By Nicholas Diunte
It might not be Citi Field, but for Ignacio “Iggy” Suarez, standing on the grounds of MCU Park in Brooklyn as the manager of the Lowell Spinners, is another step in his round-about journey to the big leagues. It is a long way for the Corona native who sharpened his skills on the New York sandlots.
“Growing up in Corona, we started playing for St. Leo’s,” Suarez told the TimesLedger. “When I was about 16, I went over to Brooklyn and played for Youth Service.”
Before Suarez played for Mel Zitter’s famed baseball organization that produced MLB legends such as Manny Ramirez, Shawon Dunston, and Yankees All-Star Dellin Betances, he almost missed varsity action at John Bowne High School. Luckily, his older brother’s reputation put him in favor enough with the head coach to make amends for his mea culpa.
“Going to the same high school as my brother went to, I missed the varsity tryouts and I ended up going out for JV,” he said. “When coach [Guy] Yacovone saw my name, he said, ‘You’re Bobby’s little brother?’ He said, ‘You aren’t playing JV, come practice with us tomorrow.’ He was a good influence on me, he had nothing but confidence in me to play. He just helped me to play my game. I played every day as a freshman and it went on for four years there.”
Little did anyone know, the skinny 5-foot-10 shortstop would be the target of major league scouts coming out of a school that only produced one major leaguer (Heathcliff Slocumb). Overlooked by the local papers which selected him as second-team All-Queens his senior year, Suarez was caught off guard when he received a phone call from the Texas Rangers informing him that he was their 34th round pick in the 1999 MLB Draft.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I didn’t even know anything about the draft; I didn’t even know the date. When I got the call that I was being drafted, I was surprised and shocked.”
Once the excitement set in that not only was he the first draft choice in school history, but that he had the opportunity to play professional baseball, his Youth Service coach Mel Zitter stepped in with some fatherly advice —he should go to college.
“I was playing with Youth Service and I knew I wasn’t ready yet to get into the pro level,” he said. “It was Mel. He is the reason why I’m at where I’m at right now. He got me out of New York, got me to go out to Texas to play JUCO out there and just grow as a person, not even as a baseball player.”
While many 18-year-olds might be tempted by the opportunity of Major League riches at such a young age, Suarez found his journey to college in Texas, first at Blinn Junior College and then Texas State, to be a much-needed blessing in disguise. It is advice that he would pass on to many aspiring ballplayers from the city who don’t always have the tools to handle the rigors of small-town baseball life.
“I matured away from home and grew up a bit by going through growing pains in college,” he said. “If I signed out of high school and learned how to grow up while playing pro ball, I would have been out of baseball so quickly.”
After grinding it out at two colleges, Suarez caught a break when he was able to play in the famed Cape Cod League in 2002 for the Wareham Gatemen, a team that featured a host of future major leaguers. It was just the chance that he needed to show he was a prospect once again.
“I was going to summer school my junior year in Texas and my coach got a call from the GM out there asking for a shortstop for the second half of the season,” Suarez said. “He called me that afternoon and offered me a spot to play in the Cape Cod League. I said, ‘This is going to tell me right now if I am able to hang.’ I played well, I got my hits and I was picking it. That’s what I was brought there to do and to pick it from short. That season, there was like five of us drafted by the Boston Red Sox. I think that summer was the reason I got picked with Boston that year.”
His summer in the Cape Cod League paid dividends, as the Red Sox chose Suarez in the 24th round of the 2003 draft. This time, Suarez had the confidence and maturity that would carry him through an 11-year minor league career that reached as high as Triple-A. He knew that he arrived when, in 2008, Bowman Baseball gave him his own prospect card in their baseball card set.
“It was like an ‘I made it,’ type of deal,” he said. “You saw some of the other top picks get them. I was in Double-A and one of the fans told me my card was coming out next week. At that time I had an agent and I was able to be cool enough to say, ‘Let me call my agent.’ He called Topps and they said, ‘It’s coming out next week and you’ve got a check coming in the mail.’ I felt like I made it, I’m big time right now. It reassured me that I worked by butt off and it was paying off. We always want reassurance, but little things like that; I felt my hard work was paying off for something.”
The slick fielding shortstop made it to Triple-A the next season, but unfortunately his bat couldn’t carry his glove. And even though he was just one injury away from the major leagues, the call never came. That didn’t discourage Suarez, however, as he hung on another four seasons in the Atlantic League, playing alongside and against those he grew up idolizing, including his teammate Roger Clemens and current Cyclones manager Edgardo Alfonzo.
“To face [Clemens] and to be able to take ground balls and play behind him, it was crazy,” he said. “I’ve been so lucky to play with the players that are in the big leagues right now and play in independent ball against guys I grew up watching. To be able to play against those guys was awesome.”
So just how did Suarez make the transition from being a player to a young minor league coach? After a 2013 hand injury, he lost the motivation to train to prepare for another long season. He knew it was time to move on.
“I broke my hand the last pitch I ever saw,” he said. “The rehab to get myself back to 100 percent to be in game shape was tough for me. That’s when I knew; when I didn’t feel like preparing anymore in the offseason. If you can’t prepare at your level, you have to go, and I’m content with that.”
Settled at home in Texas, Suarez put out feelers within the Boston organization and when a spot opened up in Lowell in 2014 to coach, he took it. In 2016, he was named their manager and took them to a first-place finish in the New York Penn League. Even though he doesn’t have to stand in against 95-mile-per-hour fastballs, he still gets the same butterflies when he’s in between the lines coaching.
“I still get nervous coming out here to coach, because I want to give back to what was given to me,” he said. “There was a lot given to me. I had a lucky career, to be able to leave New York, go to school away from home, and open up my baseball world.”