LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – A young boy in Venezuela had a dream. He wanted to be smart. He wanted to fix machines. He wanted to help his mother and his siblings and his nephews because there were 12 people living in one small three-bedroom house, some sleeping on the floor, and he believed in hard work and devouring books on industrial mechanics would lead to a better life.
“I wouldn’t say we were poor,” Martin Prado said. “We had kids around and everybody knew how hard it was. But we were all together. Sometimes we had a hard time finding something to eat. But we found ways to help each other. That’s what I love about my family — we are always together.”
We read a lot about athletes with misplaced priorities. Some change with wealth and success. Some never had it right to begin with. Prado is one of the good ones.
He emerged as the Braves’ most valuable player last season until his year was ended by a hip pointer and a torn oblique muscle, two extremely painful injuries he probably would have tried to play through if doctors hadn’t duct-taped him to a training table.
He played three positions (second, third and first base). This season, he will play left field. Why? Because he can and that’s where the Braves need him. He batted first, second and third last season. Why? Because he can. He led starters in hitting (.307), plate appearances (651), runs (100), hits (184), doubles (40), slugging percentage (.459) and was fourth in home runs (15) and RBIs (66). He also played in the All-Star Game.
“I go to Los Angeles and they treated me like a king,” he said. “I felt like a little kid.”
Not bad for a former undrafted obscurity at Universidad Central de Venezuela who was going to school just to learn how to fix machines for a living.
Now he is a star. He is seeing the good and the bad of that.
Prado recently taped a humorous television commercial for the Braves. He will be seen as the organization’s Mr. Everthing. He plays the stadium organ, introduces players on the PA, fixes a computer, gives the weather forecast, models a watch. He also gives financial advice to team president John Schuerholz.
“In these volatile economic times, you want to diversify your portfolio,” Prado tells a riveted Schuerholz.
“I had a lot of fun with it,” Prado said. “I never thought I’d be on camera doing a commercial. Chipper told me he was on a commercial once and all he said was, ‘Bam.’ I have to try to say something about ‘diversify portfolio.’ It took me 12 or 15 times, and I don’t even know what that means.”
He is as loved and respected as any player in the clubhouse. He should be. He captains the first-to-arrive/last-to-leave club. In spring training, he arrives at 6:30 a.m. He works non-stop on his strength, conditioning and his game.
Chipper Jones calls Prado the baseball version of a gym rat.
“You almost have to pull the reins in and say, ‘Hey, go home,’” Jones said, “Sometimes I’ve been in here late getting treatment. Everybody else is gone, and he’s still in his uni, doing something.”
But it’s not all love. In Venezuela, Prado and his family are learning the downside of celebrity. While he has his supporters, he is encountering an increasing amount of anger and jealousy back home because of his success.
“People try to get into your family and split it,” he said. “Back in Venezuela they don’t want you to be happy because they are jealous. They are like, ‘Look at the guy, he’s a baseball player. Look at the family, they’re just having fun. They’re partying, having a barbecue.’ People start fights with each other.
“Before I got to the big leagues, I thought people would be proud if I made it. Don’t get me wrong, some are happy for me. But most of the regular people there are not [happy for me].”
As a youth, he vacuumed cars, fixed and painted school chairs. Everybody in the family helped out. At 17, he was told by scouts he had the talent to play professional baseball. He initially balked, not wanting to leave college. Prado: “But my mother said, ‘Sure, go ahead. You’re young.’”
He vowed to bring his work ethic to baseball.
“I wanted to try to be the best, or close to it, and the only way you get there is to take this seriously every single day,” he said. “I’m not trying to impress people. I’m just trying to impress myself.”
He is smart. He is fixing things: the Braves. Dream achieved.
By Jeff Schultz
Last few posts from Braves’ camp