JUPITER, Fla. • Yairo Munoz was only six when his father died, forcing him and his two older brothers to move into his aunt’s crowded home in a tiny rice village in the Dominican Republic.
There was much love in his life, but little space at his aunt’s home in the village of Payita during the versatile Cardinals prospect’s childhood.
For much of Munoz’s upbringing, he lived in a modest three-room home with 12 relatives. His mom worked as a maid in a town away from the village, sending money back to his aunt as much as possible to help support him and his two brothers. He was essentially adopted by his aunt Ramona Luna and her husband Juan Pastor Reynoso.
That crowded household helped Munoz develop the versatility that now has him on the cusp of the major leagues with the Cardinals because his older cousins and siblings always found a position for him on the baseball diamond.
With so many baseball enthusiasts under the same roof, there was always a game for Munoz to play. His extended family usually walked out of the house with more than enough players to field their own team against teams of young adults.
Munoz was an asset on the diamond while playing with some cousins who were anywhere from a decade to 16 years older. His brothers were two and seven years older, respectively.
He was such an exceptional fielder, his cousins were comfortable sticking him in the most important defensive position — shortstop — when he was just 10 years old against teams comprised of men 20 and older.
“I was the little boy in the house, but I could field,” he said. “They would say, ‘Put him in at short.’ Other times they would say, ‘Put him on the mound to pitch because he throws hard.’”
Depending on the competition and the family members in attendance, Munoz’s cousins moved him around the diamond. On some days, they’d throw the kid in left field. Other days they would throw him in right. He excelled almost everywhere on the diamond.
Munoz’s versatility and upbringing continues to pay off.
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On Wednesday Munoz was inserted into the lineup on short notice in right field and delivered a pair of home runs — in the same inning — against the Orioles. He even showed off a strong throwing arm that prompted Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to joke that Munoz could probably pitch if necessary. Catching is the only position Matheny doubted as a possibility for the young Dominican.
Munoz, 23, played six positions last season between Class AA Midland and Class AAA Nashville in the Oakland A’s farm system. He started 20 games at short, one at center, 20 at third, and two at second at Midland. He also started 22 at short, five at right, two at left, 19 at center and 14 at third at Nashville. He has actually played seven of the nine positions during his six-year minor-league career. He’s yet to pitch or catch in a minor-league game.
He also hit .300 with a .330 on-base percentage and .464 slugging percentage with 13 home runs and 68 RBIs in 112 games combined between Nashville and Midland last season. The Cardinals acquired him as part of the deal that sent Stephen Piscotty to the A’s this winter.
“I see him being very, very versatile,” Matheny said of Munoz. “That just plays into his hand for sure. I think it’s great for our organization. Big pickup. He’s taken terrific at-bats. Apparently he can dance. That’s just adding to his versatility.”
Sure enough, Munoz was entertaining veteran teammates with his dance moves Thursday as Matheny discussed him. A group that included Yadier Molina and Marcell Ozuna was in stitches after the fun-loving prospect realized his manager had been watching him dance.
Munoz always seems to be smiling. He takes his game seriously without taking himself seriously. He is clearly grateful for the opportunity to play a game that pulled him out of poverty.
Although his biological parents weren’t active in his upbringing, he has used his circumstances as motivation.
“My adoptive parents treated me well,” he said. “I always wondered how it would feel like to have a dad. I would see other children with their fathers and wonder, but I’m going to work hard because these people raised me and I want to give them something good so they’re never ashamed of me because they raised me and helped me and supported me in everything.”
He credits his brother Juan Miguel Reynoso, who is seven years older, with helping him and his other older brother Jairo Munoz develop enough to sign with big league teams as amateur free agents.
Juan Miguel Reynoso is the one who saw big league potential and put Jairo and Yairo on the path to signing with big league clubs. Jairo, 26, is in the Tampa Bay Rays’ farm system.
Yairo used the $280,000 signing bonus he received as an amateur free agent by the A’s to invest in a rice farm and build a home. He’s proud to say he used part of his first bonus to make sure the aunt who raised him never needed to work in anybody’s home again.
He also finds motivation in the advice his brother gave him shortly after he signed with the A’s, four days after he celebrated his 17th birthday in 2012.
“You have to work hard to get to the majors,” Munoz was told by his older brother, “because if you don’t get there and your money runs out you’ll come back with us to work.”
Munoz has fond memories of his cramped living conditions as one of 13 in a three-room home. He’s inspired by the sacrifices his aunt and uncle made to raise him. Now he’s taking advantage of the versatility he developed by excelling wherever his cousins put him as a child.
Jose de Jesus Ortiz
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