Kids growing up to be baseball players in Puerto Rico revere Roberto Clemente. The Puerto Rico-to-Pittsburgh Hall-of-Famer brought great pride to the U.S. island territory. Just a year after leading the Pirates to the 1971 World Championship, Clemente died when a cargo plane he had chartered to take relief supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua went down.
“He was a great person — on and off the field,” says 21-year-old Puerto-Rican slugger Neftali Soto. “Everyone wants to be like him.”
But Soto, a rising star in the Cincinnati Reds organization who takes over at first base this season for the Louisville Bats, says his personal baseball hero is closer to home — his dad, Neftali Sr., a player and teacher of the game.
“I played baseball because of my dad,” Soto says. “Since I was 3 years old, I went with him to the games, sitting in the outfield watching him play.”
Then it was dad watching the son play the game.
“Starting when I was 13, our team played two games a week, and my dad was the coach,” Soto says. “We practiced Monday through Thursday, then played Friday and Saturday. If I didn’t play well, he would work with me on Sunday.”
The practice paid off when Soto was signed by Cincinnati in 2007. In his first full professional season, Soto hit .388 with Billings, in the Class A Rookie League, and .326 at Dayton. He began finding his power at Lynchburg in 2010, with 21 home runs, with 73 RBI. Last year he socked an eye-catching 30 home runs in just 102 games at Carolina, plus one round-tripper in four games at the end of the season with Louisville. Thirty-one homers is a big number — and the most in the Reds organization since Adam Dunn hit 32 in 2001.
Soto’s secret is his natural swing. As the 6-foot-2 right-handed hitter awaits a pitch, he cocks his bat almost level behind his head, dipping it slightly once or twice — then uncorks!
Soto sweeps his bat through the strike zone. He lifts low pitches over the infield. But anything up, he may be ripping his home-run cut — with a little rise in the arc of the swing for the ball to clear the fences.
Originally, Soto was a shortstop, like his dad. But the Reds tried him around the infield, mostly at third, with a little catching. Now, though, Soto is settled in at first base, where he says he feels comfortable. That’s just fine with his coaches, who want a potential hitting star to think mostly about hitting.
Of course, first base is also the big-league home of Joey Votto, whom the Reds just signed to a $225 million, 10-year contract.
But Soto isn’t worried. The Reds placed Soto on their 40-man major league roster as they assigned him to Triple A Louisville. And he’s nothing but smiles.
“This was my first spring training in a big-league camp, and it was awesome!” Soto says. “It was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. If you are a hitter, you want to be hitting in the big leagues. And spring training is the closest I’ve been to that yet. It was great.”
Including time spent with Votto, the 2010 National League Most Valuable Player.
“I was impressed that he wanted to spend time with me,” Soto says. “He taught me to do this, do that. It helped me a lot. He would tell me, ‘Don’t let your mind wander off. Stick to your approach. Concentrate.’ The mental part of it.”
With that kind of attitude — and the numbers to go with it — it’s no surprise new Louisville Bats manager David Bell is happy to welcome Soto to Louisville.
And Bell identifies with Soto’s story of learning the game from his dad.
“That’s like me,” says Bell, a member of one of baseball’s three-generation major league families. Grandfather Gus Bell, of Louisville, played center field for the slugging Reds’ teams of the late-1950s. Father Buddy Bell was an All-Star and Gold Glove-winning third baseman. And David and brother Mike followed grandfather and father to the big leagues. Brother Rick also played professionally.
Bell knows every day won’t be a home run day for Soto. International League pitching is much tougher than anything his first-baseman has seen.
“The most important thing for him is to get more at-bats and keep getting better,” says Bell. “He’s already made huge improvements.”
And, Bell adds, “I don’t think the Reds are going to be at all impatient with Neftali, because he’s too important. He’s put himself in a position where he’s really knocking on the door.”
The Bats opened the season on the road April 5, and then opened at Slugger Field last Friday night. The current home stand continues through Monday, April 23.