TAMPA — It’s nothing new to hear young baseball players speak about how much they love the game — how baseball is their life.
Though when Jefferson High shortstop Jose Cuellar says it, matter-of-factly, calmly and passionately in the same phrase, you can’t help but believe he means it deep in his soul.
“I’ve wanted to play baseball my whole life,” Cuellar said. “It is my love, I love baseball, it’s my life.”
The Cuban-born Cuellar, who came to the United States four years ago to join his father, who had gained U.S. citizenship, baseball in his native country was more than a hobby. It was a driving force, and to have the chance to play in the U.S. is a dream shared by many.
“It is a part of every day. We don’t have a lot of equipment, we share (our) gloves, that’s how every practice is,” Cuellar said. “We all want to play professional baseball in America.”
On the field, Cuellar has developed into one of the county’s best defenders, making the routine and difficult plays with ease and poise. Combined with his up-the-middle partner, senior second baseman Jony Gonzalez, the duo has anchored the Dragons’ stellar defense this season.
Cuellar’s defense earned notice in the week-long Saladino Tournament this season, where he was named to the all-tournament team as the top defender for the runner-up Dragons — a point of pride for the senior.
“When I got that ‘golden glove,’ I said that ‘I have met a dream,’ ” Cuellar said. “I took hundreds of ground balls (in practices), I worked all summer with my coach and I (wanted to) show how much it means to me to be on the field.”
“I think this is all about his confidence, and the whole Saladino thing was a chance to show what he could do,” said Jefferson assistant coach Lou Maggio, who has been with the Dragons since 1985. “The guy makes these circus plays look easy. It’s confidence in himself and the confidence of his teammates. He’s really put it all together.”
Cuellar’s play is more than a help to his teammates. He’s a show they get to watch.
“I love watching him play,” Nelson Maldonado said. “His footwork, his arm, he’s so aggressive and always comes out ready to play. It’s really great to see what he can do out there.”
Maldonado has paced the Dragons’ offense this season, as the junior is hitting .432 with 25 runs, 26 RBIs and four home runs, while Cuellar has a .333 average with 21 runs and 13 RBIs in the leadoff spot.
Cuellar began his high school career at Alonso, where another Cuban-born player — 2013 Major League Baseball National League Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez — was blanking area hitters. For Cuellar, Fernandez’s role as a mentor was a big help. The year after Fernandez graduated, Cuellar’s family moved into Jefferson’s district. He said at first he struggled adjusting to school and still had issues with the English language.
The adjustment was made easier, he said, by his teammates, notably Maldonado, who was a friend to Cuellar from his first day at Jefferson.
“When I first came here (to Jefferson), I did not feel good,” Cuellar said. “I met Nelly, and he told me to ‘calm down,’ he was my only friend, but then I met Jony (Gonzalez) and the rest of these guys and (now) they are like a family to me.”
Cuellar and Jefferson (20-8) will host Osceola (19-7) in the Class 6A-Region 3 quarterfinals on Thursday. It will mark the first time the Dragons will be able to take to their home field this season, as it was deemed unplayable before the regular season and had to be resurfaced.
“Baseball, out there on the field — this is my love, this is my life.”
And life is good.