A Twinkie-eating legend, Moncada focused on next taste of majors

Yoan Moncada at the plate during the second inning of an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs at spring training on February 27, 2017, in Mesa, Ariz. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Caption
Yoan Moncada at the plate during the second inning of an exhibition game against the Chicago Cubs at spring training on February 27, 2017, in Mesa, Ariz. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Credit: Armando L. Sanchez

Credit: Armando L. Sanchez

Among the fans waiting outside the player entrance to BB&T Ballpark or the Charlotte Knights' bus on the road, a couple of shrewd autograph seekers have started bringing an item to barter for one White Sox prospect's signature.

As reliever Zack Burdi recounted it, Yoan Moncada will make the transaction every time.

"If there's no Twinkies, sometimes he'll be like, 'I don't want to sign today,' " Burdi said. "But if there's a Twinkie there, he'll go straight for it."

Phenoms sometimes come with legends, and before he has played 10 games in the major leagues, Moncada, a 21-year-old Cuban infielder, already has a tall tale tied to an iconic American snack cake.

The story goes that Moncada, navigating life in the U.S. for the first time a couple of years ago, consumed an obscene number of Twinkies upon falling in love at first taste. Eighty-five in one week, one magazine story said. Two hundred, another article reported.

White Sox director of conditioning Allen Thomas, who worked this spring with Moncada after he arrived from the Red Sox in the Chris Sale trade, scoffs when he hears the outrageous numbers. Moncada's chiseled 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame makes it hard to believe he consumes much junk food.

Moncada admits he did, at one time, overindulge in the spongy cakes. He is unable to confirm a number eaten, except to say, "I know it was a lot."

"It was something I tried for the first time, and you start enjoying it, you keep on trying it," he said through an interpreter. "But I'm not so much into it as I was before."

The Charlotte fans might not have much longer to make the Twinkie trades anyway. It could be soon that Moncada leaves minor-league ballparks for the last time.

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A little more than two years after signing for a record $31.5 million bonus with the Red Sox, Moncada is working for that big-league call in a new city with a new organization.

A player with millions of dollars, his photo on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and an MLB.com ranking as the No. 1 prospect in baseball is being incubated in a 10,200-seat Triple-A ballpark a few blocks from the heart of Uptown Charlotte.

The White Sox, who acquired Moncada as the centerpiece of their rebuilding project, want to make sure the second baseman is ready to stick in the majors before they give him the call. By many accounts, he has handled the wait — a month and counting now — the right way.

"You run into people who have a sense they're above the game and above the little things," Burdi said. "I didn't expect that out of Moncada. I was expecting a normal person, and that's what we got. You've got a guy who treats everyone with respect, treats the game with respect, constantly works his tail off. You never would expect the amount of money he signed for or the amount of press and media he gets."

Moncada's agent, David Hastings, sounds like a proud parent when he talks about the transition to the White Sox as "just another step in his maturity," something Hastings would be able to gauge better than most.

The St. Petersburg, Fla.-area CPA and his wife, Jo, have become what Moncada calls "a second family," and Hastings said they treat him as a son.

The relationship began through a client introduction as Moncada was making the transition from Cuba to the U.S., a move for which Moncada said the Cuban government gave rare permission after a prolonged process. Jo Hastings had been in contact with his family to talk about details, and she suggested David work as his agent.

They have tried to help him with every aspect of his transition, from setting up his living quarters at every minor-league stop to helping him buy his first car, an I-made-it moment for a kid from Cuba. David Hastings suggested Moncada start with something "good, dependable, reasonable," but Moncada has opted for two BMWs and a white Lamborghini.

"It all came down at the same time," Hastings said. "To be 19 years old and to try to handle all of that — getting the largest minor-league contract ever, joining the Boston Red Sox, the hype, every reporter wanting to know what's going on in Yoan's head. ... (And I was) talking to him about the financial decisions and to watch out for everybody who wanted to take advantage of him. I get dizzy thinking about what I would have done myself."

Hastings said leaving Moncada in new cities is like dropping off a child at college, but the White Sox have provided him with support in Charlotte through Anthony Santiago, the club's coordinator of Latin and cultural development, who translates for Moncada and helps with on- and off-field needs.

Moncada said the most difficult part of his transition wasn't the language or culture shock but being away from his family.

Remaining in Cuba are two sisters, a brother and his mother and father, who taught him to play baseball in their front yard when he was 5. Moncada, who has a son in the U.S. with an American woman, said he dreams about his Cuban family one day watching him play in the major leagues.

