Victor Victor, Victor Mesa Jr. Want To Make Their Own Names In Miami
MIAMI—There's a reason he goes by Victor Victor.
Being a baseball player in Cuba named Victor Mesa comes with lofty expectations, a lesson Victor Victor Mesa learned when he was 16. At the same age as a high school sophomore in the United States, Victor Victor was already an everyday player for Matanzas in Cuba's top league, Serie Nacional.
His manager was his father, Victor Mesa Sr., an all-time great player in Cuban baseball history. Mesa Sr., now 58, had a combination of speed (he ranks second in career stolen bases in Cuba) and power (he's No. 15 in career home runs) that made that him a force in the 1980s and '90s in Serie Nacional and the Cuban national team. After his playing career, he rose to even greater prominence in Cuba as a manager in Serie Nacional and for the Cuban national team.
Being the son of a Cuban baseball superstar with the same name comes with its perks. It also led to biting criticism in Cuba when Victor Victor wasn't a star himself as a teenager, comments he still hears even now.
"I don’t like when people compare me to my father," Victor Victor said. "My father is my guide. I follow whatever my father tells me. I take every single positive thing I can from my father. But I’m a different person. I’m Victor Victor Mesa. I’m not Victor Mesa. I want to be my myself. I want to make it very clear—I don’t want to be like my father. I love and admire my father, but I want to be myself. And my father agrees with me—why do people have to compare me with him?"
In Cuba, Victor Victor wore No. 32, the same as his father. But on the back, it didn't say Mesa. The name on the back of his uniform was Victor Victor. He wants to make his own name in baseball.
"I know I can’t do it here, but in Cuba I was able to do it," Victor Victor said. "Yes, that’s the reason why. I love Victor Victor. It’s exactly why. Even though people knew who my father was, at least the name sounded different—you wouldn’t be able to see the Mesa there."
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Today, 22-year-old Victor Victor and his brother, 17-year-old outfielder Victor Mesa Jr., will sign with the Marlins. Victor Victor, the No. 1 international prospect in Baseball America's rankings, is signing for $5.25 million, the largest bonus in the 2018-19 class, with Mesa Jr. getting $1 million.
With Victor Victor, the Marlins are adding an immediate Top 100 prospect for an organization with new ownership in the beginning of a rebuild. For Marlins fans, it gives them a name many in Miami's heavily Cuban community already know, having followed the career of Victor Mesa Sr. as well as the up-and-coming rise of the Mesa brothers. For the Mesa family, it means Victor Victor and Victor Jr. get to play in the same organization, in a city they're already familiar with and consider a second home.
"For me, I’m picturing the idea of my brother and I playing in the same game on the same team, with all of the Cuban crowd and our family there supporting us," Victor Victor said. "It’s a very happy feeling. But right now, I can assure you, nobody is happier than our parents. They’re extremely happy and extremely proud of us."
Victor Victor Hears The Critics
Victor Victor started playing baseball at six years old when his dad introduced him to the game.
"He used to play with me at home, especially when I was younger," Victor Victor said. "He would give me a glove, a little bat and a ball. I loved it. I loved it so much that I used to sleep with it right next to my bed. If I didn’t have it next to my bed, I would cry."
Victor Victor grew up at the ballpark. By the time he was seven, he would tag along with his dad's team and run around the outfield, where players would toss him fly balls for him to run down.
"I think that's where I got my defense," he said.
He has long had a knack for highlight catches and throws in center field. He's a tremendous athlete whose speed and arm strength both grade out as 70 tools on the 20-80 scale, with a quick first step, excellent reads off the bat and plus range.
"He has always given me tips about batting," Victor Victor said of his father. "In the outfield, he doesn’t even touch that subject with me. He trusts me with his eyes closed."
Mesa Sr. had supreme confidence in his son. As the manager of Matanzas during the 2012-13 season, he selected Victor Victor to play on his team. Victor Victor made his Serie Nacional debut at age 16, playing every day and facing pitchers who had been in the league longer than Victor Victor had been alive.
