Trusting the process is easier said than done, especially in the midst of a pandemic that, in the case of José Andrés Paula, already cost him what was supposed to be his first season at Arizona Western College (AWC), in Yuma, Arizona.
And then came an injury — an even more bitter pill to swallow.
After the long COVID delay, the speedy outfielder and his team, the Matadors, were finally able to take the field again in early February. But after just a handful of at-bats, Paula sensed that something wasn’t right with his knee. A doctor diagnosed a meniscus tear. A quick surgery followed, and although he’s now on the mend — and is hoping to play this summer in France — it’s game over as far as returning this season to the now 26-12 Matadors, who wrap things up in early May.
Injuries are never easy to handle, and in this case, the timing couldn’t have been worse. And yet, if anyone can weather the storm it’s Paula, a gifted, 6’2” (1.87 m), 210-pound (95 kg) baseballer who also has a talent for keeping things in perspective. This too, he knows, will pass. Better days await.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he told Le Baseblog in a recent video interview on Instragram. “I sincerely believe that.”
Highs and lows
For Paula, it isn’t just blind faith that keeps him focused on the road ahead. It’s an outlook that the 22-year-old has developed through experience, of which he has a surprising amount, especially for someone who, technically speaking, is still just a freshman (first-year student), albeit for the second time.
Born on the French island of Martinique, in the Caribbean, Paula grew up in Venezuela but also spent time, in recent years, in the Dominican Republic and mainland France. He has two passports, an easy, outgoing demeanor, is fluent in three languages (Spanish, French and English), and has already had a bonafide taste of baseball success.
Signed at just 16 by MLB’s Oakland Athletics, Paula can still remember in detail the moment he received that first professional offer. He was asleep when the scout came, offer in hand, to Paula’s house in Venezuela. “Wake up,” his mother told him. “The scout from Oakland is here. Wash up and get downstairs.”
At first the teenager couldn’t even make sense of the situation. Half asleep, he walked into the bathroom and opened the faucet of the shower. But as he stood there, shaking off the cobwebs, he thought to himself: “Wait, what am I doing standing here waiting for the water to warm up?”
Quickly, Paula threw on a shirt and baseball cap and ran downstairs, and there, before him, was the representative from the Athletics wanting to know if he was ready to sign. Less than a week later the still dumbfounded prospect was on a plane bound for the Dominican Republic
“It felt like a dream,” Paula recalls. “Those first two weeks I was just living a dream, one that you don’t wake up from. I simply couldn’t believe it.”
That was the high. Less than three years later came the low. After two seasons with the DSL Athletics, in the Dominican Summer League, he was cut. For the then 18-year-old Paula it was as if everything he had worked so hard for was suddenly and irretrievably gone. Poof!
“Honestly, at the time it felt like the worst thing that had ever happened in my life,” he said.
Simple twists of fate
What Puala didn’t know was all that would come next in his topsy-turvy baseball trajectory. Nor was he aware that the timing of his release from the Athletics would have major implications for his prospects as a student-athlete in the United States.
There’s an eligibility rule, he explains, that bars professionals who play past aged 18 from going the collegiate route. Paula, as it happened, was just a month shy of turning 19 when he got dropped.
“Some things were just meant to happen, even if they seem horrible in the moment,” he says. “Back then I thought it was the worst day of my life. But now, looking back, I can say that it was one of the best.”
Not that it mattered at the time. Playing college ball didn’t even figure on Paula’s radar — it was an opportunity that would only present itself later, and thanks not only to the age-eligibility question, but to a couple of other twists of fate as well.
First, an entirely different door opened for the now ex-Athletic, one that had much to do with his place of birth — Martinique — and to the French passport he inherited as a result.
Shortly after Paula ended his tenure in the Dominican rookie league, the Rouen Huskies, the top club in France’s semi-professional D1 league, offered the young Franco-Venezuelan a chance to test his skill in their perennially successful system.
There were no guarantees — the team was already set when he showed up, Paula recalls. But the Huskies gave him a chance to play in an away tournament, in the Netherlands, liked what they saw, and kept him on board for the entire 2018 season.
Rouen ended up winning the D1 championship — for the 4th year in a row and 13th time in 14 seasons — and Paula, as a 19-year-old rookie in the league, finished second on the team in both average (.336) and total bases (50) and tied for first in hits (38) and stolen bases (24).
As it turned out, winning a title that summer was only part of what French baseball had to offer the up-and-comer.
Even before joining up with the Huskies, Paula made a quick detour through Toulouse, where he worked out with Boris Rothermundt, manager of France’s U23 and U18 national teams. That, then, opened the door to opportunities to play for Team France, both at the U23 and senior level, including in an exhibition series, that autumn, in South Africa.
“That was a dream too,” Paula says of his foray into French baseball. Literally. The young player has an uncle, a legendary Venezuelan basketball player named Alexander Nelcha who played professionally in France. And as a kid, Paula fantasized about one day making his own mark in the European sports world.
“Honestly, though, it wasn’t something I really expected to happen. But it was a really beautiful experience, especially getting to represent the country, wearing the weight of a country on your jersey.”
Living and learning
Paula’s eyes, nevertheless, were still set on breaking into baseball in the United States, and so after the South Africa tournament he made his way to Miami, playing in weekend games and trying out for different independent leagues, including one in California that he came within a hair’s breadth of joining.
That’s when his baseball story took yet another unexpected turn, and in the most unlikely of places: a Florida gas station.
Paula was getting ready to buy a plane ticket out to California when, at the service station in question, he happened to meet a sports recruiter from a nearby college. It was that man who ended up explaining the eligibility rules for ex-pros, who let Paula know that because he was just 18 still (albeit barely) when the A’s let him go, the college option was still on the table.
Paula took the man’s number and followed up by contacting the school, which set things in motion for him to join the program that autumn, in 2019. In the meantime, though, he’d committed to playing for France’s U23 team in a tournament in the Czech Republic. And by honoring that commitment, Paula discovered that he’d muddled his chances to play college ball back in Florida.
That’s when his French coach, Boris Rothermundt, stepped in with another idea: What about playing for the AWC Matadors in Yuma? The manger had contacts there and passed the information along to Paula, who contacted the school and, before he knew it, found his way en route to Arizona.
The rest, as they say, is history, though of course what came next was truly historic: a global pandemic that shut down collegiate and even, for a time, professional sports in the United States. France, for its part, ended up cancelling its D1 season.
Now, a year later, there are signs that things may be shifting in the right direction. France’s top baseball teams are hoping to take the field again starting in early June, and in Arizona, the Matadors are nearing the end of a successful season, albeit with Paula still sidelined.
Injuries, sadly, are sometimes part of the game — part of the process. But the young Franco-Venezuelan also knows that they heal. It’s just a matter taking the time, of being patient. Of keeping the faith.
“There’s a lot of twists and turns in the baseball world. You just don’t know what’s going to happen from one day to the next,” says Paula, who may even be able to maintain his freshman eligibility — already extended because of the coronavirus situation — into next year as well.
“That’s why I’m happy things turned out the way they did,” he adds. “So that I could end up here studying and with the possibility still of doing something in baseball.”
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)