Integrity Leads to Success for Wichita Wingnuts David Espinosa
Entering what might possibly be his final season in a baseball uniform, David Espinosa has established himself as one of the classiest and most productive players that any organization could ask for. Fortunately for the Wichita Wingnuts, they have been able to enjoy the fruits of Espinosa’s bat and locker room presence the last two seasons and, because of the incredible season he is having, the team may find itself in the American Association championship series once again.
To say that Espinosa is a winner is like saying that a red-head’s skin might burn if he stands in the sun for too long (trust me, I know from personal experience). Through the years David has won 14 championships, many of those at the professional level, including last season when Espinosa arrived in Wichita from Kansas City 64 games into the season, then hit.338 in 36 games with 36 runs and 22 RBI. He also walked 28 times for a .452 on-base percentage.
In the playoffs Espinosa kept his torrid pace up. In seven games he hit .308, and was second on the club with 8 RBI. He also walked 5 times, giving him a .406 OBP. Truly remarkable numbers for a guy who was 32-years-old. The ability to be remarkable in whatever he puts his mind to is what separates David Espinosa from most people that one will encounter.
David began his venture into the world of baseball at the age of seven. He isn’t actually sure of how he got started, but remembers that his mom was the one who got him interested in the sport. “I started playing so young that I honestly don’t know why. I think it was because my mom wanted me to play, and I wound up liking it.”
Once he began to love the sport, his father helped to show him the intricacies of the game, and foster his new found love into a desire to excel. Together Mr. and Mrs. Espinosa developed a passion in their son to excel in the sport he was loving to play.
“My dad was ultimately the one that got 100 percent involved, but if it wasn’t for my mom I wouldn’t be playing. I don’t know if it was that I asked her to play baseball, or if she just thought, ‘I need to get this kid to play something.’ My parents are Cuban, so baseball is the sport they like most.”
While wanting him to star on the field, where they most wanted him to excel was in how he carried himself as a player and as a man. If their son was going to play the game, he was going to play it with integrity. An idea that has shaped much of the manner in which he has played the game.
“My parents taught me to play the game the right way. They taught me that when you play the game in the right way you will actually play better and they were right.”
David got to see the fruits of his parents words from the very start. He excelled in high school, and in 2000 the Cincinnati Reds made him the No. 23 overall pick in the Major League Baseball amateur draft. David was thrilled.
“It was an incredible accomplishment. The money was good, and it allowed me to play baseball which is what I wanted to do. I was obviously pretty excited.”
It was an exciting time, but being drafted that high came with greater demands on his time and ability to perform. “There was a great deal of pressure. I was a first round pick, and they expected big things from me. I wanted to be the best I could for them.”
While David was excited about his chance to play professional baseball, he also wanted to go to college, and this was quite the dilemma for him.
“I almost didn’t sign because I knew statistically it was better to go to college. I knew after my first couple of seasons that it would have been better for me and for my baseball career if I would have gone to school, but when you are offered a certain amount of money it is hard to turn it down. I don’t regret the decision. I got to enjoy the game and live a dream, and I still got my degree.”
In 2001, off to Mid-A Dayton David went for his first season of professional baseball. He played in 122 games there, where he hit .262 with 7 home runs and 37 RBI. He also showed a great eye at the plate, walking 55 times and scoring 88 runs. The pressure was clearly not having any effect on his game.
Two seasons later the Reds packaged Espinosa in a deal that sent him slightly north to the Detroit Tigers organization. The move saw a rapid progression in his career. He had spent two seasons in A-Ball with the Reds (Mid-A Dayton and Advanced-A Stockton), but in just three years with the Tigers he was already at AAA-Toledo.
It was a whirlwind tour of sorts for Espinosa but also came with a big cost. One of the regrets that he had rising through the Tigers system was that he was very rarely instructed. That is until he reached AAA.
“I wish I would have had better coaching. I didn’t really learn anything. They didn’t really teach me anything. I definitely made a lot of mistakes that I was not aware of. They just kept letting me do whatever. I felt that if I was made aware of a lot of things early in my career I would have been a whole lot better. There were things I could have learned a whole lot earlier, but I was taught them late, and that stunted my ability to have a Major League baseball career.”
Don’t be mistaken. This is not sour grapes from Espinosa in anyway. He wishes he had been taught how to improve his game, but fully accepts that it was HIS game, meaning he was responsible for not making changes that he could have.
“No, don’t get me wrong. I wish I would have learned more along the way, but I didn’t seek to improve myself the way I should have. I knew I was making mistakes, and I knew that I acted like a s****y teammate and a s****y prospect at times. The fact that I did not go farther is on me.”
To David it is all about integrity. He had choices to make and things he could have done to improve his career and he did not take advantage of those opportunities at the time. A fact that he regrets, but which he acknowledges made him into the man he is today.
“It is not about getting it right all the time. It is about learning from what you do wrong and making sure you do it right the next time. It’s about taking failure and learning to be a better person. Baseball is a game of failure, and I want to learn from the failures I had early on and be better now.”
