From Brazil to KC: Royals’ Orlando captures a dream in big-league debut

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Paulo Orlando stood at his locker Thursday afternoon, surrounded by microphones and cameras, recorders and notebooks, a long way from living as an anonymous outfielder in Omaha or Northwest Arkansas, Wilmington or Winston-Salem.

He talked about his major league debut at age 29. He talked about his upbringing in Brazil. He talked about his teammates’ joy for him.

Everything he talked about, he did so with patience and purpose — traits easily attributed to the outfielder who spent 1,017 games in the minor leagues before debuting in the majors. Then, one sentence reminded the onlookers how different Orlando’s life was from a typical big leaguer.

"I want to check my phone now and see the news in Brazil," Orlando said.

Orlando became just the third Brazilian-born player to appear in the major leagues when he earned his first career start Thursday in place of the still recovering Alex Gordon. Orlando went 1 for 3, including a remarkable triple to left-center field for his first career hit.

But Orlando did so without any family remotely close to western Missouri.

His wife, Fabricia, and 5-year-old daughter, Maria, still live in his native Sao Paulo and haven’t been to the United States to see Orlando play, though he called Fabricia right after his first game. Orlando said the pair should be arriving in Kansas City in time for the Royals’ next home series against Oakland.

When the bus rides in the minors mounted and the days passed without a sniff of the majors, Orlando turned toward Fabricia.

"It’s hard for her to spend nine months away and then me come back and not make the big leagues," he said. "She always said, ‘Keep going, keep going, because you will make it.’"

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Orlando finally made it, completing the journey from a track star in a soccer-obsessed country and baseball-deficient city to starting outfielder on the defending American League champions.

Orlando was a sprinter for the Brazilian Junior Olympic team, running the 200-meter sprint in 21 seconds and the 400-meter dash in 46.36 seconds, he said. Baseball was simply something he did for fun when he was 12 with some Japanese kids in the neighborhood.

They would play on the weekends and during the day, since Sao Paulo had only one baseball stadium and it didn’t have lights, according to Orlando. He never thought about signing to play professionally until he met Orlando Santana, a Cuban scout for the White Sox stationed in Brazil.

It was Santana who signed Orlando in 2005 and Santana who called Orlando to congratulate him Sunday when the 25-man roster was announced. Orlando spent some time playing in the Dominican Republic before he was traded in 2008 from the White Sox to Kansas City.

It took him three years to initially reach Triple A and another four to finally reach the majors. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t on the radar of general manager Dayton Moore and the Royals.

"Dayton kept saying last year, ‘Paulo’s really coming, Paulo’s really coming,’" manager Ned Yost said. "That was during the season last year when we were talking about maybe adding another outfielder. I was anxious to see him on an extended look during spring training. I came away very, very impressed with his at-bats, his athletic ability."

Orlando hit .319 in the spring and beat out Moises Sierra for the final spot on Kansas City’s bench. It was the Royals’ dugout on Thursday that supported Orlando.

After he tripled for his first major league hit, Orlando stood on third base while the ball he smashed returned to the dugout. Salvador Perez held the ball and waved it around, pretending to throw it in to the stands as a souvenir.

Orlando had already slid into third, popped up and banged his hands together for a clap nine seasons in the making. Then he smiled, the days of pickup baseball in Brazil, bus rides in the Carolina League and road trips in the Pacific Coast League in his past.

"I’m not that young," Orlando said, "but I feel like I’m 17 years old."

You can follow Matthew DeFranks on Twitter at @MDeFranks or email him at matthew.defranks@gmail.com.