Asked about his performance over those two days, Mondesi playfully said, "Am I doing good?"
The Dodgers were lucky to have found Mondesi. He was a 17-year-old boy from a barrio in the Dominican Republic, when, in June 1988, a neighbor wrangled him an invite to Campo Las Palmas, the major league club's year-round training center in Santo Domingo. The mass tryout was well under way when scout Pablo Guerrero rushed over to the camp's director, Dodger vice president Ralph Avila, and said there was a kid Avila really ought to see.
"What I remember first was the sound—just the sound of ball coming off bat," Avila says. "If you've been around long enough, you don't have to see the distance the ball goes to know it's flying out. There's this clean sound of the bat that tells you it probably is. Even before I could see him hitting, I heard that."
At the plate, of course, stood Mondesi, then a 5'9", 155-pounder, who'd grown up playing ball with the standard equipment of a poor Dominican kid: a milk carton for a glove, a sock stuffed with paper for a ball and a guava tree limb hewn into a bat. Mondesi says he had no idea Avila was watching him. The pitches just kept coming, and he just kept smashing the ball beyond the mound of grass that served as the leftfield wall 385 feet away. His speed and throwing arm had already tested above average. "Sign him immediately," Avila told Guerrero. "Don't let him get away."
When Guerrero and another Dodger employee drove Mondesi home to San Cristóbal that afternoon to get his mother's approval to sign him, word raced through the neighborhood. Dominicans like to brag that their country of seven million people is known for two exports: sugar and big-time baseball players. The three-month winter league season is a highlight of the year, with the returning major leaguers received like national heroes. Passion for the game runs deep. "So when the Dodgers said they wanted to sign me," Mondesi says, "my heart was just pounding, pounding, pounding."
His father, Ramón, had died when Raul was seven, and his mother, Martina, raised her six children on wages she scratched out working at a laundry. As quickly as the Dodgers could produce a contract, Mondesi and his mother signed it. Then an impromptu neighborhood party began. "Everyone came over, and some guys poured beer on my head and rubbed it in to celebrate," says Mondesi, who received $4,000 as a signing bonus. "It was the best day of my life—that and my first day in the big leagues."
Mondesi's skills were so raw that the Dodgers left him in Santo Domingo to play for their team in the Dominican Summer League in 1988 and '89. But he was a quick study and hit .303 the next year for L.A.'s rookie league team in Great Falls, Mont. During the '91 season he shot up three rungs in the Dodger system, starting the year at Class A Bakersfield and finishing at Triple A Albuquerque.
Mondesi began the next season as the Albuquerque Dukes' hottest hitter. But when the Dodgers came looking for an outfielder to get them through a couple of weeks in late May, they promoted Mondesi's more seasoned teammate Tom Goodwin. Mondesi was seething.
The Dukes left on a road trip the next morning, but Mondesi purposely missed the team plane. Dodger officials were notified, and a stiff fine seemed in order. But Avila, who was by now something of a father figure to Mondesi, said, "If you really want to punish him, choose something that will really hurt him." That same afternoon Mondesi was called and told to get to the airport immediately. He was being sent down to Double A San Antonio. Mondesi spent the rest of the year there.
Los Angeles still had serious misgivings about Mondesi's attitude when he went home to play in the Dominican League that winter. Long worried about his top prospect's fast living off the field, Avila had Mondesi tailed for two months during the winter season. Mondesi often stayed out until 3 or 4 a.m., as Avila well knew, but the hired hands reported back that he didn't drink, smoke or take drugs. "He was being the macho man, enjoying the attention after games," Avila says. "He was driving too fast and chasing girls, things like that."