T.J. Pruneda is keeping his dream alive
For T.J. Pruneda, it's been a journey.
But not just any journey.
It's been a roller-coaster of a journey.
Maybe some disappointments. Likely some promise.
It's a journey that's taken him places.
Now, that baseball journey has led Pruneda to Mexico.
And he's pretty darn happy about it.
Pruneda, a 2010 Tigard High School graduate, is living his baseball dream, pitching for the Pericos de Puebla (the Puebla Parakeets) squad, a member of the AAA-level Mexican League, located in Puebla, Mexico.
"I love it," Pruneda said by phone Tuesday morning. "I absolutely want to keep doing this. I would love to get a shot at the major leagues, that's everyone's dream, but I'm also realistic. I know I'm not going to blow away the radar gun. I'm not going to be throwing 95 or 99 (miles per hour). But here, it's all about outs. For me, this is a great place to play and grow."
Power pitching has never really been Pruneda's game. But the 5-foot-9, 200-pound left-hander has always been effective, going all the way back to when he pitched at Tigard High School.
As a senior, he helped the Tigers reach the Class 6A state playoffs.
And, after graduating from Tigard High School, Pruneda didn't want his baseball career to end.
And that's where his journey really began.
Pruneda's first stop after Tigard was George Fox University, located in Newberg.
"I tried to walk on and play there," said Pruneda, who turned 25 on Sunday. "But I had some academic problems. I was at an expensive place, and I couldn't play."
So it was quickly time to move on.
Pruneda transferred to Clark College, a two-year school located in Vancouver, Wash.
Pruneda ended up playing two years there under coach Don Freeman.
"I had a blast there," Pruneda said.
It was at Clark College where he developed into a starting pitcher.
"I like that better than coming out of the bullpen," he said. "I'm a contact pitcher."
As a sophomore at Clark, Pruneda had a 4-3 won-loss record, with a 2.96 earned-run average.
Following his sophomore year at Clark College, Pruneda was recruited by the AIB College of Business, located in Des Moines, Iowa.
"It was a business college, trying to get a baseball program started," Pruneda said. "I was excited to be a part of history, and I loved it there."
But, in his first year at the school, a miscommunication involving Pruneda's transcripts left him ineligible to play for the baseball team.
"But I stayed at the school," Pruneda said. "I started my broadcast career. I broadcast every sport they had to offer. It was a blessing in disguise, that could be my career choice."
Pruneda did get to pitch during his senior year at AIB, and he pitched well. He earned first-team all-conference honors while helping the Eagles win the 2015 Midwest Collegiate Conference championship.
"But, realistically, I knew the (Major League Baseball) draft wasn't going to happen," Pruneda said. "I agreed and accepted the fact that it was my last year."
Time to try out
But, it wasn't.
Following his senior year at AIB, Pruneda got a phone call from Pete Wagoner of the California Winter League.
The California Winter League is a month-long tryout league.
"It was a paid opportunity," Pruneda said. "You had to pay your way to go compete with 300 other guys."
So, Pruneda played in the CWL in front of scouts from various independent leagues, including the Frontier League.
"I thought I pitched well enough," he said. "But no one called. I thought my career was over, and I was OK with that."
Two weeks later, Pruneda got another phone call, this one from Andrew Dunn of the Pecos League, another tryout league, being held in Houston, Texas.
"I was still craving the need to pitch competitively," Pruneda said. "So I hoped on a plane to Houston."
Pruneda pitched for the Roswell Invaders in the Pecos League, putting together a 5-1 pitching record.
"After that season ended, I thought about my other options," Pruneda said. "I knew there was a winter league in Arizona, so, this past February, I headed off to Yuma."
Pruneda again pitched well, compiling a 2-1 record and 3.14 ERA, while turning in a complete-game shutout for the Laredo Apaches of the Arizona Winter League.
And that caught someone's attention.
South of the border
Arizona Winter League CEO Jose Melendez, who also serves as President of the Pericos de Puebla, was impressed with Pruneda and eventually signed him to the organization, assigning him to the organization's affiliated Algodoneros de San Luis club.
"He's willing to throw everyday, he's gutsy on the mound and has no fear," Melendez said of Pruneda in a release. "He has a great attitude, and will fit in well with the winning culture we are trying to establish in San Luis."
"Being a Mexican-American, I saw it as a great opportunity to play in Mexico," Pruneda said. "And I was already working on my dual citizenship."
Pruneda went to spring training with the San Luis team, and spent three weeks with the club.
Then, he got another call from Melendez.
"He said 'congratulations, we're promoting you to the Pericos de Puebla,'" Pruneda said. "I was caught off guard, but I was ready for the opportunity."
Life as a Parakeet
The Puebla team is the equivalent of a AAA minor league squad in the United States.
That means that there's usually an interesting mix of players on the roster.
There are young players, like Pruneda, trying to work there way up. And there are former Major League players, trying to work their way back.
With the Puebla team, Pruneda has found himself, at one time or another, being teammates with former MLB players Blake Beavan, a pitcher who once played for the Seattle Mariners, outfielder Endy Chavez, who played with a number of MLB teams, including the Mariners, and former West Linn and Oregon State University standout, and former MLB player, Cole Gillespie.
"I used to watch Endy Chavez," Pruneda said. "It's great to be on the same field as these guys. And I already knew Cole Gillespie. It was cool to share this experience with him."
With the Puebla squad, Pruneda has been a "mop-up" pitcher coming out of the bullpen.
"But I'm all over the place," he said. "I think I can fill any role coming out of the bullpen."
So far on the season, Pruneda has a 1-1 record and a 2.42 ERA in 22-and-a-third innings pitched.
As of Tuesday, where Pericos de Puebla fell 10-4 to Leon, the Puebla team moved to 54-53 in Southern Division play, as it continues its playoff push.
"We have some good crowds, especially when we play Monclova (the team's rival, which is also owned by Melendez)," Pruneda said. "Playing in front of 5,000 or 10,000 people is a blast."
Depending on how far the trip, Pruneda says the team travels by bus or by plane.
And, especially if it's a long bus ride, Pruneda is making the most out of it.
"The best part is traveling the country of Mexico," he said. "As a Mexican-American, it's great to see the culture of my people. And there is so much culture. You get to see a bit of everything."
But there are also challenges.
"The language barrier is the hardest thing," Pruneda said. "I'm not fluent in Spanish by any means. And a lot of these guys have never left the country. So, understanding each other can be a problem at times. I'm working on my Spanish. For me, it's mainly a confidence thing."
Away from the baseball diamond, Pruneda is engaged to Katarina Vela, a former Clark College softball player. The two plan to get married in 2018.
"She's been super supportive," Pruneda said of Vela. "As has been my family. My support staff has been tremendous. My parents have come down to see me, and so have my fiance and my sister."
Still working hard
After the current season ends, it doesn't sound like Pruneda, who says his fastball clocks in at "the low to mid 80s," is going to take much of a break.
"It's a job," he said. "If I can't do it well enough, they'll find someone who can."
He plans on playing in the Winter League again.
"I want to stay down here and keep working," he said. "I want to become a starter next year. I want to keep the dream going. I would love a shot in the Major Leagues."
It sounds like Pruneda's baseball journey just may be far from over.