Image credit: (Photo by Tom DiPace)
Born 17 months apart, Nationals outfielders Victor Robles and Juan Soto were never teammates or rivals as they grew up in Santo Domingo, the political capital and baseball capital of the Dominican Republic. But they knew about each other, which is no surprise considering the passion their home nation has for baseball.
“I feel like I’ve had a love for the game ever since I was in my mother’s womb,” Robles said through a translator. “But really, ever since I was around seven years old, I’ve always had the support of my parents, as well as my friends. I think they’ve guided me and supported me and helped me grow as a player and taught me a lot.”
The 21-year-old Robles made his first major league Opening Day roster in 2019, and he patrols center field for a team expected to contend in the National League East. Robles has big league experience from each of the past two seasons, but he missed most of last year after hyperextending his left elbow during a Triple-A game.
A year ago, with Robles and several Washington outfielders injured, a 19-year-old Soto stepped in and put together one of the finest seasons ever for a player his age. After beginning 2018 at low Class A Hagerstown, Soto ended the campaign as the NL Rookie of the Year runner-up and the new record holder for walks, on-base percentage and OPS in a single season by a teenager. He hasn’t played a game in Triple-A.
Now 20 years old and the Nationals’ left fielder, Soto recalled the days he looked up to Robles.
“I was a kid, and I had heard a lot of good things about him—how he played baseball, how he worked, everything,” said Soto, who conducts his interviews in English. “I saw him, and I took it as motivation to keep going and play hard.”
Robles grew up in Santo Domingo Este, and Soto in the Herrera section of Santo Domingo. They played in different amateur leagues, so it took a while for their paths to cross at a tournament. Their teams weren’t playing each other, but Robles said the pair hit it off from their first conversation.
“I first met him around the age of 15,” Robles said, “but it had been many years prior that I had heard his name because he also played in one of those leagues and his name was always mentioned throughout because he was a very good ballplayer.
“From the moment we met, we became very good friends, and we’ve had a great relationship ever since.
“To be honest, we never had the opportunity to play against each other or with each other until we got here. Now we’ve worked out together in the offseason a lot, and to this point, we get along great.”
The two have helped Washington move well past the 2009 scandal in the Dominican Republic that cost general manager Jim Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo their jobs. The team had signed a player for $1.4 million who was four years older than advertised and went by a falsified name.
Under vice president of international operations Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals have beefed up their farm system. The franchise signed Soto, one of the top hitters in the 2015 international signing class, for $1.5 million. The speedy Robles had signed two years earlier for just $225,000.
Of the more than 9,300 players in affiliated baseball last season, 22 percent were born in the Dominican Republic. Twenty-six percent of that group was born in Santo Domingo.
“Right now in the Dominican, it’s like a culture to play baseball,” Soto said. “Everybody wants to play baseball. Everybody wants to be a big leaguer. Most of the dreams of the kids are to be a big leaguer. When you come from the city and that culture, you feel amazing. When I look around and see kids down there, I look at myself and say I’m living the dream.”
Robles started the season 5-for-17 with a home run and two doubles, putting his major league numbers at .280/.336/.866 through 100 at-bats.
“I feel great,” Robles said. “I feel confident at the plate. I feel patient at the plate with my pitch selection, which is something I’ve been working on since spring training, and it’s been working out for me.”
In the six years or so since they first met, Robles and Soto have climbed to the big leagues. All the buzz they had heard about each other turned out to be well-founded.
“Growing up in my country and the way I did it, I love it very much,” Robles said. “Growing up as I did has helped me grow as a man, and it’s helped me, especially now.
“I’m very proud to be where I’m from.”