Playing independent baseball helped GJ Rockies' Coronado earn pro shot
Putting on a professional team jersey for the first time is a cool moment for any young ballplayer.
For Nate Coronado, it was even more special.
After two years of independent baseball, the infielder got a phone call that, like the players selected in the Major League Baseball draft, changed his life.
The Colorado Rockies wanted to sign him to a minor league contract.
“My first year of independent baseball I met a couple of (scouts),” said Coronado, who was eventually assigned to Grand Junction. “They told me to go and play, let’s see how I can handle the competition.”
After one year at Camden County Community College in New Jersey, a Division III NJCAA program, Coronado knew he wanted to play pro ball. His best option was signing with an independent club, the Camden Riversharks, in 2015. He played in only nine games, got hurt and, he said, didn’t get much of a shot when he was healthy.
The Riversharks folded, and Coronado had to find a few club. He found a spot in the fledgling Empire Professional Baseball League with the Sullivan Explorers in Loch Sheldrake, New York.
Coronado, who said he can play all four infield positions, flourished. He hit .381 with four home runs, 12 doubles and three triples, and stole 13 bases.
Will George, a Rockies scout based in Delaware, called.
“My second year I tore it up,” said Coronado, the first player from the Empire League to sign a pro contract. “It was a really good year and they saw I could play, I could hit and handle any level. After the season was over they called me for a workout and I did pretty good. They loved what they saw and from there they called Zach Wilson (the Rockies senior director of player development) and he gave me an opportunity, and I’m not going to take it for granted.”
Coronado’s story, though, is more than one of an independent league longshot.
He was born in Philadelphia, but raised in the Dominican Republic. When he was 17, he returned to the United States to finish high school. He and his siblings were all born in Philly, so they would have U.S. citizenship.
“As soon as we turned 17 or 18, we came here. It was getting really bad in the Dominican Republic, our economy wasn’t good,” said Coronado, who is bilingual. “We had to work our way up; it was tough. Now we’re all here and we’re happy and have everything we need. We have each other, and that’s what counts.”
Life in the Dominican Republic taught him a work ethic, one that helped him survive the meager pay you receive in independent baseball.
“I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t told a lot of people,” Coronado said Thursday before the GJ Rockies’ first workout. “In the offseason I had three jobs just to make some money, to get some money for the travels and everything I had to pay, for a plane ticket or whatever.”
He delivered pizza, worked at an auto repair shop and at a baseball academy.
“I’m not ashamed of it,” he said of his days a pizza delivery guy. “That helped me a lot.”
When he wasn’t working at one of those three jobs, he was working out. The job at the baseball academy helped, because he could get some batting practice in between sessions.
“I had to go to the gym and do everything I have to do, field, hit,” he said. “I went to the gym really early in the morning. My days were long, but thank God they paid off. They haven’t paid off completely, but I’m going to keep working hard.”
Grand Junction manager Frank Gonzales got to know Coronado, who turned 25 earlier this month, during extended spring training.
“He goes out and competes. I think he can play the left side of the infield if we need somebody to play third or short; it kind of depends on what we get from the draft,” Gonzales said. “He swings the bat a little bit, has a little thump. If he can make consistent contact, we’ll see what happens; we’ll see how he does when the lights turn on.”
Coronado vowed that fans in Grand Junction will see a competitive player when those lights turn on for real Monday.
“I’m a good teammate and I’m a winner,” he said. “I like to win, I’m a competitor. If I see my team with their heads down, I’m going to be there for them. I love to win, that’s what I am.”
It’s no surprise that Coronado’s role model is Stephen Cardullo, who made headlines last season when, after four years in independent baseball, he signed a minor league contract with the Rockies, and in August was called up from Triple A to the big club and started at first base.
On Cardullo’s 29th birthday, he had a pinch-hit home run, his first in the majors, in the first game of a doubleheader Aug. 31 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and followed that with his first career grand slam in the second game.
Cardullo was released by the Rockies in May, but re-signed to a minor league contract and assigned to Albuquerque. He’s on the disabled list after wrist surgery.
Coronado knows he has a long road ahead of him, but it’s been a long road so far.
“It definitely makes me a better person, a better player and it makes you not take anything for granted,” he said with a big smile. “Everything is earned and not given. For me, I had to work really hard for what I want. It was hard to get here, but finally I’m here, and I’m not gonna stop until I get in the Show.”