The Latin Link: Prado mania is growing
When a 12-year-old Little League player from Waipaho, Hawaii, introduced himself to the viewing audience during last year’s World Series in Williamsport, he raised a few eyebrows. After all, almost everybody on the renowned Waipio team idolized the “Flyin’ Hawaiian,” Shane Victorino. But there was one exception.
“My name is Matthew Campos,” the scrappy infielder replied, looking straight into the camera, “and my favorite baseball player is Martin Prado.”
The fact that Prado, the Venezuelan-born, 27-year-old, lead-off hitter for the Atlanta Braves, could be admired by a youngster from Hawaii is not that unusual. It’s hard not to like Martin because he’s an old-school, team player. He roams from position to position, gets dirty and makes plays in blue-collar fashion. Whatever the team needs, it’s Prado to the rescue. He’s the player nobody seems to know, but his popularity spans from coast to coast and all the way to Oahu.
“Martin may fly a little under the radar, but not on our club,” says the Braves legendary third baseman Chipper Jones. “It took him a while to get here, but he’s reaping the benefits now.”
Indeed, getting to the “show” was not an easy task for Prado. After breaking in with the Braves in April of 2006, he dropped down to the minor leagues seven times before landing a permanent spot on Atlanta’s roster over a year later.
“Yes, it was hard,” recalls Prado with a laugh. “It took lots of work and patience.”
The turning point in Prado’s career came in 2009 when he won the Braves second base job, and last season when he batted first in the order and established himself as a professional major league hitter. Both years he batted an identical .307 with home run pop and above-average speed on the bases. Midway through last season, Martin was hitting at a .325 clip and was named to the National League All-Star squad for the injured Chase Utley. But in late September, Prado had his own health issues, suffering a torn external oblique during a game with the Florida Marlins. The injury put him on the shelf and hurt Atlanta’s chances for a successful playoff run.
When the Braves acquired the Marlins Dan Uggla last winter, Prado was told that he would be bumped to left field and occasionally used at third base when Jones needed a day off.
“Of course, I was a little disappointed,” Martin admitted. “But I accepted the role because it was the best thing for the team.”
Knowing the situation, Prado came to spring training in great shape, shedding 14 pounds of his 6-1, 190 pound frame. Now he says he is faster and more agile, but the outfield play has been a work in progress.
“The biggest adjustment has been all the running,” he reports. “Then, when I hit and try to get on, maybe steal a base, there’s more running. I just have to keep my legs loose.”
Perhaps due to the position change, Prado got off to an unusually slow start this season. But a modest, eight-game hitting streak has raised his average to the mid .270 range, and he has hit three home runs — one being a game winner against the Milwaukee Brewers. Chipper continues to be impressed.
“Martin is a perennial .300 hitter,” says Jones, a certain candidate for Cooperstown. “I think he’ll win a batting title or two during his career.”
With superstars like Chipper Jones and young phenoms, like Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, centered in the spotlight, Prado is content to lay low and just do his thing. But his popularity meter is rising among knowledgeable fans, young ladies and fantasy geeks. Oh, and also that kid in Hawaii.
Martin Prado is a native of Maracay, Venezuela, a large industrial city near the Caribbean coast. … His childhood idol was Andres Galarraga, and Martin’s uniform # 14 is worn in honor of the “Big Cat.” … Prado says no matter what fame or fortune might bring, he will always be the same: “I grew up in a family of very humble people.” … New Atlanta skipper Fredi Gonzalez is a big fan: “I just love the way he plays. He’s the prototypical player we need on this team.” … Prado’s command of English is excellent, although, he’ll tell you he’s “still learning.”