Kansas City Royals catcher Freddy Fermin will never forget this four-game trip to Toronto. It will be a life-long memory having nothing to do with vaccines or “personal decisions.”
Fermin’s memory will center around earning a distinction that nobody can take away: major-leaguer.
Fermin, 27, had been on the doorstep of the majors multiple times before. But he never got a chance to be on an active roster or have a big-league locker — or a jersey with his family name across the back and an official number — until this trip to Canada.
Getting that opportunity against the Blue Jays was incredibly meaningful to Fermin, a native of Venezuela who played in his first game on Friday night and made his first two starts in the majors on Saturday and Sunday.
“That’s the first thing we have, the first dream as a baseball player,” Fermin said. “When I was 5 years old, I was dreaming of this moment. Now, it’s real. It feels amazing. My family, everybody around me, they said, ‘Wow. You are in The Show.’ That feels very, very great.”
Signed as an international free agent in 2015, Fermin has played at just about every level of the Royals’ minor-league farm system. That includes now-defunct levels such as the Rookie League — he did stints with both Idaho Falls and Burlington — and having made his Triple-A debut last season.
Fermin was one of the eight minor-leaguers added to the Royals’ roster on Thursday after 10 players from the major-league roster were placed on the restricted list. Those 10 were not allowed to travel to Canada because they’re not vaccinated against COVID-19.
“He just keeps getting better,” Royals manager Mike Matheny said of Fermin. “Just like the rest of the group, he has earned the right to be here. I told all of them that (Thursday).”
They’ve each been in the conversation to join the big-league club when the Royals have had an injury or had to make a roster move, according to Matheny.
Fermin’s best asset may be his throwing arm and ability to help control the running game, but he’s shown all-around aptitude as a defender, whether it be game-planning or receiving, blocking balls. Fermin has also batted .265 with a .347 on-base percentage.
“Freddy has been in that conversation, and now he’s actually getting a chance to play (in the minors), too, where before it was MJ (Melendez) and Sebastian (Rivero) getting the majority of the work. He was just sitting back and just kept working and working.
“He’s done a great job of really gaining the confidence of the organization, the managers, the front office, by how he has gone about it.”
An emotional call-up
Fermin had been one of the catchers the club has brought on road trips as members of the “taxi squad.” He’d been invited to the alternate training site as one of the top 60 players the club had waiting in the wings during the pandemic season. He’d been with the big-league group during spring training.
But the Royals have also had a glut of major-league-caliber catchers in their system in recent years including Melendez and Rivero, and Meibrys Viloria (now with the Texas Rangers).
This season, at Triple-A Omaha, Fermin had been the backup to Melendez until Melendez’s promotion to the majors.
When Fermin got the news he’d be going to the majors, too, he became overwhelmed with emotion.
“(Omaha Storm Chasers manager) Scott Thorman called me to the office,” Fermin said. “I was crying when he said, ‘You’re going to be a major-league baseball player.’ I just started crying because that’s a dream. I felt, ‘Wow. You’re going to be in The Show.’ That’s amazing, the moment when they say you’re going to be a major-league baseball player. It’s unbelievable.”
It didn’t take long for the magnitude to sink in.
“I will be with the greatest players in the world,” Fermin said. “Wow. That’s what was happening in my mind. My family. That’s why I came here, to (live) my dream that’s playing Major League Baseball.”
Fermin wasn’t the only one struck by the gravity of that moment.
“It makes me smile thinking about it,” Thorman said. “It was very emotional with Freddy, in a good way. Freddy has grinded as hard as anybody we’ve had in the sense that it’s been extending spring trainings, backing up as a role. He’s been behind MJ a little bit in his journeys. Freddy is always ready to play at any time. He comes to the park with a positive attitude. He’s an extremely hard worker.”
In his role as the Triple-A manager, Thorman often gets to pass along the news to players that they’re being called up. Sometimes the news comes in the form of a surprise, others as a prank.
Thorman knew Fermin’s reaction would be heartfelt.
“Being Venezuelan with that extra pressure that those young players can sometimes put on themselves to support their families, it was a very, very emotional and special call-up for all of us,” Thorman said. “I had (coaches) Tommy Shield and Ryan Powers in there when I got to tell him. We told all the players individually because everybody takes it differently.
“We knew Freddy’s was going to be extra special, just with the history, knowing what he’s gone through. We’re just so proud of him, the work that he’s done. He’s a big-league player. He showed it (Saturday). He can throw. He can catch. He worked extremely hard on his English.”
Royals pitcher Tyler Zuber tweeted out a message of congratulations after Fermin got into his first game in the major leagues, lauding his work ethic and citing the tireless effort he put into learning English in order to communicate with teammates better.
Thorman, who came with the big-league club to Toronto to assist the major-league coaching staff, said seeing Fermin get into a game for the first time “hit hard.” Thorman was also heartened to have seen Zuber’s tweet.
“The coaching staff recognizes it, but to see the players recognize it is extra special,” Thorman said. “This guy has grinded like you can’t imagine. Catching can be a tough job, especially in a backup role. The uncertainties, the injuries. To the point of his English, he has not taken anything for granted. He’s maximized every opportunity and every little bit of extra help we’ve offered over the years.”
Playing in ‘The Show’
From Fermin’s perspective, getting into his first game was an experience that he couldn’t have fully imagined, but it’s also one that he’ll never forget.
“First of all, I was very excited for that moment,” he said. “And, wow. It’s amazing. It’s amazing, and I couldn’t believe it. I am in the show. I feel excited.”
He’s tried to take the approach of just “trusting” himself and doing the same work that got him to the majors. Reminding himself, “It’s the same ball.”
Rivero, also a native of Venezuela, signed as an international free agent the same month as Fermin: July 2015. They both played in the Dominican Republic as they prepared for their first season as professionals.
During spring training, the two often are workout partners, getting up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. to head to the training facility and get ready for each day.
Rivero made his major-league debut last season after having been placed on the Royals’ 40-man roster the previous winter.
“He’s a grinder, man,” Rivero said. “He’s a great worker. He works hard. In spring training, we always talk about ‘Hey man, your chance will come.’ This is the chance. Just have fun.
“That’s one of the better (pieces of) advice I can give him, because I went through that last year. With my debut, I was a little nervous. I told him, ‘Hey, have fun man. After the first throw you make to second base, those nerves — they’re gone.’”
Fermin’s first appearance in a game came after Rivero was taken out for a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning on Friday night. Fermin took over behind the plate the next inning and caught the rest of the game.
“I was like, ‘Relax, just be you,’” Rivero said of his message to Fermin. “You know how to catch a game. Just be you. You know these guys. You’ve caught them in spring training. There’s nothing different.”
One day later, Fermin got his first start. Before the game, he was nervous, but mostly because he was anxious to do something meaningful with the chance he’d waited a long time to receive.
“Now, the moment is here,” Fermin said. “I just want to play and show what I have.”
Fermin didn’t record a hit, but he had a strong day behind the plate, throwing out the lone runner who attempted to steal a base on Saturday.
Matheny, who won four Gold Glove awards as a catcher, said of Fermin’s first start, “I’ll guarantee I never looked like that in my first game, just so confident and so relaxed.”
This story was originally published July 17, 2022 4:48 PM.