"That opportunity would make me the happiest man in the world," Moncada said. "To have that chance to have my family here and also have them see me play in the U.S."

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On Thursday afternoon, with the Charlotte skyline towering in the background, Moncada was at BB&T Ballpark early with teammates, taking grounders hit by former major-leaguer Mark Grudzielanek.

Hired to be the Knights manager this season, Grudzielanek called for Moncada to take the last one, then instructed him to do it one more time. The White Sox said this spring Moncada needed to improve his defense before he reaches the majors, and Moncada has been happy to take instruction from a former second baseman.

Grudzielanek said he is not sure Moncada is aware of how good he can be, but to help him get there defensively, they have focused on footwork, using his hands, keeping his legs underneath him — and remembering not to take plays off.

"He's been getting better at that, focusing on each and every play no matter what the score is," Grudzielanek said. "But mechanically, he has the ability where the sky is the limit with him. He's athletic. He has a stronger arm than you think. ... We worked on quite a few things, and it sure does look better on the field."

Moncada has also seen his work pay off at the plate. Grudzielanek said he better understands pitchers' plans of attack and has started to hit off-speed pitches more.

With White Sox general manager Rick Hahn in attendance to catch up with the affiliate, Moncada extended his hitting streak to 10 games Thursday. Entering the weekend, he was hitting .340 with two doubles, five homers, eight RBIs and six stolen bases in 24 games.

Hahn said Moncada is making the requested adjustments and believes his approach, professionalism and work ethic are "as good as we could have hoped for." But he also stressed there's "more work to be done."

"It doesn't shock me that he has come along quickly given his talent, but frankly there are still a few more things we need to get done," Hahn said. "Repetition and doing this over the course of two months as opposed to just one month has value as well. ... It won't shock me if he continues on this trajectory and forces the issue in the near future, but there is still value to him being here."

Moncada, who played in eight games with the Red Sox in September, thinks he is ready for the call.

"Yes, of course, I feel ready," he said. "I'm just waiting for that call. I am doing all of my jobs here."

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A white T-shirt hangs on a bottom rack in the Knights team store with Moncada's name and jersey No. 10 printed on it.

It is the only apparel in the store that bears a player's name, and Chief Operating Officer Dan Rajkowski can remember only two player T-shirts being made in his 11 years with the club.

The first was for left-hander Carlos Rodon, who was from North Carolina and pitched at North Carolina State but made only five starts in Triple A before his big-league debut. Moncada was worthy of the second.

Minor league fan bases can be tricky considering the best players don't often stick around long, and Rajkowski noted a Knights game is often considered a social event or "a place to be." Many of the 7,331 fans at Tuesday night's game remained in the stands, interested in the game, while others congregated in the outfield concourse to socialize during play.

Naturally, Rajkowski said the club loves having a bundle of top prospects, and he thinks Moncada's renown has piqued interest in several circles.

"I haven't seen this much excitement from the media as it relates to our team," Rajkowski said. "We're in a major sports market with the NFL and NBA, so we oftentimes get overshadowed by those teams."

Moncada said Charlotte, a city where players feel comfortable walking home from the ballpark, is one of his favorite places he has been, though he hasn't had much of a chance to get out during his month with the team. When he does, he is generally unbothered.

"People don't really recognize me here, which is better for me," he said.

However, he likely could handle the attention.

Coming from the Red Sox organization, with its rabid fan and media base, he has had his story told numerous times. On Tuesday, he was shuttled to TV, newspaper and website interviews over 30 pregame minutes.

"I know it comes with who I am," he said. "I am fine with it. I enjoy it."

Santiago describes Moncada as quiet but fun-loving, at times keeping to himself when focusing on his game. He is among several in the Sox organization who don't believe the next step into the big-league spotlight will be a problem.

"He's used to it," Santiago said. "He's been around this, so he has an idea of what's going on. It's not like he's star-struck. He's handling it pretty well."

But Grudzielanek said nothing will truly prepare Moncada for the full big-league experience.

"You can say what you want to them and try to brace them, but can you really get them ready for the experience when they walk out on the field in front of 40,000 at Wrigley Field?" Grudzielanek said. "It's really hard to get somebody to understand what it's going to be like when they haven't experienced it yet."

Moncada had a taste of the experience last year. Soon enough, he'll be ready for the feast.