Spring 2021 Magazine

Odubel Herrera: Little Bull, lot of faith and exactly what MLB needs

It’s a late-April night in 2018, and Odubel Herrera is up to bat against Ivan Nova, a Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander.

Nova stands steady on the mound, preparing to throw. In the time he breathes in, breathes out and lifts his leg to drive toward home plate, Herrera has already raised his own front leg twice, at least a foot off the batter’s box dirt, and reared his bat as if ready to swing. Already in motion and cocking himself back during Nova’s follow-through, Herrera is unable to reset himself and watches the pitch go past him — a strike right down the middle.

Nova is ahead in the count.

Common sense says he’s also completely bewildered.

By traditionally valuing patience and discipline over spontaneity and risk, baseball is a breeding ground for superstition. It’s not unusual to see players obsessed with repetitive quirks — like un-strapping and re-strapping batting gloves after every pitch. But no one’s lifting their leg and faking a swing two times before a pitch. That’s unorthodox. It’s probably even pointless. But it’s what Nova sees.

And it most certainly fits Odubel Herrera.

Physically speaking, the Philadelphia Phillies standout is a tick stockier than your everyday Major League Baseball center fielder. He stands 5-foot-11 (compared to the average 6-foot-2, per Business Insider) and weighs 205 pounds (compared to about 197). But the size disparities are hardly the most obvious ways Herrera breaks the mold.

There are his neck-length dreadlocks, which cause his helmet to pop off during routine swings and, for a brief time, were paired with a blonde-dyed beard. There’s his penchant for exuberant bat flips — something most batters reserve for walk-off homers but Herrera employs for walks and sacrifice flies. There’s his full-fledged embrace of his “El Torito” nickname (Spanish for “Little Bull”) — after each hit, he mimics bull horns with his hands on his helmet.

And above all, there is his play. It’s almost impossible to describe. He bats from the left and throws from the right, but everything in between ranges from quizzical to masterful. He hits homers on line drives. He flails at pitches in the dirt. He whacks singles off bouncing balls. He slides face-first into first. Sometimes he even fakes swings.

Much like his batting average, Herrera is a hot-and-cold guy even to loyal Phils fans — a love-or-hate target depending on the day. But for as likely as he is to swing himself out of his helmet, get caught in a rundown or unnerve opponents by pointing out pitch locations to the umpire, he’s also just as likely to win a game for you — like in that late-April showing vs. the Pirates, when he went on to smack a go-ahead triple to lift Philadelphia, 2-1.

Herrera is simply and simultaneously one of MLB’s most rough-and-tumble players, one of its most crafty batters and one of its most unique characters.

His style and accompanying appearance may be par for the course in new Phillies manager Gabe Kapler’s next-generation clubhouse. There’s even a sense, despite his occasionally costly antics, that he can be one of those rare lifelong Phillies. But it’s clear, in the big picture, that he stands in stark contrast to a game long centered on steady pace, fitted caps and disciplined stars.

To MLB’s credit, the league is at least publicly aware of this predicament, if not entirely committed to correcting it. Commissioner Rob Manfred, for example, is fresh off a rather public dispute over whether baseball’s best player, the all-world Mike Trout, is doing enough to market himself. The core issue: MLB doesn’t hold a candle to the name recognition of the NFL and NBA. For every Barry Bonds, there are a million Justin Uptons — steady stars who, outside of the ballpark, aren’t really “stars” at all.

Now that’s probably partly due to baseball itself — a game whose best players maybe get a hit in 30 percent of their at-bats and maybe get on base more than once in a three-hour game. But it stands to reason that if MLB is actively seeking poster men for supreme talent and supreme appeal, it should look no further than No. 37 on the Phillies roster. Bryce Harper gives you more power and Javier Baez gives you more consistency, but Herrera is about as good as you’ll do if your mission is to make MLB fun.

One of the reasons is he’s so outrageously enigmatic.

From a baseball perspective, that can be frustrating, but it can work. The 2008 Phillies won it all by balancing streaky fan favorites (like Ryan Howard and Jayson Werth, who combined for 318 strikeouts) with steady stalwarts (Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels). The 2018 Phillies surged into playoff contention years ahead of schedule by supplementing Herrera with the steadiness of Rhys Hoskins, Maikel Franco, Carlos Santana and Aaron Nola.

It helps, too, that Herrera is an undeniable weapon at the plate. Critique his unorthodox approach, but the numbers don’t lie, and neither does his journey to an All-Star resume. Signed by the Texas Rangers as an international free agent out of Venezuela, he maxed out as a Double-A second baseman before the Phils took him in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft and thrust him into the lineup as an Opening Day MLB center fielder. Since then, he’s maintained a career average above .285, an on-base percentage above .340, he’s upped his RBI total every year, and he’s on pace for a personal-best 25 to 30 homers in 2018.

Behind the hits, the bat flips, the dreads, the cheers and the inevitable eye rolls, Herrera is equally rare at his core.

This is a young man whose American platform isn’t immense partially because of MLB’s #brand problems but mostly because English isn’t his first language. (Even Phillies legend Mike Schmidt once apologized for suggesting that Odubel could never be the center of a team because of his “language barrier.”) But Herrera is constantly using his voice on social media, and contrary to his tendency to steal the spotlight on the diamond, he preaches humility more than anything.

A week does not pass without Herrera using Twitter, Facebook or Instagram to redirect his praise upward. He regularly retweets prayers “in the name of Jesus,” thanks God for being “my strength and my shield” and shares Bible verses for inspiration. If he played in the NFL and spoke English fluently, he might as well be Tim Tebow.

“Lord, thank you for all your blessings,” he shared in June. “We know that you are the one who guides our ways.”

Beneath the “Little Bull” who rams his horns into the traditions of baseball, it seems, there is a much more peaceful soul. Like his unique value in a sport craving more of his flair, Herrera’s faith has largely been overlooked, even if it’s perhaps the root of why he’s so unashamed of being different in the first place.

El SEÑOR es mi fuerza y mi escudo; en El confía mi corazón, y soy socorrido! Salmo 28:7 / The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in him, and I am helped! Psalm 28:7

Posted by Odubel Herrera – "El Torito" on Friday, May 25, 2018

 

Proclaiming divine thanks, of course, is nothing new, especially for professional athletes. But Herrera’s persistent testimony is so fitting for his story as MLB’s walking paradox.

He is quiet, a Spanish-speaking hero in a Philadelphia market. He is loud, a daily advocate for faith off the field and a daily disruption on the diamond.

He is confusing, a batter of head-scratching strategy. He is amusing, a batter of timely strokes and stylish locks.

He just is who he is.

And there’s no one like him.

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