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50 pesos and a dream.
George Valera grew up 10 blocks from Yankees Stadium. At age 13, the native of Queens, N.Y., wound up moving to the Dominican Republic. It ended up being key to his dream of playing professional baseball.
“Most of the time my dad would be taking care of me because my dad got in an accident [when I was young],” Valera said. “So he practiced with me and took me everywhere. When I played in New York, I played a lot of travel ball, and he’d go with me and he coached me. He used to play baseball, he never played pro or anything. He just loved the sport. In the Dominican Republic, baseball is everything over there.”
Now, the 21-year-old is ascending the Guardians’ system and MLB Pipeline’s rankings as the No. 43 overall prospect in the game. And nights like Thursday’s two-homer, five-RBI effort for the Double-A RubberDucks will only add to his growing legend.
Valera went 3-for-4 in Akron’s 12-1 victory over Binghamton. In the first inning, he delivered a solo shot to deep center field. Then as part of a seven-run fifth, Valera crushed a grand slam to right-center. He doubled his home run total while amassing a season-high five RBIs.
And nights like these remind Valera of the long and winding road he’s taken to this point. In the Dominican Republic, he was denied the opportunity to play on multiple teams because of his stature. As a smaller athlete, coaches overlooked him left and right until his father gave a coach 50 pesos (approximately $2.50) to throw a few pitches to give his son a chance to display his talent and potential.
“The guy threw me a couple balls and BP and I was a little upset, so I just started hitting a couple of homers in the BP, and then [the coach] was like, you can come practice today if you get changed,” Valera recalled.
From that day on, he practiced with Arias and Goodman Academy in San Pedro de Macor?s. After a few seasons with the academy, Valera was invited to Spring Training and things went better than expected.
“I thought I was gonna go back to playing summer ball because that’s how it usually goes, but I guess I did well enough to stay for Rookie ball,” he said.
But when Valera got the opportunity to stay in the States, his mother wanted him to return to the Dominican Republic to finish school. He knew he was getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance, though, and he took a leap of faith instead.
On July 2, 2017, one of the best hitters in the 2017 international class signed a $1.3 million deal with Cleveland. He only played eight games in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2018 due to a broken right hand but averaged .333 (6-for-18) in his small sample, with one homer and six RBIs.
But that injury also enabled Valera to fulfill his mother’s dream for him to complete school.
“After I broke my hamate bone, my mom was like, ‘Hey, like you’re gonna be OK, but I’m gonna need you to come here and take this test,'” Valera said. “So the Guardians flew me out to the Dominican Republic so I could take my finals, and I passed.”
Valera made his full-season debut with Class A Lake County for the last six games in 2019 before the next season was canceled due to COVID. He took advantage of that adversity as well.
“I spent a lot of time with my mom and dad at home, and I even got to celebrate with my mom on her birthday because I hadn’t done that in a long time because I’m usually playing baseball,” he said.
Cleveland brought their now-top prospect to bring him to an alternate site for Minor Leaguers later that year.
“That was a blessing,” Valera said. “I got the opportunity to meet up with a lot of great guys, a lot of guys that have been in the big leagues like JT Maguire, who helped me a lot on the defensive end of my baseball. I’m super thankful for him, and I take a lot of pride in my defense because of that.”
Now fully healthy, Valera is reminding people why the Guardians think so highly of him. This month, the outfielder has gotten hot at the plate. He’s batted .288 in May, raising his average from .226 to .254 during that span.
“I’m excited that I’m playing, I’m taking everything day by day and not trying to rush anything and just do the best I can,” he said.
“I feel like I haven’t been performing how I normally do, and I’m not worried that I haven’t. It’s too early on in the season, and I know who I am, and I’m confident in myself. There’s a lot of good things coming, I promise.”