On the mound, the Mets’ Jeurys Familia strikes fear in opponents with his imposing 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame and his 96-mile-per-hour sinkers, among the hardest in the major leagues.
“I hear other hitters say it all the time, ‘Hitting is not easy, but hitting him is even harder,’” Mets outfielder Juan Lagares said.
Off the field, Familia, the Mets’ closer, is a gentle giant who overcame a humble upbringing in his native Dominican Republic to become a top closer. He leads the majors with 31 saves, which earned him his first trip to the All-Star Game. In the Mets’ clubhouse, Familia, 26, is usually smiling, joking or playing pranks.
“When you have fun, things are easier,” Familia said in Spanish. “Up here, you have so many highs and lows, good and bad moments. I try to be at the same level always and be the same person. It doesn’t matter if it’s going well or badly — I try to enjoy it as much as possible.”
Closing games is a volatile profession. The closer is either the savior or the villain. Thrust into the role in April 2015 when the former closer Jenrry Mejia was suspended, Familia has thrived. Last year he posted a 1.85 E.R.A. and saved 43 games, which was third in the majors and tied the franchise’s single-season saves record.
But Familia was not even supposed to be a baseball player. Although baseball is part of the fabric of Dominican culture, Familia was drawn to basketball. He was 5 feet 10 inches and the center on his travel basketball team when he was a teenager. He idolized Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, and the Los Angeles Lakers were his favorite team.
“It’s something I was born with,” Familia said. “I don’t know. I love basketball. I still love it, but can’t play.”
Familia switched to baseball at 15. Scouts and coaches believed he had a future in the sport because of his size and his strong right arm. He signed with the Mets at age 17 for $100,000. His fastballs hit 90 to 91 miles per hour. At the Mets’ academy in the Dominican Republic, Familia grew stronger.
Juan Henderson, the Mets’ director of Latin American operations, said academy coaches would regularly find Familia running on the field at 5:30 a.m. before they arrived for morning practice. After afternoon workouts, Familia would often run again.
“No one told him he needed to do that,” Henderson said. “His work ethic is incredible. That’s why he’s going to go even further than he is now, because he’s a tireless worker.”
A starter in the minors, Familia converted to a reliever in 2013. He was a full-time reliever in the majors in 2014. Since the start of 2015, Familia has 74 saves, second in the majors to the Pirates’ Mark Melancon, who has 78. Since August 2015, Familia has converted 47 consecutive save chances in the regular season, a franchise record.
“At the end of the day, if you have a win, you really don’t care how you got it, but you’ll take it,” Mets Manager Terry Collins said. “As long as he’s saving games, I don’t care how he does it.”
Familia said that becoming a father had helped him to cope with the emotional nature of his job. His wife, Bianca, gave birth to their first son, Jeurys Jr., in June 2015. After Familia set a record with three blown saves in the World Series in October, he said, seeing his son after games made him relax. Even now, Familia said he played with his son after games if he was still awake.
“It’s a big responsibility to care for a little child,” he said. “After a bad day, I see him and forget about the game quickly.”
Familia grew up in Yaguate, a small town an hour west of the capital, Santo Domingo.
Familia’s father, who had a leg disability, was in the military and was a gas station attendant. His mother worked at a store. They worked from early morning to evening nearly seven days a week to support Familia and his four siblings.
“Things weren’t easy in the Dominican,” he said.
Despite their modest upbringing, Familia said, his parents bought him whatever baseball equipment he needed and supported his career. With his earnings from baseball, he built them a new house in the Dominican Republic. Familia planned to bring his parents, who spend time with him in New York, to San Diego for the All-Star Game on Tuesday.
“It’s important to me to represent my team, because they gave me a chance in 2007 when they signed me,” Familia said. “It’s something I’ll enjoy with my family. I’ll represent my country and my family.”
Familia credited two veteran pitchers, Bartolo Colon and his former teammate LaTroy Hawkins, for teaching him to let his buoyant personality show.
“He’s one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met in my life,” Mets reliever Jerry Blevins said.
For fun, Familia has spooked reporters by quietly walking behind them and barking once loudly like a dog. Another trick: He slams a foam roller against a table to make a boom, a trick he learned from Colon. During a recent trip to Atlanta, Familia and his fellow reliever Hansel Robles tried to tempt unsuspecting clubhouse visitors to open a cooler for energy drinks that contained a plastic snake instead.
“He’s a funny guy and always happy,” Robles said. “He’s always joking around with teammates. You have to be that way between games so that when you enter into the game you’re positive.”
Once games start, Familia tries to replace his smile with a stare. He may frighten batters with his pitching and size, but Robles said he had still spotted grins on Familia’s face during a game.
“I’m very different on the mound than in person,” Familia said. “The mound is life or death. I give the best that I can and try to be as aggressive and try to intimidate the batters and do whatever I can to save the game.”