It was the slider that got Luis Ayden Almeyda.

The pitch, coming out of the hand of a UConn commit four years older than Almeyda, had looked enticing before it took a left turn away from Almeyda’s bat and snapped into the catcher’s mitt, part of a strikeout during a summer travel league tournament early in Almeyda’s time with the East Coast Lumberjacks.

There he was, a 13-year-old with his head down, learning what it meant to fail — and what it meant to regroup.

His father, Hector, had wanted this. There was little doubt Almeyda was the best player on the field when he played against kids his own age, but Hector felt that was no way to grow. His son would learn most in this environment, he thought, against players sometimes four years older than the young shortstop, thrown into the deep end to see just how well he could swim.

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So Almeyda — a class of 2025 prospect playing for the 2021 team — trudged back to the dugout on that early summer morning in Long Island, an error and a strikeout to his name, “having that 13, 14-year-old moment,” said Ryan Pembroke, his Lumberjacks coach.

That’s when Pembroke pulled Almeyda aside, just for a moment. He reminded Almeyda that he was on the field for a reason, that he was good, that two missteps earlier in the game didn’t define him.

It would’ve been storybook if Almeyda had hit a home run in his next plate appearance, or won the game with a walk-off single. But so much of baseball comes down to the minute moments — the signs that progress had been made, even if an out was still recorded.

He picked his head up. He played solid infield defense.

And he laid off the slider.

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Pembroke hadn’t coached Almeyda for long at that point, yet he had already seen so much of the talent that warranted the Orioles setting a franchise record by signing Almeyda for $2.3 million three years later as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic. In one of Almeyda’s first games for the Lumberjacks, the shortstop hit a wooden-bat homer 340 feet.

But what impresses Pembroke all these years later is how in five minutes, the 13-year-old Almeyda had brushed off the disappointment he’d never felt before and returned to the field with a clear head. In that moment — beyond all the ability Almeyda continually showed — Pembroke understood the just-turned-teenager on a team full of near-adults was destined for greatness.

“Kids older than him don’t know how to react to it. Kids his age, forget it, they would just crumble,” Pembroke said. “He showed a lot of moxie about him, being able to turn the page that quick.”

Almeyda needed to learn that lesson right there. Pretty soon, the New Jersey-born infielder’s life changed completely, and right as colleges and amateur scouts began to swarm, he and his family picked up and moved away.

“It was so unplanned,” Almeyda said.

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The move

Almeyda knew one thing for certain: He didn’t want his mother, Angelina, going alone. If she had to move to the Dominican Republic to take care of her mother, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Almeyda and his father would come, too.

In Almeyda’s eyes, the conversation stopped there.

But it was trickier for Hector. He had his son’s future in mind. And by this point, Almeyda was rapidly rising up recruiting boards and making a name for himself in baseball. He became the fourth-ranked college prospect in the class of 2025, according to Perfect Game.

In each game for the Lumberjacks, Almeyda showed his ability reached another level, far beyond that of the college-destined recruits around him. One time, a 14-year-old Almeyda and the Lumberjacks found themselves facing Thomas White — a 6-foot-5 left-hander who, thanks to his 97-mph fastball, is expected to be drafted in the first round this summer. Almeyda fell behind in each at-bat, then ditched his leg kick altogether to improve his timing and knocked three hard-hit balls.

“When I saw that, you just know, the kid’s just different,” Pembroke said. “You can teach these things, but a lot of these things you just have to have.”

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And Almeyda had it.

Which made the decision to leave it all behind harder — for everyone but Almeyda. The access to college scouts, the Perfect Game showcases, he wasn’t worried about missing them. Almeyda wanted to be where his family needed to be. And he viewed the opportunity to play baseball abroad as an advantage, a way to learn different styles.

He had pushed himself once already, playing against competition several years older.

He was ready to push himself again, playing against competition in a different country.

What he discovered, first at a tournament in Mexico and then throughout his time at baseball academies in the Dominican Republic, ranged from “different kinds of swag” to “how the kids pitch here.” But beyond that, he was exposed to a new mentality.

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“I am a kid from the States. I’ve done travel ball, a little bit more organized ball,” Almeyda said. “But now that I came here … I learned that these kids here have a dream. These kids are: ‘I want to sign. I have that eagerness to sign.’ And in the States, we have the same thing, but we have setbacks, we can go to college. These kids are like, ‘If I don’t sign now, I’m not going to sign.’”

Almeyda also had a dream. He wanted to sign. But being around others with a one-track mind — an MLB-or-bust mentality — rubbed off on the newcomer.

“It made me more driven to my goal,” Almeyda said.

The discovery

Koby Perez scanned the field in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, until his eyes settled on a tall 15-year-old with curly hair who stood out from the crowd. The Orioles’ senior director of international scouting was at a showcase of Dominican, Venezuelan and Mexican teams put together by agents.

Some of the best international prospects were there. And so was that tall kid from New Jersey, having moved abroad only shortly before.

As Perez watched Almeyda, he took note of how advanced he looked at the plate and in the field. His plate approach complemented his power. Perez was hooked.

“We pounced at the opportunity,” Perez said.

A year later, Perez made Almeyda the centerpiece of Baltimore’s 2023 international signing class. Since executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias arrived in 2018, the Orioles have committed more resources to the international market. Nabbing a player of Almeyda’s caliber is a sign that those resources can secure talent.

But anything at this stage is based on belief.

That’s the nature of any amateur signing: Belief that, in the years to come, a player’s development will continually flourish, that injuries or a hundred other issues don’t prevent the teenage star from being a major league talent, at least. There’s analytical support when making these decisions, sure, but also a fair bit of gut instinct. Almeyda should play in the Dominican Summer League this year, then make the jump to the Florida Complex League and after that to affiliate ball. The road is long for anyone. It’s especially so for a 16-year-old.

Still, Perez said, “his ability speaks for itself.”

At 13, Almeyda trudged back to the dugout, head down, thinking about the slider that fooled him.

At 16, Almeyda stood in front of an Orioles backdrop in the Dominican Republic. He posed with an Orioles jersey over his collared shirt, his name and the number 21 stitched on his back.

At 19, at 22, at 25?

It’s a guessing game — an educated guessing game.

“I can’t wait for my journey to start,” Almeyda said. In many ways, though, it already has.

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville. 

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