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10/09/12 11:10 AM ET
Maldonado's play is how he pays homage to heritage
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
MILWAUKEE -- Martin Maldonado wears two allegiances on his chest. One says "Brewers" across his jersey. Underneath, he wears a T-shirt bearing the flag of Puerto Rico. On either side of the flag are the words: "National Pastime." "I'm proud of being from Puerto Rico after all those big league catchers before me," Maldonado said. "It means a lot to keep that generation going. It means a lot for a lot of young guys coming up." Maldonado celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month by playing the game he loves at a high level and continuing a tradition of Puerto Rican catchers. His predecessors at the position include the Molina brothers (Bengie, Jose and Yadier) plus Sandy Alomar Jr., Ivan Rodriguez and Maldonado's favorite player growing up -- Benito Santiago. "I liked the way he threw to the bases," Maldonado said. "He was over 25 percent throwing out guys from his knees, and I thought that was impressive. I liked Pudge, too. He was a great catcher." Maldonado -- who is not, by the way, related to former Brewers outfielder Candy Maldonado -- grew up in Naguabo, five minutes from the Atlantic Ocean on the island's east coast. His father worked in construction and his mother for the town government, and Maldonado and his brother and sister lived a typical childhood, he said. "I used to play a lot of sports, like a normal kid," he said. "I used to play basketball, but my mom didn't like that too much. She told me, 'There's not a lot of Puerto Ricans in the NBA.'" Jeanette Maldonado was a stickler for grades. "If I didn't have good [grades] in school, she would never take me to the baseball field," he said. "I had to keep on top of that." They remain close. Maldonado talks to his mother every day, and she attends all of his winter ball games. Last year, she saw her son play in the Major Leagues for the first time. Maldonado returned to the Brewers and shared catching duties with Jonathan Lucroy in 2012. "She is always a big motivation for me," Maldonado said. "She would do anything to help me. I remember when I was a little kid, I always got new catching gear every time I played for a new team." Maldonado figures his path to the Majors from Puerto Rico was easier than many youngsters from other Latin-American baseball hotbeds like the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. The biggest difference is that Puerto Ricans are eligible for the First-Year Player Draft, the same system by which high schoolers and collegians stateside join Major League organizations. Maldonado grew up comfortably, but by no means wealthy. He went to a public high school and drew the attention of scouts, including the Angels' Arnold Cochran. That team drafted Maldonado in the 24th round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, but released him in January 2007 after Maldonado batted .217, .254 and .221 in his first three Minor League seasons. The Brewers gave him a shot in 2008, and Maldonado remained a light-hitting, defensively capable catcher in his first three seasons. Then in 2011, he topped 400 plate appearances for the first time and responded with a big offensive year, setting career highs with a .287 average, 11 home runs and 59 RBIs and earning a September callup to the Brewers. Maldonado joined the big league team in Houston and placed a telephone call to Cochran, who had since retired, before his Sept. 3, 2011, Major League debut. "He started crying," Maldonado said. "He said, 'I believe in you. You make me look good.'" He has made the Brewers look good over the past two seasons for bringing him on board. "If you look at it, we have two of the best young catchers in the game today," general manager Doug Melvin said. "Both guys are  years old, and that's a position I don't think we have to look at. Catcher's always been a tough position to fill." Along the way in his career, Maldonado has been able to meet his childhood hero. Around 2004, when Maldonado was 18 or 19 and just getting started in the Puerto Rican Winter League, he played against Santiago, who was with Ponce. "That was great," Maldonado said. "I remember coming to the plate and he was catching. That was something to remember."