The area that he has really focused his attention on these days is how he handles himself in the clubhouse. The Wichita Wingnuts underwent a dramatic transformation with their lineup prior to the season, where eight of the nine starters from last year’s championship team were gone. The only one remaining was David Espinosa.
This season the team struggled to perform offensively early on. Manager Kevin Hooper was forced to make some dramatic changes in his lineup, but he has always counted on Espinosa to come through for him.
“The most professional guy you are ever going to meet. Great student of the game. Really gets not only how to improve his game, but what we are doing around here. He really has been a big influence on the team, and has been a guy that has done so much to build the chemistry.”
Hooper knew that he could count on Espinosa from the moment that David came to Wichita. The two had played together in Toledo and in 2014 the Wingnuts manager had the chance to bring Espinosa to the team. He jumped at the opportunity.
“You want quality guys on your ball club. I don’t want a guy who can just hit. I want a guy who has good character. David was such a natural fit here.”
He may have been a natural fit, but it took quite a number of years to make that happen. In 2008 David was released by the Tigers organization, and found his way to Camden in the Atlantic League. After 11 games he was dealt to Grand Prairie, where he excelled, hitting .310 with 73 runs in 96 games played.
His play caught the attention of the Seattle Mariners organization, and after beginning the next season at Grand Prairie he went to AA-West Tennessee. He struggled in his 60 game stint there and the next season was back in independent baseball. That season he went back to Grand Prairie where he led the team to the American Association championship. Espinosa hit .351 in 95 games with 86 runs and 59 RBI. He also walked 77 times, giving him an unbelievable .464 on-base percentage.
Over his next two seasons, David was earning some frequent flyer miles. He began 2012 in York, before moving to Atlantic League rival Southern Maryland. Later that season he was dealt to Lincoln, where he finished out the year with the Saltdogs, hitting .313 in 68 games. In 2013 he hit .297 and played in all 100 games, scoring 72 and driving in 50 others.
He loved his time in Lincoln, but longed to join his longtime friend in Wichita. In 2014 he began the season in Kansas City, but with about two months left he came to the Wingnuts to become a key piece in the most potent lineup in the league. Hooper moved Espinosa into the No. 3 spot in the order, and he simply delivered.
His playoff performance was a thing of beauty, but it was his play against his former team that really was impressive. In the three game sweep of the Saltdogs, David was 5-10 with 3 runs and 7 RBI. He also walked four times in the series. The Wingnuts star found great joy in his performance.
“A lot of the guys on that team I am still friends with, but there is a certain satisfaction out of beating your old team. I was glad I showed them I can still play.”
The victory had special significance because of a rumor that David had learned about himself early on in the 2014 campaign. He was approached and told by someone that he was seen as the “most hated guy in the league.” Most players would shrug that off, but this is a guy who has spent a considerable amount of his life playing the game in the right way. It was something that cut deep, because it was not only an uncalled for description, it was a completely inaccurate one.
Within the American Association David Espinosa has earned a great deal of respect, no matter what jersey he has worn. He has become a man that many view as a real team player, and so an attack on something he viewed so dear to himself was one that had its impact.
“That really did hurt me. The most important thing for me is to be professional and to be a good teammate, because those are things I can control. The best complement you can give someone is that he is a very good teammate. Maybe that isn’t valued by everybody, but I value that. To hear I was being presented differently did bother me a lot.”
To understand David you only need to know one thing about him. His favorite player growing up was Alex Rodriguez, but not anymore. While he did not approve of the Yankees slugger using steroids, what turned him against Rodriguez was how the Yankee treated other players, especially his teammates. “Character is huge thing for me. He tainted his image with me and created a rather ugly situation.”
That is a big key to why David is so different. How he interacts and performs for his team is such a key piece to who he is as a person. He entered this season knowing a lot more responsibility was on him, but instead of being the guy with all the answers and 14 rings to his name, he took an attitude of wanting his many new teammates to feel at home with the Wichita Wingnuts.
“You just stay friendly and make them feel comfortable. That is all you really want to do with these new guys who feel like they have to walk on egg shells for a bit. I just want them to feel comfortable, because when they are comfortable they can play well.”
This season Espinosa has continued to be a key piece in the Wingnuts lineup. Manager Kevin Hooper has batted David anywhere from first to sixth in the lineup, and he has embraced his role professionally and with excellence in every case. In 83 games this season he has walked 70 times, second in the American Association, and his .290 average leads the team. He has also scored 55 runs and driven in 32.
Despite the outstanding numbers, this will likely be Espinosa’s last. He completed his business degree recently, and is ready to move on to his new vocation, possibly as a sports agent. In 15 years as a player he has played in nearly 1600 games, scored over 1000 runs and walked 970 times. A career anyone would be proud of.
Many may look at David Espinosa and wonder about a career that might have been. Realistically, most should look at a man who has taken on every challenge he has had to face and walked away with it understanding what truly matters. Millions of kids may be looking at Alex Rodriguez as a person to admire. If given the choice I’ll admire David Espinosa, and I advise you to do the same. He’ll not only teach you the right way to do things, he’ll teach you the way that will give you the greatest joy about your success. That’s a man to be admired.
By Robert Pannier
Member of the IBWAA