"It was extremely hard for me," Victor Victor said. "My father was really helpful. He always had a vision that I was capable of doing it at that age. He believed in my talent to be here. He told me, 'You’re ready, just go.' Part of why I’m here today is because I started playing at age 16, because of that big push my father gave me. It made it easier for me to develop when I was younger, but it was hard.
"It was difficult because I was a kid. I was really skinny. I was used to pitchers my age. They were throwing 80 mph. Then you switch to a 90 mph pitcher with sliders and other really good pitches, it was difficult, that change."
Quite understandably, he struggled, batting .194/.244/.262 in 70 games. When Victor Victor competed against players his own age, he dominated. Mesa at 16 also played in the country's 18U national league in 2013 and hit .400/.432/.541 in 112 plate appearances, ranking second in the league in batting average and first in slugging. But the numbers in Serie Nacional were what everyone in Cuba saw.
"When your father has a reputation of how good he was when he was younger, they want you to do exactly the same as your father," Victor Victor said. "That’s not the case. They would also judge me because my father was there and they would say that I’m just there because of my father."
During his second season (2013-14) in Serie Nacional, Victor Victor batted .262/.330/.349 in 85 games and won his first gold glove award at 17 years old. After the season, he played for Cuba's 18U national team at a tournament in Mexico, where Cuba's outfield included Yusniel Diaz (Dodgers), Julio Pablo Martinez (Rangers), Luis Robert (White Sox) and Jorge Oña (Padres). He performed well and showcased his tantalizing athleticism, leaping over the catcher's glove to avoid the tag on a steal of home.
"I was in my comfort zone because all my teammates were my age," he said. "When I went to Mexico, I think that’s when I opened the scouts’ eyes."
Victor Victor was making a strong impression on scouts from major league clubs, but at home in Cuba, he heard criticism.
"If you don’t know about baseball and you see me play when I was 16," Victor Victor said, "your comment would probably be like, 'He's not going to be a good player.' But if you know about baseball, you would probably say, 'You’re not as good as you can be yet, but you can be way better and you’re going to be a good player.' They would judge me a lot. Bad comments everywhere. They would tell me I wasn’t a good player. I was just young. Two years ago, I had a great season. People still criticized me. Even now that I’m here, I’m the No. 1 international prospect, people will still criticize me, and in the signing now too. The ones who pointed at me and said you’re not a good player, you’re just here because of your father—they’re wrong. But I learned how to live with those negative comments in time."
Things got more difficult for Victor Victor in January during the 2014-15 season when he injured his right elbow on a play in center field that wiped out the rest of his season.
"It was extremely difficult," Victor Victor said. "In Cuba, they don’t have a lot of good conditions to treat injuries compared to here. If I had been here, I would have been ready way earlier. But it was a lot of time I had to take off due to the conditions. It was really difficult."
During the 2016-17 season, Victor Victor returned fully healthy and had the best season of his career at 20 years old. He batted .354/.399/.539 in 70 games, clubbing more extra-base hits (27) than strikeouts (19). He stole 40 bases in 50 tries and won another gold glove award.
At that point, between his elite defense at a premium position and high-level offensive performance, Victor Victor had established himself as one of the best all-around players in Cuban baseball, a star on the rise.
After the season, Victor Victor kept playing. There was the Caribbean Series, the World Baseball Classic, a stint playing for Cuba in the independent Can-Am League followed by a friendship series in July in North Carolina against the U.S. Collegiate National team.
That breakout 2016-17 season began in August 2016. By the time Victor Victor made his way to the Can-Am League in June 2017, he was run down.
"That was my greatest year," he said. "I made it to the national team. As you know, we don’t rest. After we’re done, we keep playing."
When he returned from the U.S. to Cuba, he had three weeks to prepare for the 2017-18 season. On his fifth day of practice, he fainted.
"I got dengue fever," he said. "So imagine, I didn’t have any time off, just three weeks to get ready, and I had dengue for those three weeks. You know how dengue is—it throws you down to the ground. You’re not able to do anything. I was just laying down in bed. And nobody knows this."
