As the Yankees cleaned out their lockers and returned home after their first season outside the playoffs since 2016, some packed up their families for a vacation in warm places. Others reserved tea times. A handful slept late and lay on the couch to relax for several days.
Midfielder Jonathan Loáisiga returned home to his farm in Nicaragua and a barn filled with horses, chickens and sheep – “a little bit of everything,” he says.
Well, some animals are not so small after all: in Loáisiga there is a stable of 22 bulls. His love for animals goes back to his childhood and the small town located 10 minutes from the capital Managua, where he grew up.
“When I lived with my grandfather, I liked having animals,” he told NJ Advance Media late in the season. “I would buy chickens and raise them. I was 13 or 14 years old. I previously went to Barrera de Toro with my cousin, which is like a bull riding rodeo. They did two drives: one in the afternoon and one at night, and I didn’t come back until it was all over. Love it. I dreamed of bulls and now I do it.”
Loáisiga was 24 when he bought his first bull, and his stable is growing. He rents them out for barreras, spectacular bull riding shows. Locals flood the small stadiums, enjoying food and drinks while men take turns riding bulls to the beat of Nicaraguan music. The best riders climb the wildest bulls to the cheers of the crowd. Even the best riders are thrown to the ground and must climb on the side to avoid the charging animal.
Later, in a lottery, the bravest in the crowd can take a chance. Amateurs wear helmets and breastplates and often ride on hornless bulls or bulls with their horns wrapped for safety. Still, there are dangers, but rodeo is performative, not competitive, and it does not sacrifice bulls. It’s a nice gathering of neighbors, friends and family – many of them dressed in their best sombreros.
“People live for the barrerras,” Loáisiga said.
Loáisigi’s bull breeding has some symbolism in it. He had to show tenacity to get to the major leagues and battle through injuries that initially jeopardized his ascent to the major leagues and are now hindering a career that was about to take off. It wasn’t just a wasted season for the Yankees: Loáisiga spent two seasons on the injured list, coming close to becoming one of the most effective relievers in the game.
Baseball was his destiny from birth. His grandfather played in Nicaragua’s professional baseball league. His father, Stanley, played for the minor league Montreal Expos. And his brother Mike played three years in the Dominican Summer League for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
When Loáisiga was about 7 years old, his grandfather – who raised him when his father left the family – took him to a park in the capital Managua, where he played in a children’s league. After showing his talent and retiring from the league at the age of 11, he trained on a field near his hometown of Lunica, where top prospects train and play.
Loáisiga was too small (about 115 pounds) and too young to play with the men, but he wanted to stay in the game, so he stayed.
“I would wait for the players to sign and sort things out for them, and I would be a bat boy,” he said. “Then I would start training.”
With the tips he earned for running errands, he bought chickens and raised them on his grandfather’s property. This led to his first trip to Barrera de Toro, a tradition in Nicaragua since the 19th century. The rodeo inspired him: “I loved it,” he said, and he began to dream of having bulls of his own. But first he had to earn a living.
Two years passed before he got the chance to play with the professionals from Lunica. Once he did, it became clear that Loáisiga was talented. At the age of 17, he tried out for the San Francisco Giants, with whom he signed a contract in 2012.
After missing two seasons due to shoulder injuries in 2014-2015, the Giants released Loáisiga. He signed with the Yankees, but in his first start for Single-A Charleston in 2016, he left the team with elbow problems and underwent Tommy John surgery.
Upon his return, he continued to impress as he rose through the ranks of the organization. According to MLB Pipeline, he made his big league debut in 2018, when he was the Yankees’ 14th overall prospect. He threw five innings and did not allow a run against the Tampa Bay Rays.
“He looked just like a young Mariano Rivera,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters.
Loáisiga went from starter to reliever, dominating hitters with a nasty sinker, and by 2021, Loáisiga was one of the best relievers in baseball. In 57 appearances this season, he has won nine more games than Yankees starters Jameson Taillon and Jordan Montgomery. According to FanGraphs, his ERA of 2.17 placed him fourth in WAR (2.4) among relief pitchers.
But his rise to fame slowed. Despite inflammation in his right elbow, the 28-year-old Loáisiga made just 17 appearances, posting an ERA of 3.06 in 17 2/3 innings pitched. Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner has begun a detailed review of the organization that includes examining why the franchise suffered serious injuries to key players, especially young players like Loáisiga. There will likely be a new training plan for him to keep him healthy.
One of 15 Nicaraguan players to reach the big leagues, and one of two active Nicaraguans in the MLB along with Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Erasmo Ramírez, Loáisiga is a star in a country where he is asked for autographs and selfies. But the guy who idolized Derek Jeter and wanted to “follow in his footsteps” knows there’s more in store for him in the majors – if he can stay healthy and develop his potential.
He said he is proud of Nicaragua and comes to the stadium every day “to give my all to the fans. It motivates me to stay strong and work hard.”
In other words, there’s something of a bull about the guy in the Yankees bullpen.
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