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Tres Barrera can’t remember what he did for his 24th birthday last September. He may have been back home in Texas, or in Florida for Instructional League. “I think I was in Florida,” Barrera says, sounding slightly unconvinced. He believes he was somewhere honing his baseball skills in the offseason with hopes of one day playing Major League Baseball.
Being a minor league baseball player means a lot of repetitive days that blend into each other. Any celebrations he may have had didn’t leave much of an impression. He needed to get back to work.
“It’s a grind, man,” Barrera says.
This year, he once again failed to plan anything special, but he insists he doesn’t mind.
“No,” Barrera says with a smile while standing in front of his locker inside the Washington Nationals clubhouse, “it’s kind of a different type of birthday for me this year.”
In Barrera’s hometown of McAllen, Texas, he says, the lack of financial resources for talented players makes it difficult for them to reach the major leagues. The town sits on the southern tip of the state near the border between the United States and Mexico and far away from the pricey baseball showcases that give players exposure.
Barrera, who was born Felipe Barrera III but goes by the nickname “Tres,” counts former big league pitcher Jaime García as the most well known player from the area where he grew up.
García was born in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico and went to Sharyland High School in nearby Mission, Texas—the same high school that Barrera attended—before playing for several major league teams, including the 2011 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. Former MLB infielder Jorge Cantú also attended Sharyland.
“Nowadays, baseball’s come to everything being about travel ball,” Barrera says. “Travel ball has a lot of money to do with it. There’s a lot of talent from where I’m from, but sometimes the money situation, it’s hard for people to get out and go to bigger cities … We’re right on the border, majority Hispanic community. Baseball has gone to a lot of showcases, everything costs a lot of money now, to get out there, to get seen. You don’t ever really see a college coach go to where I live to go watch a game.”
He would go on to play Division I baseball at the University of Texas at Austin as a catcher and was drafted by the Nationals in the sixth round (184th overall) in the 2016 MLB Draft. His professional career began soon after with the Auburn Doubledays in New York, the Nats’ Class A Short Season affiliate.
“Just started to grind,” he says. “It’s not easy being a minor leaguer. You’re on buses, your hotels aren’t great, staying with host families. Without host families, it would’ve made life a lot harder in the minor leagues for sure.”
Barrera participated in Nationals spring training this year but played out the minor league season with the Harrisburg Senators, the Double-A affiliate of the Nats in Pennsylvania. In 101 games this season, Barrera finished with a .249 batting average, 23 doubles, 46 RBIs, and eight home runs.
“We put a much larger load on him, and that doesn’t go unnoticed,” says Doug Harris, the Nationals’ assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel. “Catching is like pitching to a degree, you can’t just throw a guy out there for 120 games if he hasn’t done 60 in the past. You have to build incrementally … Some catchers, two, three days into it and it starts to tail off. Tres didn’t do that, and that shows his maturity and physical strength.”
About two minutes remained in the Texas versus Louisiana State University football game on Saturday, Sept. 7 when Barrera’s phone rang. Senators manager Matt LeCroy was on the other end. With Kurt Suzuki recovering from an elbow injury, the Nats needed a third catcher alongside Yan Gomes and Raudy Read.
“He asked me what I was doing, like he was going to come hang out or something,” Barrera recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m watching the game,’ and he said, ‘I got good news. You’re going to the big leagues.’ My heart just dropped.”
Barrea immediately told his wife, Lindsey, and then called his parents. His father answered the phone and started yelling about the Texas football defense. (LSU would eventually win, 45-38.) “I was like, dad, dad, I got something to say,” Barrera says. When he finally told him, everyone cried.
“Kinda just all the work, and all the travel, and everything you go through to lead up to the point where you get the call, it kinda all comes back rushing through your mind,” he explains. “And we’re here now. It’s kinda surreal. It’s kinda hard to put into words.”
While Suzuki’s injury certainly expedited Barrera’s promotion, Harris says that Barrera has been a “common conversation” between him, Nats manager Dave Martinez, and general manager Mike Rizzo. “He was well on the radar in regards to how we value him, his readiness to contribute in some form or fashion, and how he’s going to fit with our future,” Harris says.
On Saturday, Sept. 14, a day before his birthday, Barrera walked toward the plate for his first major league at-bat in the ninth inning of an eventual 10-1 loss against the Atlanta Braves. The song “Baila Esta Cumbia” by A.B. Quintanilla III and Kumbia Kings featuring Selena blared from the speakers.
His family back in Texas approved. “I gotta take it back to the roots a little bit,” Barrera says.
When Barrera, who was pinch-hitting for pitcher Erick Fedde, lined out to Braves pitcher Josh Tomlin, and slowly walked back to the dugout, his wife could start to relax a little. “She said she might have been more nervous than me,” Barrera says with a laugh. “I doubt it.”
The following day, the Nats would go on to beat the Braves, 7-0, to prevent the series sweep in a game in which Barrera did not make an appearance. But afterward in the clubhouse, players and staff members gathered around the dining area and sang at the top of their lungs with Barrera in the middle.
They were celebrating his birthday.