Victor Victor came home to Cuba already skinnier from his time in Canada and the U.S., and he said the dengue only made that worse. At the beginning of the season, he played through it until he suffered an injury to his right foot. He stopped, then had another injury on his foot. More time off. When he came back, he injured his left hamstring and had to miss more time. He finished the year batting .214/.275/.286 in just 20 games.
"If you connect everything from last year and these injuries, it was impossible for me to end up with good numbers," he said. "The best year I had, it was because I was healthy and I had time to get ready."
The year-long grind took a toll on his numbers, his body and his mind. He grew concerned about his limited rest, the injury treatment and lack of preventative care he had access to in Cuba, and how that cycle might continue to perpetuate if he stayed.
"I was extremely disappointed because I wanted to make that year the best year of my career," he said. "That was when I said to myself, you know what? There are no conditions for me to play here. I need to leave this country. That idea was going around my head for quite some time. But I was like, l’m just getting injured here. Nobody finds a solution for me. I need to get out of here. They didn’t have conditions for me to recover. If I didn’t have any conditions to treat my injuries, I was just going to keep on playing and damaging my body because I wasn’t completely recovered. That’s one thing I’m not worried about here. Here, if I get an injury, I’m not going to go back to the games unless I’m 100 percent. That’s the real reason why I didn’t have good results last year that nobody knows."
When healthy, Mesa has shown star potential. At 22, he's similar in age and proximity to the major leagues as Joey Bart, Alec Bohm, Nick Madrigal and Jonathan India, all top college prospects who went 2-3-4-5 in this year's draft, with Victor Victor's signing bonus coming in a tick under India's $5,297,500.
Mesa does not have their three-year performance record at a top college conference where scouts can see them play every game. But he is a much more dynamic athlete with a more explosive tool set. Mesa doesn't have the same track record as Victor Robles, the Nationals' center fielder and their No. 1 prospect, but if everything clicks, that's the type of impact potential he brings to the Marlins.
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Victor Mesa Jr.
Victor Mesa Jr. started playing baseball when he was five. His favorite player was Leonys Martin, who had been the center fielder for Villa Clara before leaving the country to sign with the Texas Rangers.
"I didn’t see my father play," Mesa Jr. said. "So when I was little, I thought the best player was Leonys Martin. I used to just hang around with Leonys at the field. I loved him."
Today, his favorite player is Javier Baez. But for a long time, it was difficult for the Mesa brothers to follow Major League Baseball because games weren't televised and their internet access was limited. As they gained more access to Wi-Fi, it got easier. They saw more clips on social media, especially on Instagram.
In December 2015, when Victor Mesa Jr. was 14, MLB brought a group of players to Cuba for a goodwill tour. Yasiel Puig and Miguel Cabrera went to Matanzas, where Mesa Jr. played, and they took part in an instructional clinic for young players.
"I said, well, I already know Puig, so I have to go meet Cabrera," Mesa Jr. said. "They went to batting practice and I said, I have to do good—Cabrera's watching me. That was my favorite player back then. So I went up to Cabrera and I said, I really want to talk to you. Follow me on IG and let's be friends.' Ever since, he started following me on social media. He's very humble. I posted a picture of Cabrera from that day and he actually left me a message that day."
Cabrera's comment: Keep working hard Victor. You have a tremendous swing. God bless and I hope to see you in the major leagues.
"So I really want to make it to the major leagues because I won't forget that comment."
He pauses and smiles.
"I think Cabrera is a good scout."
When Mesa Jr. swings, he doesn't miss much. In 2016, playing in Cuba's 15U national league, the lefthanded Mesa struck out just five times in 148 plate appearances, batting .365/.471/.522. He made Cuba's 15U national team, which won the gold medal that year in Japan at the U-15 World Cup.
