FORT MYERS, Fla. – Other than the tall palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze beyond the outfield wall, the perfectly manicured field at City of Palms Park, home of the Boston Red Sox Spring Training Camp in Fort Myers, Florida, seems worlds removed from the overgrown and rundown ballpark in Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua, where Devern Hansack learned to throw his nasty slider more than a decade ago.
But at 31, this aging former lobsterman is once again taking the mound determined to prove that the natural pitching skills that have gotten him this far in life are good enough to take him all the way to Boston’s FenwayPark when the season starts in April.
“That’s my plan, you know? That’s what we’re here for, to make it,” Hansack told The Nica Times in an interview last week, shortly after warming up for an exhibition game against the Florida Marlins. “I am just going to put my 100 percent here, and do what I could do.”
So far, Hansack has been pitching well in his second invitation to Red Sox Spring Training. His combined ERA in three appearances is 1.93, with five hits, three walks and five strikeouts over 4.2 innings.
“He’s doing well, he’s doing well,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona told The Nica Times before the game last Friday.
A Natural-Born Ball Player
Hansack is a humble guy with a pitching arm that is anything but. When he was nine years old, he could already throw a 60-mph fastball, which he used to mow down little league lineups up and down Nicaragua’s CaribbeanCoast.
By the time he was 15, he was already dominating the Nicaraguan Atlantic Series with an 85-mph heater and a good curveball (NT, March 16, 2007).
After making the team in Managua, Hansack eventually got signed to a minor league contract by the Houston Astros. But he was released in 2003 and returned home to Pearl Lagoon to work on a lobster boat with his friends. Still, he kept tossing the baseball around and eventually got signed to play for León for the 2005 inaugural season of the now-defunct Nicaraguan Professional Baseball League. In his first season back, he again showed his dominating stuff, leading the league with 89 strikeouts.
Hansack then got called up to pitch for the Nicaraguan National Team in the 2006 championship tournament in Holland, where he was “discovered” by Red Sox scout Craig Shipley, and signed to a $3,000 bonus.
After helping the Red Sox AA franchise win the conference championship in ’06, he got called up the Bigs and dazzled the team’s pitching coaches by pitching five innings of no-hit baseball against Baltimore in the meaningless last game of the season, before it got called early due to rain.
Coming off of a decent season last year for the AAA squad, he’s back at Spring Training trying to work his way onto the roster.
“So here am I,” said the good-natured Hansack, speaking Creole English with a thick Caribbean accent.
The lanky pitcher says that his previous experience in professional baseball has helped him to overcome some of his rookie jitters and focus on the task at hand.
“There is no more nerve there, what I be before, so I just go out there pitching and hope that your health in good care, so you go out there and do what you got to do: throw strike, you know, keep the ball down,” he said.
Hansack also said he’s learned he doesn’t have to strike out every batter he faces. The seven fielders behind him on the field are all capable of making outs if the pitcher can keep the ball down in the strike zone and let the batter put the ball in play, he said.
“You got a lot of guys behind you in the field, good guys, so they take care of a lot. So you just go out there and try to get the ball down, where you want it,” Hansack said.
Unfortunately, baseball in Florida’s Grapefruit League is sometimes a different story. Many younger players invited to Spring Training are often still jittery to be playing with the stars, and make errors they wouldn’t normally.
Just ask Hansack. In his appearance against the Tampa Bay Rays on March 7, he gave up five unearned runs on three infield errors in less than two innings. But the Nica pitcher says he’s trying to focus on the next pitch, not dwell on the last.
“That passed already so you try to do better than the day before. It takes hard work and I am going to keep doing it and I hope that I will be there (in the Major Leagues),” he said.
Age Not a Problem
Hansack is not the oldest player trying for a spot in the Red Sox bullpen (a distinction held by veteran pitcher John Smotlz, 41), but he isn’t exactly the youngest arm at camp either.
Still, the so-called “Monster from Pearl Lagoon” insists age isn’t a factor. Growing up in a remote fishing outpost on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, Hansack didn’t have the advantage of being scouted early in his career. He never got a baseball scholarship to play in college, and never got to work with a trainer at a specialized baseball academy.
His road to The Show was a lot bumpier, and self-made.
“I don’t matter about that,” he says. “Because we back home, you know, at Pearl Lagoon we don’t have a scout around so when I got my one chance I was a little bit older then, but they give me a chance and I make much of it, so then I here. But it’s not like we are going to come up in college, and in college you get drafted. And you get scouted. Maybe a scout comes around one of these times and you are good and you get an opportunity, you understand? But my age, I don’t matter about that because I don’t care about compete against nobody.”
While many Big League players have personal trainers who work with them during the offseason to stay in shape for Spring Training, Hansack said he spent a lot of time on lobster fishing boats.
“Not much to do to stay in shape, we got sun so you sweat a lot,” he said. But he said he also spent a lot of time running and throwing and following the workout program given to him by the Red Sox trainers.
“You have to keep up with your program and you’re going to be fine,” he said.
Though the mighty Red Sox – with their newly improved bullpen, aided by a several off-season acquisitions – may be one of the hardest teams to make in the Major Leagues, Hansack says he’s focused on the job at hand and not worried about what will happen if he’s sent back to the minors.
“I don’t think about that right now, but you never can tell what will happen when the time comes down and it’s the end of the Spring,” he said.
Other Big League Hopefuls
Hansack isn’t the only Nicaraguan player at Spring Training this year.
Over in Arizona, Texas Rangers workhorse Vicente Padilla, 31, of Chinandega, has had a solid start to his Spring Training, pitching four solid innings against the White Sox last weekend. Padilla – the only Nicaraguan guaranteed a spot on a Major League roster this season, entering the final season of his threeyear, $33.75 million contract with the Rangers – led his Texas team in 2008 with 14 victories, and 127 strikeouts over 171 innings.
Also in Arizona, at the San Diego Padres Spring Training camp, Nicaraguan prospects Everth Cabrera, a speedy middle infielder from Nandaime, and pitcher Aristides Sevilla, of León, are both fighting for spots on that team.
During a Cactus League game last week, Cabrera swiped two bases to help his compatriot Sevilla get the win for the Padres.
Hansack, who has played with all three, says he wishes the best for Cabrera and Sevilla in their quest to become the next members of Nicaragua’s very select club of baseball players who have made it to the Major Leagues.
“I know those guys well, those good guys, good kids,” Hansack said of the two Nicaraguan youngsters trying to make the Padres squad. “So I could just encourage them to keep working hard. We can’t let down our head, you know? We got to keep it up always.”