Tampa Bay Rays' Ali Solis: Hand Up

  • Name: Ali Solis
  • Age: 26
  • Organization: Tampa Bay Rays, Durham Bulls

(Photo courtesy: John Lott/National Post, May 28, 2014.)

Author: Patrick Kinas, DNAOfSports.com creator.

His hand went up. His father pulled it down. His hand went up again. His father pulled it down again. Undeterred, his hand went up one final time. His dad acquiesced. His son was stubbornly determined. A few minutes later, he caught five popups. A catcher was born. For Ali Solis, he has never looked back.

Of Ali Solis 424 games started as a pro, 424 have been as a catcher. It’s not that Solis’ isn’t versatile. He’s played a grand total of two career innings at first base and two other innings at third during a pair of long, extra innings games in 2012 at Double-A.

He just chose his baseball fate as a young boy in Mexico, father by his side.

And now, two years after making his major league debut, Solis is back in big league baseball, catcher’s mitt in hand.

It’s Act II for Solis in the Show.

“In Mexicali, it’s more common for boys to play soccer,” Solis said.

“I started playing baseball on the streets in my neighborhood in Mexicali,” Solis said. “When one of my neighbors asked me to come play baseball on the fields, I said ‘Why not?’”

Solis, accompanied by his dad, marched toward the group of other young, aspiring players, all light years from the major leagues.

But no dreams grow without a planted seed.

“During my first practice, our coach asked everybody ‘Who wants to be a pitcher?’

Hands rose, but not Ali’s.

’Who wants to be a third baseman?’

More hands were raised.

Ali’s stayed down by his side.

“Then he asked ‘Who wants to be a catcher?’

“I put my hand up,” Solis said.

“My dad said ‘What are you doing? You don’t want to be a catcher!” and pulled my hand down.”

“But I said ‘Why?’ I want to be a catcher, and I put my hand back up,” Solis recalled.

“I got to be a catcher.”

But the tryout wasn’t quite over for Ali.

“Then I remember, the coach hit me about five flyballs as a catcher, and I caught all five, and he was pretty impressed.”

Now, Ali was a catcher.

“That was one of my great experiences as a kid.”

He’s been cemented in the crouch for the next 20 years.

The First Call

In the heat of the San Antonio summer in 2012, Solis, then 24, was wrapping up his eighth season of pro baseball, still without that first taste of major league baseball. Solis was backed up in a logjam of high-level catchers in the San Diego Padres organization, but with Nick Hundley struggling in the big leagues and Yasmani Grandal promoted to San Diego, the Padres asked Solis to replace Grandal at the 2012 Futures Game in Kansas City.

Solis, took his San Antonio Missions cap and headed to Kansas City. He took his one at-bat at Kauffman Stadium, teaming with current Durham Bulls batterymate Enny Romero on the World Team, and opposite Rays teammates Jake Odorizzi and Wil Myers, and returned to the Texas League where he was more than happy to finish out the regular season deep in the heart of Texas.

“I never played Triple-A that year,” Solis recalled. “The last three games of the season, my manager John Gibbons (current Toronto Blue Jays manager), called me into his office.”

Gibbons tried to decoy Solis, but Ali sensed something was up.

"We wanted to tell you that you’re a good catcher, and we think you have potential to get to the major leagues. I know you’re going to get there someday," Solis remembered Gibbons telling him.

“Oh ok, thank you,” Solis chuckled.

"Do you think you can make it to the big leagues?" Gibbons asked.

“Yes, I feel 100% that I can make it,” Solis retorted.

Well, congratulations you made it.

Just like that, Solis was a big leaguer. He sat out the next two Missions’ games, then pinch-hit the last day of the regular season.

Then he was off to San Diego.

“They (the Padres) were playing in L.A. when I got there,” Solis recalled. “I didn’t get to play until September 16th for my debut and my first at-bat. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”

The gravity of that first major league moment wasn’t lost on Solis.

