LANSING, Mich. via TORONTO, Ont. - When Lansing Lugnuts infielder Rafael Lantigua signed his first professional contract with the Toronto Blue Jays in August 2016, he cried tears of joy.For Lantigua, now 21, it had been a lifelong dream to play professional baseball.
LANSING, Mich. via TORONTO, Ont. - When Lansing Lugnuts infielder Rafael Lantigua signed his first professional contract with the Toronto Blue Jays in August 2016, he cried tears of joy.
For Lantigua, now 21, it had been a lifelong dream to play professional baseball.
Growing up in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, a trading port on the island's north coast, Lantigua joined his first organized team at the age of six, when he played with a local Little League team in his hometown.
Puerto Plata, the ninth largest city in the Dominican Republic by population, was, and still is, a hotspot for baseball players. St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martínez grew up there, as did Huascar Ynoa of the Atlanta Braves organization, the latter a childhood friend of Lantigua's.
Though he also enjoyed volleyball, basketball, and tennis, Lantigua was always drawn to baseball. His father, a doctor, adores the sport. So too do his uncles, who played amateur baseball when Rafael was growing up.
Having played at the IPL (International Prospect League) Baseball Academy in Santo Domingo, Lantigua was conditioned to the hard work necessary to make it to the big leagues.
"I had to leave [home] for one year," he said of his time at IPL. "It was a little hard because I was so far away from my family. But, it was a good time, it's a great academy."
Though the baseball education was crucial for the young Lantigua, perhaps even more important was the fact that, during the year he spent away from his parents, he learned how to cook for himself and do his laundry. He notes that while he grew a lot as a baseball player in that year, he also grew a lot as a person.
Excited yet nervous, Lantigua's first professional season was hard, by his own admission. Still, his first campaign, with the Dominican Summer League Blue Jays, was fruitful, as it saw him post an OPS of .755 and steal 11 bases to go along with six triples in 218 at-bats.
After a brief stint in the Gulf Coast League, he was promoted to Rookie-level Bluefield, where he spent the 2018 season. Aside from briefly visiting family in New York, the 2018 season was the first time Lantigua had been in the United States.
"It was different," he said of playing in the United States. "Bluefield was great. We had a great team, I enjoyed it a lot."
And enjoy it he did. In 48 games for Bluefield, he slashed a stunning .303/.422/.376, walking 30 times and striking out only 33 times, smashing seven doubles and scoring 28 runs in 165 at-bats.
That stretch, along with the previously solid stint in the DSL, earned him a spot in Lansing this season.
As he continues to work his speed, range, and ability to hit the ball to all fields, Rafael Lantigua, perhaps one of the most unassuming and under-the-radar names in the lower minor-leagues, continues to impress fans and supporters of the Lansing Lugnuts.
"I just need to feel my swing," he noted. "I was trying to swing too hard. This year, I just have to do less, which is more."