Last August, when minor league baseball was still a thing, Victor González sat at his locker in the Oklahoma City Dodgers clubhouse a bit stupefied. He was a step from the major leagues and he couldn’t believe it. He had been a triple-A pitcher for almost two weeks and it was so shocking that he still couldn’t sleep right.
A year earlier, for about a month, González didn’t want to be a Dodger. The Dodgers were set to demote him to their rookie league affiliate and he refused. Instead, he went home to Mexico. He couldn’t handle the pressure and all the injuries and the frustrating results anymore. He was throwing 86 mph a year and four months removed from Tommy John surgery. He’d walk off the mound crying. So, he fled.
“I didn’t want anything to do with baseball,” González said in Spanish last August. “I didn't want to play baseball. I couldn't do things right. I was already 22 and I couldn't improve. I stayed in the same leagues. I couldn't advance.”
González is a 24-year-old major leaguer now. He’s a left-handed reliever in a bullpen with the best earned-run average in the National League on the team with the best record in the majors. He’s allowed two runs in 10 innings across six appearances.
Every time he pitches, family and friends in Tuxpan, the small town in the state of Nayarit he was plucked from, gather around a television outside to watch. A video of the first watch party went viral. His girlfriend sent him the clip after the game.
“When I saw that first video, it was very emotional for me because my whole family was there,” González said. “Aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, my girlfriend. Watching that made me cry because I’ve gone through a lot and they know everything I’ve battled through.”
Tuxpan is where González spent his short-lived retirement in the summer of 2018.
He had been pitching for the Great Lake Loons, the Dodgers’ low-A team, and he wasn’t good. In six starts, he recorded a 5.61 ERA over 25 2/3 innings. Opponents hit .314 with an .819 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He flew home after he gave up five runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Dayton Dragons.
Three days into his time at home, he was playing cards with friends when he realized he made a mistake.
“Everyone said: ‘What are you doing here?’” González recalled. “‘You didn’t study. You don’t have a career. By the time you study and have a career, you’ll be old.’”
González wanted to pitch again but not in the United States. He asked the Dodgers if he could finish the year pitching in Mexico. He said the organization said no. The Dodgers wanted him to pitch in the minors under their watch. So, he returned and was sent to Ogden, the rookie-league affiliate. The frustration didn’t cease. He allowed 13 runs in eight innings across four appearances.
“I'd come out after pitching and I'd cry,” González said. “I left the games crying because I couldn't throw strikes.”
González met Julio Urías at a showcase when he was 15, the same year his father was stabbed and killed. They ended up on the same team in the Mexican Baseball League — the Diablos Rojos del Mexico — before signing with the Dodgers in 2012.
González signed for $400,000 in July. Urías signed for $450,000 a month later and became a hyped prospect, reaching the majors as an 19-year-old phenom.
González, meanwhile, couldn’t find his footing. They were never teammates in the minors but reunited in 2017 after both undergoing major surgeries. González had Tommy John surgery in March. Urías had anterior capsule surgery a few months later. They rehabbed and lived together in Arizona. Urías became a mentor.
“Honestly, and I tell you this with my whole heart, I feel like he's the best friend I've had so far in baseball since I came here,” Urías, 24, said in Spanish. “From the minor leagues through my entire trajectory, I feel like he's the best friend I've had. I try to give him a lot of advice because he's gone through a lot of family difficulties. I've tried to be there with him like a brother.”
Urías shared what he learned about being a big leaguer, how to behave in the clubhouse and stay positive when things go sideways.
“I'd lose myself quickly,” González said. “Whatever little thing happened in the game and I didn't want to pitch anymore. So, I went about learning those things.”
The counsel didn’t immediately resonate when he returned to games in 2018. But he found motivation pitching that winter in Mexico, where veterans, including longtime major leaguer Sergio Romo, lent more advice. He reported to spring training thinking the Dodgers would release him if he didn’t pitch well. Then it all clicked.
His mid-90s fastball resurfaced to complement his sweeping slider. Confidence and a quick rise through the Dodgers’ system in 2019 followed. He was sent to Rancho Cucamonga, the organization’s high-A affiliate, for the first time to begin the season. He was promoted to double-A Tulsa in mid-May. He reached triple-A six weeks later.
He reported to Oklahoma City as a reliever because the Dodgers believed he could help the big-league team more quickly pitching out of the bullpen. He didn’t get the call in 2019, but the Dodgers put him on the 40-man roster in November to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.
On July 31, two years after he told the Dodgers he didn’t want to play baseball anymore, González took the mound at Chase Field against the Arizona Diamondbacks for his major-league debut. He gave up one run on three hits in one inning. He’s allowed one run with nine strikeouts and one walk in his nine innings since.
“For him it's just the more he gets out there, I think the more comfortable he'll be,” Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior said. “He's obviously got a high ceiling and a lot of upside. Victor's going to help us.”
It’s a statement González wouldn’t have believed just a year ago. Just getting to the doorstep was mind-blowing. But he’s a major leaguer now and Tuxpan is watching.