In 2017, Mesa Jr. played in Cuba's 18U national league as a 15-year-old. Mesa Jr. batted .381/.470/.504 with just four strikeouts in 132 plate appearances. He again represented his country in international competition, this time at the U-18 World Cup in Thunder Bay in Canada.
This year, Mesa Jr. dominated the 18U league at age 16, with most of his playing time coming at first base with a little bit of left field mixed in as well as he nursed a sore arm. Mesa Jr. hit .440/.560/.677 in 125 plate appearances with 24 walks and 15 strikeouts, leading the league in batting average, OBP and slugging, with his 15 stolen bases tied for second in the league.
In those leagues, all of the top players in their age group play for their province's team in Cuba. For context, Luis Robert, Julio Pablo Martinez, Yusniel Diaz, Victor Victor himself, Yoan Moncada and Puig all led that league in either batting average, slugging or both when they played there.
Compared to a few years ago, the talent pool at the junior level has become watered down. Top players in Cuba are now leaving as teenagers, draining not just Serie Nacional but the junior leagues too. Mesa Jr.'s performance isn't a guarantee of future success, but against his peers, Mesa has performed at a high level.
"I didn’t have the opportunity for my father to be the manager of my team," Mesa Jr. said. "But I remember my father used to go to each game. He would try to be there for me every single game. I really care about my father’s opinion. I loved when my father used to go to the games because I knew if my father was there, I had to do way more than good, just for him. It was motivation for me."
New Chapter In Miami
The Mesa brothers left Cuba and trained in the Dominican Republic, but the highlight for them was their open showcase for MLB clubs on Oct. 5 at Marlins Park.
"In Toronto, I went to watch a major league game," Mesa Jr. said. "It was in a major league stadium and I loved that experience. So for me to be able to do a showcase at a major league stadium, I felt like a major league player when I was there. My confidence went all the way up.
"I was thinking, there is a chance that I sign with the Marlins. At the showcase, I didn’t know who I was going to sign with, but I knew I wanted to be here in Miami."
The Mesa brothers and their family had been to Miami before. They have visas to be able to travel for vacation, visiting for three to four weeks at a time, so they already have friends in the city.
"Even though I have visited Miami a few times, I had never visited the stadium before," Victor Victor said. "It was exciting for me when I first got inside, for two reasons. One is that I knew it was my showcase. Two is that it’s such a nice major league stadium. I love the stadium. You go inside and you see everything is perfect. I smile because I remember the clubhouse and the dugout in Cuba compared to here. I’m like, wow, I can’t believe I’m here. Once I felt the field, saw the good conditions of the field, I felt like, wow, I feel like playing baseball here."
Initially, it wasn't an easy decision for Victor Victor. As excited as he is to sign with a Miami team that's home to so many Cuban baseball fans, he was conflicted. Had he signed with Baltimore or Tampa Bay or anywhere else, the fans in those cities wouldn't know anything about his dad. But in Miami, he worried, they will still know him as Victor Mesa's son.
"This is the team, the Marlins, that I would have the most pressure playing for," he said. "Everyone is Cuban here. I will still feel like I will be playing for the same crowd. But it is what it is. I’m here to play."
Now, the excitement of becoming a Marlin and representing Miami is starting to build for Victor Victor. Where he once heard from fans criticizing him for not being as good as his father was despite being just a teenager himself, now he hears comments from fans in Miami pleading with him to sign with the Marlins.
"I know that a lot of Cubans are going to come to see the games," Victor Victor said. "A lot of Cubans have reached out to us on social media and they would always comment, ‘Come to Miami. We need more Cubans.’ "
The Mesas read the messages?
"Yes," Mesa Jr. said. "Every single message. And I like to reply to some of them."
There are a lot of adjustments for Cuban players coming over to the U.S., though the Mesa brothers are different than most. One adjustment is he won't be able to go with Victor Victor on the back of his uniform any more—if he gets to the major leagues one day, maybe for Players' Weekend, he says—but that's fine with him.
Victor Mesa is a renowned name in Cuba.
Now Victor Victor can build his own name in Miami.