The coronavirus seemingly affects everything in American life these days. But Johan Limonta isn’t too concerned about what sort of impact it might have on his job as a Houston-area youth baseball instructor.
Limonta, a playoff star for the 2013 Texas League champion San Antonio Missions, lives in Katy. His home is situated in a baseball hotbed, in the suburbs of a sprawling metroplex. As a hitting coordinator with USA Prime, an organization that serves elite players in the state, he says he stays busy talking to plenty of kids who are seeking his help.
“Right now, I’m coaching two groups,” said Limonta, a 36-year-old Cuba native. “I’m coaching (12-and-under and 14-and-under). Right now, everything is stopped because of the virus. But I have a baseball field close to my house, and I work with high school guys. We’ll go out and do hitting groups with them. We make sure they get their work in, even though they’re not playing now.”
If young players in Katy are looking for guidance on how to stay ready under adverse circumstances, Limonta might be the guy to have on speed dial.
He has battled through so much adversity for most of his life, he probably wouldn’t know how to react without it. In fleeing from Cuba, he said he crossed the Caribbean Sea on a crowded boat en route to Florida when he was 19 years old, in search of a dream.
Though he never reached the major leagues, he did play in 1,373 games over an 11-year period through 2016.
During that time, he competed in the U.S. minor leagues, in Mexico and in Venezuela. Limonta hit .283 for his career and made memories just about everywhere he played. Some of the memories, he cherishes, such as the grand slam he hit for the Missions in a deciding Game 5 of the Texas League title series.
Other memories, however, make him wince. If you ask him about his sojourn from Cuba to Florida, for instance, he pauses to think about how to answer.
“It was not fun,” Limonta said in a telephone interview. “It was risky. I came in a boat with about 32 people. It was really small for so many people…We stayed two days (on the water). It was bad. I’m lucky we made it, because it was really risky. I’m not really ready to do that, anything like that, again.”
On the water? For two days? “Yeah, two days,” Limonta said. “No water. No food. It was a good thing we made it, and everybody made it safe.”
On the boat with him were four ball players. But, he said, no other members of his family traveled. It wasn’t like he had a fat baseball contract waiting for him in America, either. “No, I got here with no money,” Limonta said. “Nothing. Just, nothing. Just shorts. A T-shirt and shoes. I didn’t have a family or anybody here. I had friends, but no family.”
When he arrived in Florida, it was October of 2004. Limonta said he kept busy by working out and trying to get into pro tryout camps, in hopes of being drafted. By the following June, he elected to take a scholarship offer to attend Miami-Dade Community College.
“The coach said they could help me get signed the next year,” Limonta said. “He said he had a scholarship, and the only thing I had to do was go to school every day. The coach said, ‘If you don’t have the (academic) credit, you cannot play.’ I said, ‘I can do that.’ ”
Finally, in June 2006, Limonta got the call he wanted.
After a productive season at Miami-Dade, he was drafted on the 20th round by the Seattle Mariners. In the minors, the first baseman and outfielder enjoyed some solid seasons offensively, hitting .302 at Double-A West Tennessee in 2010, followed by .319 at Triple-A Tacoma in 2011 and .384 for Diablos Rojos del Mexico in 2012.
By 2013, after his release from the Mariners and a season of winter ball, Limonta joined the independent York Revolution in York, Pennsylvania. But by May, the San Diego Padres signed him, sending him to play for manager Rich Dauer at Double-A San Antonio.
“At first he was pretty quiet when he joined our team,” Dauer said. “But he fit in. He really helped me. He helped me with the other Latin players, letting them know what we wanted and what they needed to do.”
Limonta didn’t burn up the league during the regular season, hitting only .255 with four home runs in 247 at bats. But when Dauer needed him, he responded in a big way.
With a red-hot Tommy Medica called up to the San Diego Padres after the first round of the playoffs, Limonta assumed a larger role in the title series, starting an afternoon, winner-take-all, Game 5 at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock.
On the mound for the Travelers was TL All-Star right-hander Brandon Hynick. The Missions led 1-0 in the fourth when Limonta, who had been scorching the ball in batting practice that morning, stepped to the plate. With two out. Bases loaded.
“I think it was about an eight or nine-pitch at bat,” he said. “It was a long at bat, a 3-2 count. I fouled off, like, three or four times. Then he threw me a changeup, and it was up…I was just living in the moment. I was thinking, ‘This is the right moment. This is why I’m here.’“
He sent the ball soaring over the wall in right center and into the Travelers’ bullpen, clearing the bases. The Missions went on to win, 5-0. “I hit that ball so hard,” Limonta said. “It felt good.”
In a telephone interview from his home in Atlanta, Dauer said he enjoyed good relationships with all of his players in 2013 and 2014. But in discussing his former first baseman from Cuba, he issued a firm proclamation of support.
“You tell him I love him, and that I was very thankful for him,” said Dauer, adding that he hopes Limonta continues to chase his dream as a coach.
“My advice would be to keep doing what you’re doing, because he’s doing what he loves,” Dauer said. “He’s helping people. He was always a positive influence on our team. He’s someone who makes a difference in other people’s lives. (I’d say) just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Limonta was humbled to hear Dauer’s words of encouragement.
“Rich, to me, is one of the best coaches I ever had in my career,” he said. “He played in the big leagues. He coached in the big leagues for a long time. So, he’s a guy, if you want to learn, you really want to be around that guy.”
When Limonta last competed in a full season of baseball, in 2016, with the independent Sugar Land Skeeters, he said he knew it was time to give up his playing career.
Now, he said he feels blessed to have a “beautiful family” and to live in an area of Houston where he can drive around and see “a lot of green.” In his home, he lives with his wife and three children. Limonta’s father also lives with him. He said he is grateful for it all because of how hard he had to struggle as a young man.
“Sometimes,” Limonta said, “I talk about that with my wife -- where I come from, where I would like to go. My kids, I would like to take them to Cuba to kind of show them where I came from, the fields where I played baseball. But, right now, I feel blessed. God blessed me with everything I have right now.”
In 2004, Johan Limonta arrived in the United States after fleeing on a crowded boat from his native Cuba. During his professional baseball career, he hit a playoff grand slam that helped the Missions to the 2013 Texas League title. He now says he feels “blessed” to live and work in Katy as youth baseball instructor.