SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Rolando Fernandez, an original Rockie, is entering his 26th season with the organization. He’s collected enough frequent-flyer miles to circle the globe, with a half-dozen trips to Hawaii left over.
Fernandez’s second home might as well be the Rockies’ $6 million Dominican Academy in Boca Chica, which opened in 2013.
His official title is vice president of international scouting and development. He’s responsible, in some form or fashion, of bringing the Rockies’ best Latin players to Colorado. The roster includes Ubaldo Jimenez, Jhoulys Chacin, Esmil Rogers, Franklin Morales, Manuel Corpas, Raimel Tapia, Carlos Estevez and Antonio Senzatela.
Ask a Latin player about Fernandez and you’re likely to get a response bordering on reverence.
“He’s meant a lot to all of us. I mean, a lot,” Estevez said. “When we come (to the United States), we have to be ready. We have to be able grow, off the field, too, so we can perform. We do all of the stuff we have to in order to get better.
“Rolando’s always told us, ‘Don’t be shy of being there. Be ready to do your job. Be grown up.’ He’s not just a scout, he’s been a teacher and kind of a father.’”
Fernandez, 50, was born in Puerto Rico. He spent three years playing in the Cubs organization but never got above High-A ball. He earned a degree in advertising from Northwestern State University in Louisiana, but he never got baseball out of his blood, so it became his career.
“I try to mentor our young players,” Fernandez said. “We treat these kids like our own kids. They usually spend three years at our Dominican complex before they ever get to the States. So we get to know these players very well.
“We teach them how to play baseball, but we’re also very involved in teaching these young men to grow, as leaders and as good citizens. It’s a very long road from the Dominican or Venezuela to the majors.”
Senzatela, 23, has grown into a 6-foot-1, 230-pound man with a 95 mph fastball and a bright future. But when Fernandez first met him, he was a 15-year-old string bean playing third base in Valencia, Venezuela. The pro scouts were already sniffing around. They’d heard about Senzatela’s blazing fastball, and when they got a closer look, they envisioned a big-leaguer.
Fernandez was there at the tryouts, hoping to convince Senzatela to join the Rockies organization. It wasn’t easy. In 2010, major league teams were exponentially ramping up their Latin American scouting operations. Big money was now on the table. Players who used to sign a contract for $10,000 or $15,000 were now looking for $100,000 bonuses.
“After seeing Antonio work out, and after getting reports from our scouts, I approached his mom and I told her, ‘I don’t know if we are going to sign your son, but we are going to do the best we can,’” Fernandez recalled. “This was eight months before he was even eligible to sign a contract. He was just 15. It wasn’t easy to sign him, because he had an agent and there were a lot of other teams interested. But we stayed on him, we kept talking to him, and we were able to sign him.”
Senzatela is now competing for a spot in the Rockies’ starting rotation. He made his debut April 6 of last season, becoming the National League rookie of the month after posting a 3-1 record and a 2.81 ERA. He finished his rookie season 10-5 with a 4.68 ERA.
Senzatela’s English has improved immensely since he made his Rockies debut and stood nervously in front of TV cameras. He now carries himself like a big-league pitcher, and he thanks Fernandez and the rest of the Rockies’ developmental staff for the transition.
“Fernando is older now, but he’s the same guy I met at that tryout camp when I was 15,” Senzatela said. “After he signed me, he always stood behind me. He was always telling me, ‘You need to play the game right, and everyday you need to go out and play hard.’ But the best part of Rolando is that he’s tried to teach me to be a good person.”
Fernandez recalls, with pride, how the Rockies created a cultural development program from the ground up. A primary goal is helping prepare young Latin players for the very different life they will face in America.
“We have a very good cultural development program, led by Josh Rosenthal and Angel Amparo,” Fernandez said. “Since we hired those two guys to teach English and help them with the transition, we’ve seen a big difference.”
Fernandez heads a department that continues to grow. This year, the Rockies will field a second team in the Dominican Summer League. Competition is getting fierce, but Fernandez vows to make sure the Rockies’ presence remains high in Latin America.
The Rockies’ Dominican facility in Boca Chica is considered one of the best in baseball. It houses about 80 players and includes a clubhouse with dormitory-style living. The Latin prospects can receive first-class medical care there, as well — some of them for the first time in their life.
The facility features a weight room, training room, entertainment space, a computer room and a classroom. There are two full-sized baseball fields that are kept in big-league condition. There is also a half field for infield work, three batting cages and extra pitching mounds.
It’s what helps draw Dominican players to the Rockies.
“Things are much more intense now, compared to when I first started,” Fernandez said. “There is so much more competition for the young players now, but you still have to be careful that you find the right kind of people.”
Fernandez takes immense pride in the Rockies’ international program.
“I’m a person who believes in loyalty, leadership and perseverance,” he said. “I would like to lead the younger scouts that are coming up now. I want to help them develop this. I’m very proud of where we are right now.”