Lodi News-Sentinel

A Giant connection

Estrada finds ‘big brother’ in Venezuelan countryman Flores

- Evan Webeck

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Mostly known for its cacao trees and chicken farms, the little agricultur­al town of Bejuma, Venezuela, is particular­ly proud of perhaps its most famous export, the one who plays second base for the San Francisco Giants, who made it all the way to the big leagues, despite growing up unable to afford a glove on his hand or cleats on his feet.

Over the winter, Thairo Estrada made a triumphant and long-awaited trip home.

It had been four years since he had seen his mom, Ana, or his dad, Jairo. His first-born son, Santiago, who remained in Venezuela with his mother, is growing up quickly — now 8 years old.

Estrada was an up-and-coming prospect with the Yankees the last time he visited home; he’s now a full-fledged big leaguer. In preparatio­n for his homecoming, the mayor of Bejuma and governor of Carabobo, the state in northern Venezuela, held a ceremony to recognize what Estrada had accomplish­ed in the time since he left home.

“When you have goals that you want to achieve — mine was to play in the big leagues — you have to make decisions that are very hard,” Estrada, 27, said through Spanish-language interprete­r Erwin Higueros. “I figured after that sacrifice, the time was going to come for me to go back and visit my family.”

In 2022, Estrada reached the goal he set out to achieve when he left home four years ago. He establishe­d himself as an everyday big leaguer and entrenched himself in the Giants’ long-term plans. At one moment, he was being mobbed at home plate after hitting his first career walk-off home run; in another, he became the unintended recipient of a teammate’s frustratio­n when a bat flew into his shin.

Throughout the highs and the lows, fellow countryman Wilmer Flores was by his side. He was the first to greet Estrada in the home-plate celebratio­n and the first to come to his defense, arms raised, after Carlos

Rodón kicked that bat in the visitor’s dugout in Arizona.

“He’s like my big brother,” Estrada said, “and I’m his little brother.”

Flores, 31, agreed with the characteri­zation.

“He reminds me of me when I was a rookie,” he said. “I’m always joking with him just to get him to relax. … I think I’m the only one he jokes with. With everyone else, he’s quiet. Very serious.”

The two Venezuelan­s, the only ones in the Giants’ clubhouse, grew closer this offseason.

Estrada’s trip home wasn’t only to reunite with his family, to see the payoff of his charitable work, or to soak in the adoration of his hometown. Estrada visited Bejuma, but he set up a new home base about 45 minutes away, in Valencia, the capital city of Carabobo, where Flores was born and raised and has made his offseason home.

For two months, Estrada and Flores became daily training partners.

The grind started at 7 a.m. each day, when they would meet at a local gym to lift weights. They would eventually migrate to Flores’ home, now only a 10-minute drive from Estrada’s new digs, where he has a personal batting cage. (One day, Flores said, he hopes to expand it into an allin-one offseason training center for Venezuelan big leaguers.)

“It was awesome,” Flores said. “Especially since we’re on the same team and we can always basically talk about baseball. How can we get better?”

The Giants are counting on significan­t contributi­ons from both players this season.

In 2022, Estrada became the first San Francisco player since Hunter Pence (2013) with at least 14 home runs and 20 stolen bases. The Giants haven’t had a 20-20 infielder since Orlando Cepeda in 1959, but many in the organizati­on believe Estrada has the potential to reach those numbers with another step forward this season.

Having Flores, who is bilingual, around to mentor Estrada only increased his value to the Giants, which was already quite high as one of their most consistent and clutch hitters. An extension was such a priority for both sides (Flores had no intention of going through free agency for a third time) that a twoyear deal, with an option for a third year, was locked in before the end of last season.

“I’m not privy to all of those conversati­ons,” manager Gabe Kapler said, “but I’ve heard enough about them and gotten to know Wilmer well enough to know that he’s had a huge influence on Estrada. … He’s a perfect role model.”

The tables were turned somewhat this offseason, as Estrada, a father of two (his 4-year-old daughter, Arantza, lives with him and his wife, Lorena, in Tampa), got to watch Flores prepare to become a dad for the first time. Their families frequented the beach and bonded over dinners.

“Not only was it a great experience to work out together,” Estrada said, “but also to build that relationsh­ip outside of baseball.”

Watching Flores’ work ethic up close only affirmed Estrada’s decision to dedicate the past four years to baseball.

“He has one thing that I wish I could have, or that anybody wishes they could have,” Estrada said. “He’s a leader, not just by coming up and showing that he’s a leader and talking loud. No, he’s a quiet leader in that he makes you want to like him and he makes you want to imitate what he does on the field.

“Especially for me, it’s a great honor because he’s a fellow countryman from Venezuela. What else can I ask for? He’s just that quiet leader that everybody wants to be their friend.”

Estrada and Flores have been watching with pride as Venezuela advanced to the quarterfin­als of the World Baseball Classic, but the fact that they are with the Giants in Scottsdale, rather than with their national team in Miami, only speaks to the depth and breadth of talent in the country. Find two spots in a starting infield consisting of eight-time All-Star and 2017 MVP Jose Altuve, 2022 All-Star Andrés Giménez, reigning American League batting champion Luis Arráez and Eugenio Suárez, who’s hit more home runs than Mike Trout and all but three other players since 2019.

While Flores hails from Valencia, the third-largest city in the country with a population 20 times that of Bejuma, his hometown can also claim longtime Royals catcher Salvador Perez, former Mariners Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez and numerous other big leaguers.

But in such a baseball-rich nation, Estrada is the only person from Bejuma to make the major leagues.

“They feel very proud of me; the kids look up to me,” Estrada said. “That feels good, but it adds pressure to me. I just think back to that sacrifice I made. The whole town and family are very proud of what I’ve done. They gave me a recognitio­n for being the best athlete in my town.

“It wasn’t just for what I’ve accomplish­ed in the big leagues, but I am very involved in the community. Even though I’m away, I’m still doing stuff for my hometown.”

Estrada will earn a salary of $2.25 million this season, his first making more than the major-league minimum. But he still remembers everything he once didn’t have.

 ?? NHAT V. MEYER/BAY AREA NEWS GROUP ?? San Francisco Giants’ Thairo Estrada (39) throws to first base after tagging out San Diego Padres’ Josh Bell (24) at second base on a fielders choice hit by San Diego Padres’ Brandon Drury (17) in the seventh inning at Oracle Park in San Francisco on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.
NHAT V. MEYER/BAY AREA NEWS GROUP San Francisco Giants’ Thairo Estrada (39) throws to first base after tagging out San Diego Padres’ Josh Bell (24) at second base on a fielders choice hit by San Diego Padres’ Brandon Drury (17) in the seventh inning at Oracle Park in San Francisco on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.

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