Ernesto Mejia remembers the bus rides. Those long trips to games in rookie ball, Single-A and a notch up the ladder in Double-A. Some of those rides could last for seven, eight, nine hours.
Mejia said that in the Texas League — he played for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Kansas Royals’ Double-A affiliate, in 2010 — he took a road trip that lasted 15 hours. “They were special buses with beds, but (the trip) was still long,” Mejia said.
There were more plane trips in Triple-A, but even that lacked most of the trappings that come with a spot on an MLB roster. For 10 seasons, Mejia played in the minors, first in the Atlanta Braves’ organization, then the Royals’ and back to the Braves again, without an MLB call-up.
Mejia had considered a move to Japanese baseball in the past, but he held out. This year, after just over a decade in the minors, the 28-year-old finally took the plunge and doesn’t plan on looking back for a second.
“I wasn’t frustrated,” Mejia said about not reaching MLB. “I never get frustrated. I would say, sometimes you get upset over different things, but if I never got called up, it’s probably maybe not the way I should end my career. Now there’s a big door open here in Japan, and I’m just going to keep fighting here.”
He’s put up a good fight early, having hit .337 with five home runs, 11 RBIs and a .988 on-base plus slugging percentage in his first 23 games with the Lions.
“It’s been a good experience so far,” Mejia said. “I’m trying to take advantage of this big opportunity for myself, and trying to help the team someway, somehow. I’m having fun with my teammates, they treat me so well. The team, from the GM to the scouts to the coaches, everybody, they’ve been awesome with me, and I’m having fun. I’m having a lot of fun. I’m trying to make adjustments. Trying to work hard and do my best to figure out the way to be successful here.”
Mejia says coming to Japan is like a fresh start.
He began playing baseball at the age of 6 in a small academy in his hometown of Guanare, the state capital of Portuguesa in Venezuela. There weren’t many big or fancy places to play where he grew up, but he and other kids made do with what they had. As he improved through the years, better opportunities came along, and he was on his way.
“I always wanted to play baseball at a high level,” he said.
Mejia signed with the Braves as an undrafted free agent in 2002, and in 2005 began playing for the GCL Braves at the rookie level in the Gulf Coast League. The big Venezuelan swung a powerful bat, which aided his gradual journey through the minors, where he played in 864 games from rookie level to Triple-A, according to Baseball Reference.
Overall Mejia hit .281 with 146 home runs, 572 RBIs and an .840 OPS in 10 seasons in the minors, according to Baseball Reference. He was hitting .354 with seven home runs and 24 RBIs in 20 games for the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves this season before being released from his contract in order to join Seibu.
“I left so many friends, so many coaches who helped me,” Mejia said. “The Atlanta Braves taught me how to play baseball. It was a good experience. I actually loved the United States, life and baseball, and everything. Now I’m trying to get used to the life here.”
Going to America as a young Venezuelan ballplayer was a culture shock for Mejia. He adjusted to his new life there over time, and expects to have no problems in Japan.
“I already did it once, why not do it twice,” he said with a laugh. “When I went to the States, I didn’t even speak English, I didn’t know too much about the culture, baseball, and all that. That’s what’s actually happening here right now. I’m just trying to have fun and learn a lot of things and enjoy the game.”
Mejia is still making adjustments every day, and he’ll begin another big transition on June 27, when intraleague play resumes, and he starts facing Pacific League teams. Mejia made his NPB debut on May 15, and has only played three games against PL opposition. The schedule will be slightly different as well, shifting back to three-game series as opposed to the two-game sets that make up the interleague season.
“I haven’t really seen that much,” he said. “I don’t know what to say because I haven’t faced anyone from my own league.
“Let’s wait to see what happens. I hope it’s good.”