaguers looking to make a mark have to display the characteristics they need to hone at the plate, discipline and good judgment, because this pandemic is bigger than balls and strikes.
“It’s challenging. It’s challenging because you want to go outside. You want to talk to people you haven’t seen, and just going and living a normal life how you’ve always lived,” said Paulino.
“Now, it’s mentally challenging. It’s a patience game. You got to be patient and see what happens. It’s working with my patience, but that’s good because baseball players need patience. Things take time, especially as a professional baseball player, not everything comes right away.”
Paulino’s dream is delayed, not denied.