Isan Diaz stood in the box at Citi Field, waiting for a fastball from Jacob deGrom to land in the right spot of the strike zone as Monday afternoon turned into Monday evening. Raul Diaz sat in Section 121, soaking in the moment with dozens of family members and friends as they watched the start of his son’s Major League Baseball and Miami Marlins career finally become a reality.
Father and son have been tied together throughout Diaz’s journey to the big leagues — from whiffleball in the kitchen of their one-bedroom apartment in Springfield, Massachusetts, when Diaz was 5 to Monday’s debut.
So it was only fitting that they were connected in the moment that Diaz introduced himself to the MLB world.
Diaz, with his smooth, compact swing, took deGrom’s 97-mph fastball over the heart of the plate and crushed it 422 feet over the right-center field wall and into the New York Mets’ bullpen.
Meanwhile, as his son trotted around the bases for his first MLB home run, dad, arms stretched out, did what any proud dad would do.
“Iiiiiiiiiisan,” Raul Diaz shouted on live TV in a 30-second moment of joy that quickly went viral as his oldest child opened his MLB career with a solo home run against the Mets’ ace and reigning Cy Young winner in the sixth inning.
“Never in a lifetime would I think that a reaction of something of joy, something of passion that you’ve worked so hard for, watched and witnessed with your eyes, your own son do something that spectacular — and then for it to go absolutely crazy on the internet — it’s pretty, pretty special,” Raul Diaz would say a day later, reveling in the fact that the moment actually happened. “It tells you ‘Why not?’ A father watches his son hit his first home run. It’s pretty special for me and my wife, our children. We could not have put it any better than that.”
The moment of pure euphoria capped a journey 18 years in the making. And not just for the 23-year-old Diaz, who worked through six minor-league seasons with three organizations before being pegged as the Marlins’ second baseman of the future after being acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers as part of the Christian Yelich trade in January 2018.
But also for the father, who gave up his own baseball career and dropped out of college to support his son. For the mother, who understood and accepted the sacrifices that needed to be made for her son to reach his dreams. For the grandfather, who fostered a love for the sport that has been passed down for two generations and who, at 62 years old, kept playing in an adult softball league until a home plate collision in late September left him paralyzed from the neck down.
“It’s huge for me,” Diaz said of the family support. “Lots of advice. Lots of constant repetition, reminders, motivation. They’re a big part in why I’m here. You have people where they care about you and help you.“
And he honors them as he plays.
Diaz changed his jersey to No. 1 this year as an homage to his grandfather, Johnny Velazquez, following his injury. Velazquez recently began therapy and is slowly beginning the recovery process 10 months after the accident.
“He’s having some positive movement,” Raul Diaz said. “His mind-set and his heart is full of hope. And him watching this kid unveil himself gives him a lot of hope to say, ‘I’m going to be OK. I’m going to watch this kid.’ That’s special to us.”
Diaz came up through his high school career and early on in the minor leagues as a shortstop before moving exclusively to second base as he approached the higher levels.
It’s the position his dad played until 1996, when he left Wallace (Alabama) Community College after one year after finding out his wife, Delsa Santana, was pregnant with their first child. At that time, he had previously been a finalist at a Boston Red Sox tryout only to be told he was too short. He was being scouted by the Baltimore Orioles when Santana was approaching her due date.
At that point, Raul Diaz gave up the sport he loved.
“I told myself that I was going to stick by him and find a way to get him here,” he said.
In return, he found joy watching his son’s career unfold.
Diaz, part of a baseball-centric family, was immersed in the sport almost immediately. He remembers picking up a bat at age 4, gripping it like a left-handed batter even though he’s a righty.
By the time he became a teenager, baseball became his life. Travel ball with the New England Roughnecks. High school ball with the Springfield Central Golden Eagles.
He began receiving national attention and had committed to play at Vanderbilt before being drafted 70th overall in the 2014 MLB Draft.
“There wasn’t a day that I wasn’t doing a baseball activity,” Diaz said. “That stayed with me for a long time. It’s just been that way ever since. Baseball’s in me. I don’t know what I would do without it.”
He grew up idolizing Robinson Cano and at one point strove to mirror his game like Chicago Cubs two-time All-Star Javier Baez.
And while he still looks up to many of the league’s top infielders, Diaz wants to forge his own path.
“I’ve realized and I’ve learned a lot that I need to be myself, to be Isan Diaz,” he said.
And who exactly is Isan Diaz?
He’s the guy who rolls with the ebbs and flows. He appreciates the runs of success as they come and knows how to learn from the failures.
“He has a lot of swag, a lot of confidence,” said teammate Lewis Brinson, who also came to the Marlins as part of the Yelich trade along with pitcher Jordan Yamamoto and outfielder Monte Harrison. “That kid has so much confidence in himself and in his game. He is going to be great, and I can’t wait to play alongside him for a long time.”
He’s the guy who thanks his high school coach for throwing batting practice, a gesture that took Mike Donato aback.
“I almost did a double take,” said Donato, who coached Diaz for three years at Springfield Central. “I was like, ‘What?’ I’ve played baseball almost my whole life. I don’t think I ever thought about saying thank you for batting practice. It kind of comes with the job. It really gives you insight into what kind of a person he is. You really appreciate that.”
He’s the guy who has a soft spot for his mom’s cooking. The go-to dish is rice, beans and plantains — there has to be plantains every day, Santana says — but every dish she makes has “that touch,” he says.
And he’s one of several young players in the Marlins’ organization who looks to be a firm part of their rebuild.
“I would say I’m an exciting guy,” Diaz said. “I’m always ready to go, not taking anything for granted. Try to be the best player I can be every single day.”
He also has a firm sense of his baseball identity.
Watch his swing. Watch as it flattens out in the strike zone, maximizing the amount of time he can get quality contact on a pitch.
Almost as importantly, watch his patience, his ability to recognize the strike zone and find the right time to strike.
Watch him on defense. Watch as he patrols the right side of the infield and uses his quick feet and soft hands to seamlessly make plays.
Now watch the ball. Watch as it bounces off his bat and soars through the sky. Keep following it until it lands over the wall for a home run. He did that 26 times in Triple A this season before getting called up. He did it three at-bats into his MLB career. His dad taught him that his power comes as much from a strong grip on the bat as it does from being stable in the legs.
“You see the swing is solid,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “He’s a guy that has pretty good recognition in the strike zone. Everything that we see is that he’s a guy that can handle himself at second base. He’s one of those guys that, day-in and day-out, you appreciate what he does.”
The Marlins were patient with Diaz this season, taking their time with him even as he tore up the Pacific Coast League. They had multiple opportunities when they could have called him up, but they wanted to make sure his three-plus months of success in Triple A this year — his first true stretch of sustained production since joining the organization — wasn’t a flash in the pan.
“It’s been a long time,” Diaz said. “I’m thankful that it’s finally here.”
He’s going to go through his rough patches. He hasn’t record a hit since that home run in his debut, but the Marlins anticipate he will start correcting himself as he adjusts to the pace of the major-league level.
“It’s just a matter of letting him develop,” Mattingly said. “We felt like he got all the development he could at the Triple A level. I expect him to have some struggles, quite honestly, but I expect him to make some adjustments.”
And as dad watches from the seats, he knows it’s only a matter of time before Diaz gets into his groove.
“The game will take care of you in the end,” Raul Diaz said. “Here we are. The beginning of the Diaz journey.”