“When you get to play in the big leagues, you think about all you’ve done in the past,” Solis said. “I started playing as a kid when I was five years old. All the things come through your mind.”

Solis always had the support of his family, but they weren’t able to get to Los Angeles when he got to L.A.

“My dad was there when we played the Giants and I didn’t play that day,” Solis said. “He had to work many of the other days.

They’re always with me, support me, call me, and ask how I’m doing. He checks on my stats every day - he’s crazy. He’s like another scout. Every time I make an error or a passed ball, he’s calling me right away after the game.”

"‘What happened? Talk to the pitcher! Concentrate!’" Solis recalled vividly the words of his father.

“He would get on me pretty good.”

“He never played pro baseball, but it was one of his dreams to play pro ball,” Solis said. “I know what he’s trying to tell me, so I appreciate everything he does for me and I respect that.”

“My mom would ask me ‘How are you? Eating good?’ She’d ask all of the emotional feelings. I love my family and they always like support me.”

The audition was short, and the opportunities were slim. Solis appeared in five games, going 0-4 at the plate in four pinch-hitting appearances.

In total, Solis caught just four innings of big league baseball.

Then the dream was over. The season ended, and Solis was dropped by the Padres and signed on as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Another realized dream was close to fruition for Solis, before the demands of catching landed Solis on the shelf.

“One of my other dreams was to play in the World Baseball Classic. I was supposed to play for Team Mexico, but two days before I had to go, I hurt my back and couldn’t make the team.”

The back issue cost Solis nearly half of the season before he volleyed between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis before the season came to a close.

“I didn’t finish playing a lot, but now I feel better,” Solis said. “I then went back to Mexico to play winter ball and I played the entire season, and feel 100%. It’s never fun to be hurt, but still some pain, but nothing that will stop me from playing. If this has happened to me, it’s for some reason. I’m pretty sure I’m going to make it back to the big leagues again.”

He was right.

The Second Call

After signing as a free agent in the off-season with the Tampa Bay Rays, Solis has been vying for time behind the plate with the Bulls, first with Eddy Rodriguez, and now prospect catcher Curt Casali.

While new to the organization with stuff to handle and tendencies to remember, Solis has adjusted quickly to his new teammates.

“It’s not easy. I know some guys from here, like Boxberger with the Padres. I know Andriese, but haven’t had a chance to catch him. Lots are new for me, but it’s still baseball,” Solis said. “As a catcher, you have to know when your pitcher misses, where it’s going to miss, which pitches cut, which sink. The first month of the season, I was getting to know everyone on the staff.”

He got to know the staff swiftly, particularly Bulls lefty Mike Montgomery.

Solis was behind the plate when Montgomery tossed the first 25 outs of a no-hitter against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

“To be honest, it was my first time catching a no-hitter,” Solis said. “It’s an awesome experience. We don’t get a lot of credit, but I feel good with myself. We did a good job executing pitches. I call everything – and I see on the hitters. We were on the same page. Sometimes, that’s when you get those results.”

The firestorm of media attention was cast on Montgomery primarily and then on Brad Boxberger, who recorded the final two outs.

But how many post-game interviews did Solis conduct?

“No one came up to me,” Solis said. “We’re a team. I don’t care if I get interviews, but I feel good about myself and I hope to catch a lot more games like that.”

Up until Monday night, that was Solis’ biggest moment of the year.

Then Solis, now 26, got the call again.

But with Rays frontline catcher Ryan Hanigan ailing for a few weeks with a balky hamstring, the Rays were forced to make a move.

Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo made the call that Solis has been waiting for since that John Gibbons fake-out in the San Antonio manager’s office in 2012.

After Monday night’s game, Solis was told he was going back to the big leagues.

And as Solis arrived on Tuesday at the Rogers Center, who was one of the first people to welcome him back to the show?

John Gibbons, now the manager of the first place Toronto Blue Jays.

It’s the circle of life for big league catcher Ali Solis.

And just like when Solis was 5, he raised his right hand toward Gibbons.

A major league catcher wanted to see him.

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