Less than a week after going undrafted, Manny DeLeon was given a chance to pursue his dream.
The senior right fielder for Tabor College worked out for the San Diego Padres at the team’s camp in Peoria, Ariz., last week, which ultimately led to a contract offer.
“They had me practicing with the team and then they had me taking reps by myself,” DeLeon said. “It was pretty tough because I’m not used to this weather, and it was a workout right after the other.”
Over two days of workouts, DeLeon took batting practice, was evaluated on his throw to third base and home plate and demonstrated his hitting ability.
DeLeon was pleased to accept the team’s contract offer.
“They put a few pitchers to pitch against me, and I did good,” DeLeon said. “I think that was the reason why he signed me. He also liked (my) arm.”
DeLeon had a standout season for Tabor this spring, which ultimately led to his designation as NAIA National Player of the Year. He led the nation in total bases (208), runs batted in (108) and slugging percentage (.897). His 25 home runs ranked first in the NAIA. Also named KCAC Player of the Year, DeLeon batting .440 for the season with 102 hits.
Bluejay coach Mark Standiford said with those kinds of numbers, the absence of DeLeon’s name in the draft was surprising.
“To have a year like he had and not get an opportunity—but that can be said about a lot of guys around the country,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys that didn’t get drafted.”
For DeLeon, the experience was all too familiar.
“I had a great season, but I guess that wasn’t enough,” he said. “In my whole life, I’ve always been through this. They always picked me last, so it’s not something new for me. I’ve always been the type of player that I have to prove myself in order to play.”
Born in New York, DeLeon spent 10 years in the Dominican Republic before returning to the U.S. at age 11.
“It was tough,” DeLeon said of the transition. “I didn’t know English at the time, and I had a lot of friends in the Dominican Republic. I couldn’t really go out when I came here because it was very different, and in Dominican Republic I had more freedom.”
DeLeon began playing baseball when he was 12. He started as a pitcher but later discovered that hitting was more enjoyable.
He played shortstop for his team at William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx. His post-high school baseball career took him first to Odessa College (Texas) and then to Iowa Lakes Community College. He played in the infield at both of his junior colleges and also pitched.
DeLeon heard about Tabor from his junior college coach and came to Hillsboro in 2014-15. He started as an infielder but was eventually moved to right field.
DeLeon pitched in five games that year, going 2-0 on the mound. But he suffered from tendinitis and eventually moved away from pitching.
He said the transition to the outfield was a challenge, but his athleticism worked in his favor and it simply took practice to learn the new position.
The Bluejays won a school-record 54 games his junior year, capping the season with Tabor’s second consecutive trip to the NAIA World Series.
“I had never been there,” DeLeon said of the World Series. “That was the biggest thing of my life.”
DeLeon returned to Tabor for his senior season with the goal of hitting 20 home runs and returning to the World Series. While the Bluejays did not make it to the World Series, but DeLeon exceeded his home run goal.
“I hit 25,” he said. “I don’t know how I did it. That was all God. God helped me throughout the whole year.”
Asked about his approach to hitting, DeLeon said he doesn’t do a lot of thinking. He focuses on seeing the ball and hitting it hard if it’s around the plate.
“Sometimes you can’t think,” he said. “You just see the ball and hit the ball. The main thing is the pitch count.”
He keeps a notebook, he said, of various scenarios and the types of pitches he’s most likely to see in each.
DeLeon said his best memory from Tabor was the Bluejays’ opening-round victory over Bellevue to punch a ticket to the World Series his junior year.
“We lost a game and then our backs were against the wall, so we had to win every game,” he said. “We came back and did it.”
Faith and family
Faith and family have provided DeLeon’s motivation to succeed.
“My main motivation is to help my family,” he said. “That’s the main thing, and also play for God.”
Because his father is disabled and unable to work, DeLeon feels a responsibility to help his parents.
“Whenever we speak, (my mother) always tells me she’s tired,” he said. “It hurts me because I’m already 23 years old and I feel like I have to be helping her already—her and my father.”
When he wasn’t drafted, DeLeon considered moving back to New York to look for a job, but decided to stay a while longer in Kansas to play ball for Valley Center and continue to practice.
Before long, he received the call from the Padres.
DeLeon anticipates getting his location assignment this week. He may end up in Washington or Indiana, most likely in either Class A or short season.
“I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to prove myself again this week,” he said. “Hopefully, I will do what I need to do in order to get moved up because I really don’t want to stay here (in Arizona). I’m already 23 years old and here, most of the guys are 21, 22.”
Standiford said DeLeon has worked hard to get to this point.
“Everybody wants a chance,” he said. “That’s all you can ask for. Once you get a chance, then you’ve got to make do with whatever it is, and I think that he has been given that. It couldn’t happen to a better kid. He’s worked very hard, and I’m very proud of him.”
DeLeon said his goal is constant improvement.
“There’s always work to get better, so I’m going to work hard for that,” he said. “I want to move up quick. I don’t want to stay in the same league. I want to keep moving and moving and get better. That’s the main thing I want to do right now.”