By John Philip Wyllie
One of the Padres primary personnel objectives this season will be to extend the contract of starting catcher Ramon Hernandez. As one of the league’s top catchers, his services won’t come cheap and he will no doubt draw offers from several of the league’s wealthier clubs. Fortunately for Padres, they do have depth at that position in the form of Mexican League acquisition Miguel Ojeda. As a back-up catcher, the long-time Mexico City Red Devil has one of the toughest jobs in baseball. We talked about it Sunday afternoon following his 2 for 3 performance against the Diamondbacks in which he doubled, tripled and drove in a run.
“It’s real tough (to stay sharp between catching assignments). It’s not like going out there every day and catching. Sometimes I have to wait a week, so it’s a struggle,” Ojeda said. “Warming up the guys in the bullpen is the best way for me (to stay sharp). The starters will often warm up a little in the bullpen a few days before their games.” And Ojeda uses that time to make sure that he and they are on the same page.
Catching is not the only thing that Ojeda does for the Padres. Manager Bruce Bochy often inserts him into the lineup in the late innings as a pinch hitter. He has also played first base and in the outfield on occasion. After a slow start this spring, his plate performance Sunday is hopefully a sign of his return to last year’s form. In 2004, he hit .261 overall and .319 with 15 RBIs with runners in scoring position. The role of a pinch hitter is often packed with pressure.
“That’s the kind of pressure that I like. I enjoy being in that situation. I work every day and before the games in the batting cage to be successful at that point. Sometimes things don’t go as you expect them to, but it’s all about hard work and trying to stay as sharp as possible,” Ojeda said.
Many Mexican League players dream about playing in the big league, but relatively few ever get the chance. Ojeda is one of only 15 Mexican-born players since 1973 to wear the Padres uniform. He believes additional Mexican League stars could play at this level if given the opportunity.
“I think the level of play in the Mexican League has improved a lot. Mexico just won the Caribbean Series,” Ojeda pointed out. “Most of the guys that I know from down there that could play here are pitchers. If they never play here it will only be because they weren’t given a shot.”
Having spent nine years in the Mexican League, Ojeda feels fortunate to be playing now for the Padres. For the players, the experience is as different as night and day. Ojeda listed some of them.
“First of all, it’s the luxuries you have here in the big leagues, things like the fields and the travel (accommodations are very different). Here, you also have a lot more guys that can throw the gas and hit their spots. In the Mexican League it’s harder to find guys that can do that.”
Ojeda returns each winter to his home in Sonora and does what he can to help improve the lives of the people there. This past off-season was particularly memorable for the Padres catcher in that he won a Winter League Caribbean Series championship ring as a member of the Mazatlan Venados. The championship was particular significant in that it was the first time a Mexican League team had captured the trophy on Mexican soil. To win a World Series coming off of a Caribbean Series championship would of course be the ultimate, but the Padres have a long way to go before they can start thinking in those terms.