Anyone who thinks Florida International University doesn’t have any of its former players in Major League Baseball this year would be wrong. Tony Diaz, who played second base for FIU, is in the majors — as a coach.
Diaz, 40, finally made the majors this year as the first-base coach of the Colorado Rockies, who appear to be bound for the playoffs in October for just the fourth time in franchise history.
As first-base coach, Diaz’s job is to shout quick instructions to Rockies base-runners, making sure they don’t get picked off the bag and ensuring that they are reminded of the situations, how many outs, how quick the pitcher’s move is or the catcher’s arm strength, for example.
By all accounts, Diaz has done his job well, and when the Rockies won their 2017 season opener on April 3, Colorado outfielder Ian Desmond had a surprise for him and another rookie coach, Ronnie Gideon.
“Ian said, ‘For two guys who have grinded their way through the minor leagues, this is for you!’ And then all the guys started pouring beer on me and Ronnie,” Diaz said. “It was awesome. It was special.”
What makes it extra special for Diaz is that he’s one of the few coaches who have made it to the majors despite never having made the big leagues — or anywhere close — as a player.
Diaz’s story began in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where he was a strong-armed shortstop.
When Diaz turned 16, two major-league organizations — the Philadelphia Phillies and California Angels — offered to sign him to a pro contract.
But Diaz, who had been convinced by his family as well as by his youth coach Manny Mota that he needed to get a college education first, declined those offers.
Mota, a Dominican native who signed with the San Francisco Giants at age 19 and went on to become a major-league All-Star in 1973 and a World Series champion as a player and as a coach, had a profound effect on Diaz.
“I remember Mota said, ‘In baseball, you win and you lose. But in education, you always win’,” Diaz said.
Taking that advice, Diaz left Santo Domingo at age 18, arriving in Florida to play junior-college ball at Gulf Coast State in Panama City.
After two years there, Diaz was drafted by the Angels in the 46th round. This time, he was determined to sign and start his pro career.
But a serious shoulder injury derailed that plan, and FIU, under head coach Danny Price at the time, still honored its scholarship offer. Diaz moved to second base because it was easier on his arm and became FIU’s starter in 1997 and ’98.
“Tony was a (pro) prospect until he got hurt,” Price said. “But Tony was always happy — never had a bad day. He was always there to help his teammates. He was passionate about baseball.
“To this day, he’s the same. I’m honored to have him come through my life, and I’m glad he found a way to stay in the game.”
After FIU, Diaz — who went undrafted — gave pro baseball a brief shot, playing independent baseball.
But, fortunately for Diaz, one of his former FIU teammates, pitcher Richard Palacios, had landed a job as a Rockies minor-league coach. And Palacios recommended Diaz to Michael Hill, who is now the president of baseball operations for the Marlins but at that time was with the Rockies.
The Rockies were looking for bilingual coaches with a strong knowledge of the game, and Diaz fit.
“I saw Tony’s work ethic and his attention to detail,” Palacios said. “He’s a very good communicator. In recommending him, I took a chance since it was my first year as a coach as well.”
Diaz, who said he feels indebted to Palacios, Mota, Price and many others who helped him along the way, spent 17 years coaching in the minor leagues.
But this past fall, when Bud Black was named the Rockies’ new manager, things changed. Black had heard good things about Diaz, and the two met during the Arizona Fall League.
Then, in December, Black offered Diaz the job as first-base coach.
“I was ecstatic,” Diaz said. “So many people reached out to me to tell me they were happy for me — former payers, scouts. … That touched me even more.”
Black said Diaz has been a good addition to his staff.
“He brings a lot,” Black said. “He brings energy. He brings knowledge. He has been great with base-running and a lot of the things we do on the infield.
“His interactions with the players have been great. I love having him as a sounding board to help me translate messages to our Latin players.”
Diaz said his one regret is that his father, Manuel, did not live long enough to see his son in the majors. Manuel was 73 when he was mugged and killed a few years ago in Santo Domingo. Diaz said his father resisted and was shot twice.
The coach’s mother, Rosa Gonzalez, is still alive. She watches Rockies games back home in Santo Domingo.
“She tells me that I look good,” Diaz said with a smile. “But she said to make sure that no one gets picked off!”