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Elian Herrera finally gets the call to the majors

Thanks to injuries, the versatile Herrera gets a chance with the Dodgers at age 27. And he just might stick around.

May 29, 2012|By Dylan Hernandez
  • Dodgers second baseman Elian Herrera completes the relay on a double play as the Brewers' Rickie Weeks slides into the base on Monday night.
Dodgers second baseman Elian Herrera completes the relay on a double play… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Of all of the unexpected contributions the Dodgers have received this season, none has been as unexpected as that of Elian Herrera.

Herrera wasn't even in major league camp during spring training. He was in his 10th season in the Dodgers' minor league system when he was called up from triple-A Albuquerque on May 14 to replace injured third baseman Juan Uribe. He made his major league debut a day later at the age of 27.

"I'd like to tell you that I studied the minor league system and knew this guy could play, but I can't say that," Manager Don Mattingly said.

Herrera went into Tuesday batting .310 in 12 games. He has started 10 games — eight at second base, one at third and another in center field. Even as established players start returning from the disabled list, Herrera figures to remain in the major leagues. Mattingly has mentioned him as a potential leadoff hitter.

Herrera's journey from the Dominican Republic to the majors was long, difficult and, he says, beneficial. "During that time, I was able to learn the things necessary to play at this level," Herrera said.

Mattingly compares Herrera to Casey Blake, the third baseman on the Dodgers' 2008 and 2009 playoff teams. Blake, now retired, spent seven seasons in the minors before his first major league call-up.

"Those guys get a ton of baseball," Mattingly said. "When you've been through that many minor league seasons, that means you've been to a lot of spring trainings, you've heard a lot of talks about defense, you heard a lot of talks about baserunning, you've been through a lot of baserunning drills, bunting drills."

Herrera was signed by the Dodgers as a catcher after a weeklong tryout in 2003. His bonus: $15,000.

He remained three years at the Dodgers' Campo Las Palmas facility in the Dominican Republic. In 2006, he finally made his way to the United States and the Dodgers assigned him to their rookie league team in Vero Beach, Fla.

"You don't know the language," Herrera said. "The food is different. The culture is different."

But in Vero Beach, he was with several other Dominican players. Because he was in Florida, he frequently encountered other Spanish speakers.

Life became harder when he moved to places such as Midland, Mich., and Ogden, Utah. There, he lived with host families.

"You didn't encounter people there who could speak Spanish," he said. "I wasn't able to go out and buy food, get a taxi, respond in the case of an emergency. That's what forced me to learn how to speak English."

It was in Michigan that Herrera met his American-born wife, Staci, with whom he has a 2-year-old daughter.

Herrera was slow to develop, but he possesses a number of above-average baseball tools, which kept the Dodgers intrigued. He could run, he could throw, he had nice hands, he was a decent hitter.

"You have to have the skills to stay around," farm director De Jon Watson said.

Herrera said he never lost hope of reaching the majors.

"In the Dominican they say, 'Give 100%. What happens happens,'" Herrera said. "Even if you don't reach your goal, you could always tell your children, 'I gave the most I could give.' My dad taught me that."

Herrera's father, Martin, was a former pitcher who hurt his arm before he could sign with a major league club.

Herrera learned of his major league promotion last month while stretching with his team before a triple-A game. The manager called the team together.

"He told me the news in front of everybody," Herrera said. "It's something I always waited for. Every player is waiting for that call."

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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