Chris Aguila admits he was never trying to break any barriers. Heck, he wasn't even aware of any barriers until after the fact. But as one of only two players of Samoan heritage to ever play Major League Baseball, Aguila has a unique place in history.
"A reporter in Florida happened to bring it up," Aguila said. "I did take pride in it once I knew about it. I didn't realize it because I guess there weren't many Samoans that you looked up to in baseball like you do Latin American players, or Japanese players. It just happened."
What happened was Aguila joining Tony Solaita, who spent 12 seasons with five teams, as the two ethnic Samoans in major league history when he made his debut with the Florida Marlins on June 28, 2004. Ironically, Aguila was in New Orleans playing for the Albuquerque Isotopes at the time of his promotion, and now he calls Zephyr Field home.
"I got my first call-up here, so New Orleans will always be special to me," Aguila said.
Making it even more special was the long road Aguila took to get to the majors, having spent eight years in the minors before getting the call. He made the Marlins' Opening Day roster in 2005 and 2006, and by the end of that season, Aguila had spent more time in the Florida organization - 10 years - than any other player in team history.
"You come out of high school and you think the big leagues aren't that far away," Aguila said. "Then you hit rookie ball and go through some A-ball towns and think you're never going to get there. It was definitely worth the wait. It was a lot of hard work, and gratification that hard work really does pay off."
Now, the Zephyrs outfielder is looking to work his way back to the majors, after an intercostal muscle injury cost him much of his 2007 season with Indianapolis, the Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. A seven-game hitting streak to open the season indicated he's not far off.
"Last year I went through some adversity, I never really got in a groove, and I was never really given the opportunity that I've been given over here," Aguila said. "My whole goal this offseason was to get back to where I was when I was with Florida. Just get my swing back and try to work on simplifying things, and that's what I've been trying to do here with Jack (Voigt, hitting coach) - just keeping a simple approach."
"He's one of our most consistent guys in having quality at-bats," Voigt said. "It shows in the way he prepares, how he handles his at-bats, you can tell he's spent three years in the big leagues. Hopefully, he will make his way back."
A veteran of three seasons in the Pacific Coast League, Aguila says there is a benefit to returning from his stint in the International League last year.
"I wouldn't necessarily say it's confidence, but comfort. Being able to go places and know where the cages are, know how to get to the ballpark, know the way the travel works, it's a little more comfortable being in the PCL," Aguila said.
The Reno, Nevada native grew up rooting for the San Francisco Giants and following the exploits of Kevin Mitchell, Will Clark and Barry Bonds.
"There were guys that I liked, but I was more or less just a fan of the game," Aguila said. "There wasn't one player I tried to be like, I just tried to see things in different players that I liked and tried to use those in my game."
While those players have Most Valuable Player Awards and All-Star honors to their credit, one aspect of their resumes where Aguila has them beat is the Polynesian fire knife dance, something the 29-year-old picked up when he was in the fifth grade.
"I started dancing with my family in a Polynesian group, performing at casinos, weddings, parties," Aguila said. "One of the guys in the luau did the fire knife dance and I was a young kid that was very intrigued and mesmerized by the fact that this guy was twirling fire, so I asked him to teach me. I got to do it a couple times, but once I signed out of high school, I couldn't do that stuff."
"When I played in A-ball in Kane County, I went on their weekly TV show with another player. My dad actually sent in a tape of me doing the fire knife dance, and they showed a clip of it on the show. We were going to the playoffs, so they asked the manager, 'If you guys win it, will Chris do the fire knife dance on the field?' He was like, 'No, I don't think so.'"
Who knows - perhaps a Zephyrs championship would be just the occasion to bring the fire knife dance out of retirement.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.