PHOENIX — Rod Barajas is one of the great success stories in Diamondbacks history, a tribute not only to their scouting but to his perseverance. A World Series ring, 136 home runs and six stops later, Barajas is back to complete the circle.
“We are hoping to make some new memories this time around,” Barajas said.
Barajas is one of the handful of original D-backs, signed out of a free-agent tryout camp in 1996 months after the team made a splash by spending millions on free agents Vladimir Nunez and Larry Rodriguez, who had defected from Cuba.
While just about everything has changed – new management, new front office, new spring training site, new colors, full roster makeover – the employment opportunity is about the same. Barajas did not have a job handed to him the first time, and he does not expect it now as he competes for the backup catching job with Wil Nieves behind All-Star Miguel Montero after signing a minor league contract with a spring training invitation last week.
“This is the first time in a while that I am not on the (40-man) roster and have to go out and work my way into it. I’m looking forward to it. This is kind of the way it was when I first started in Arizona, so it is nothing new. I’m just going to go there and get to know my pitchers and get to know my teammates and just give it my best effort, and hopefully everything will work out,” said Barajas, 37.
History would not bet against him. How could it? Barajas had a longer road just to get here. He was working at a filling station, a few months removed from his last playing days at Cerritos College in the Los Angles area, when his odyssey to the major leagues began.
Undrafted out of high school or junior college but still feeling he had a lot of baseball left in him, Barajas was invited to a tryout camp in early January 1996 after D-backs scout Luis Medina called the coach at Cerritos (Medina also attended school there) looking for prospects. Barajas so impressed that he was signed the next day.
“I fell in love with the game. I was going to keep trying, keep playing, and if I did get that break and a team would take a chance to sign me, then I would try to take full advantage of it. If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out. But I knew given that opportunity I would be able to do something and make it to where I am today,” Barajas said.
Barajas was one of a half-dozen D-backs who were assigned to a cooperative team with players from the Detroit organization at Class A Visalia that spring. Hitting coach Dwayne Murphy and pitching coach Nardi Contreras were his main links to the organization. The D-backs promoted him to Lethbridge of the rookie Pioneer League shortly after their initial draft in June 1996, and after hitting 50 homers the next three seasons at Class AA and Class AAA, Barajas became the D-backs’ primary backup from 2001-03 with the Randy Johnson/Curt Schilling-led staffs.
Barajas’ home run off Mike Mussina in the fifth inning Game 5 of the 2001 World Series on Nov. 1 gave the D-backs a 2-0 lead, although Byung-Hyun Kim could not hold it in the ninth and the Yankees won in 12 innings, 3-2, to send the series back to Arizona.
Game 5 was one of the early highlights of a career that has included a 21-homer season in Texas in 2005 and a 19-homer season in Toronto in 2009, but Barajas also remembers the Series for the passion he felt that night at Yankee Stadium, when the crowd serenaded retiring right fielder Paul O’Neill with a slow, reverential chant in four syllables — “Paul O’Neill …. Paul O’Neill” — that brought O’Neill to tears.
“You have a guy crying in right field and the whole stadium is chanting his name. As an opponent, you kind of get caught up in it, too. I’m catching and they are chanting his name, and he’s coming up to hit and he has to step out of the box. I’m like, ‘This is awesome.’ You can’t top it,” Barajas said.
“That whole experience, going to Yankee Stadium, winning the World Series here, walking them off, was incredible. That whole season, there were highs and there were lows. The way everything came together and the way it finished up, it was one of those experiences that it would be hard to find anything that could match what happened that year to us,” Barajas said.
Barajas will keep working on it, though. His batting average has waned a bit in the last two seasons — .230 with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011 and .206 with Pittsburgh last year — but he still showed pop, combining for 27 homers and 78 RBIs in 626 plate appearances.
To manager Kirk Gibson, it is just as important, if not more so, to have a backup catcher who knows and understands the pitching staff, the better to make for a seamless transition on the days Montero gets a break. Nieves, signed late last August after Henry Blanco suffered a season-ending broken thumb, was 5-2 as starter.
All the backup catching candidates, including former Arizona State standout Tuffy Gosewich, will have extra time on the field this spring since Montero is leaving March 2 to compete for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. Gibson said he is entering the competition with an open mind.
“Rod has been here before. We knew he’d be comfortable. We know about his attitude and his character. It’s good to have guys with that type of experience to help us develop our guys and prepare for the season and help us make decisions,” Gibson said.
“It’s wide open, sure. Wil is a great guy. Rod is a great guy. At the end, it is nothing personal. We’re trying to win a World Series.”
Barajas knows the feeling.
The D-backs on Saturday named their starting pitchers for the four exhibition games beginning Feb. 27, when they play host to the Reds. Right-hander Brandon McCarthy will face Cincinnati at Salt River Fields on that day, and he will be followed by right-hander Ian Kennedy against Cincinnati in Goodyear on Feb.28, right-hander Trevor Cahill against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa on March 1 and left-hander Wade Miley against Texas at Salt River Fields on March 2. Gibson said he has not decided on the starting pitchers for the first five games of spring, starting with the home opener Feb. 23 against Colorado. The D-backs play the Rockies again Feb. 24 and play the Royals in Surprise on Feb. 25 before playing split-squad games against the A’s (at Salt River Fields) and the Angels (in Tempe) on Feb. 26.