New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge and catcher Gary Sanchez are participating in the 2017 Home Run derby with the same pitcher. They will both have Yankees batting practice pitcher Danilo Valiente throwing the ball to them at Marlins Park in Miami.
Valiente has been working with the Yankees for over a decade, joining the team a year after arriving in the U.S. in 2006 from Cuba. The 51-year-old was born in Havana and has played baseball for most of his life.
Here’s a look at Valiente’s amazing life story and his career.
1. Valiente Earned Just $7.50 a Month as Manager for a Top Havana Club
Valiente has spent most of his baseball career out of the spotlight, which can be difficult when working for the Yankees. But in May 2014, he told his life story to The New York Times.
Valiente started playing baseball when he was nine years old, even joining the Boyeros minor league-level ball club. He played for the same team until he was 25 before he decided to coach instead. He coached that same team, leading them to a 1996 championship. He caught the attention of the Metropolitanos of Havana. Even though it was a top club and he coached there for 15 years, Valiente was only paid $7.50 a month and also had to take a second job at a hospital.
In 1999, The Baltimore Orioles played an exhibition game against Cuba’s national team in Havana. Valiente coached third base for the Cuban team.
Two years after that experience, Valiente met his wife, Isabel, an American visiting Cuba. In 2006, they moved to Tampa. Sadly, just a month after they arrived, Isabel lost her battle with pancreatic cancer.
2. Valiente Learned How to Throw Batting Practice in Cuba Because They Didn’t Have Coaches for the Drill
In Cuba, Valiente played shortstop and centerfield. He told the New York Daily News that he even won a batting title in his league. But while playing, he also had to learn the art of throwing batting practice pitches since their team didn’t have coaches dedicated to the drill.
“As a player, we had to take turns pitching to each other,” Valiente told the Daily News.
“He’s a guy that can really throw strikes. I already gave him some instructions. I like it middle in. Just a little in, but middle in,” Sanchez told the Daily News. “His face, I could tell he was very happy and excited for the opportunity to go out there and pitch to us.”
Valiente told the Daily News that getting to throw in the Home Run Derby “feels like a dream.”
3. Valiente Coached Future Yankees Pitcher Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez in 1996
When Valiente coached the Boyeros baseball team to a championship in 1995, his team included pitcher Orlando Hernandez, nicknamed “El Duque.” He went 15-0 that season.
According to Baseball Reference, Hernandez played for the Yankees from 1998 to 2004, winning three World Series championships. He later spent time with the Chicago White Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Mets before retiring after the 2007 season with a career 90-65 record. In his six seasons with the Yankees, he had a 61-40 record. He won a fourth World Series championship in 2005 as a member of theWhite Sox.
In 2014, MLB.com reported that Hernandez joined the Yankees as a minor league pitching instructor
4. Valiente Joined the Yankees in 2007 After Tracking Down Yankees Senior Vice President Mark Newman
Valiente lived in Tampa, near the Yankees’ minor league facility. A cousin told him where he could find Mark Newman, the Yankees’ Senior Vice President for Baseball Operations. So, Valiente tracked Newman down and told him about his experience in Cuba, notes the New York Post.
Newman was surprised, but he agreed to meet him, but Valiente couldn’t be hired right away because he didn’t have his work papers. Still Newman let him watch the Yankees batting practice. A year later, Valiente was hired. (Newman retired in September 2014, The New York Post reported at the time.)
“I needed something to help me through the grief,” Valiente told the New York Times in 2014. “Thankfully, Newman has a big heart. He is like my brother.”
Valiente built such a strong relationship with the players in the minors that in September 2013, he was promoted to full-time staff member and now works with the big league players.
5. Sanchez & Judge Say Valiente Knows How to Throw Perfect Pitches They Can Knock Out of the Park
Sanchez and Judge both chose Valiente because they trust him to throw the perfect batting practice pitches they can knock out of the park. In an interview with Newsday, Judge said Valiente “finds my sweet spot.”
“He’s a guy that can really throw strikes,” Sanchez told Newsday. “If I need it in a certain location, I can count on him to put it there. I already gave him instructions and I told him I’m going to want it middle and in, just a little bit in.”
Valiente often throws 200 to 400 pitches a day from an artificial mound placed just in front of the pitchers mound. He throws four-seam fastballs at around 55 to 60 mph. Sanchez told Newsday that he is “very consistent” and “throws strikes.”
Valiente looks at the Home Run Derby as just doing his regular job, but there is a big difference. He’s going to try to get every pitch in that “sweet spot” where Judge and Sanchez can hit home runs. Usually, he tries to locate his pitches in different spots.
“Where they want it, where they feel comfortable, that’s where I’ll try to put it,” Valiente told Newsday.