By Dustin Saracini
Canadian Baseball Network
Grey skies and rain showered Tourmaline Field as the Okotoks Dawgs Academy hosted the Calgary Cubs in their annual Peewee tournament four years ago.
Across the Dawgs’ dugout stood a tall yet strong 12-year-old with a captivating smile to go alongside his tremendous talent.
Academy head coach Allen Cox didn’t know it yet, but he was about to find himself a new third baseman.
Cesar Valero dug into the box and laced an inside-the-park home run to put his Cubs ahead early -- that was enough to catch the attention of Cox, who exchanged words with the young prospect the next time he took to the field.
Valero ended up turning in a quality tournament, while his conversations with Cox stemmed into an offer to play for the most prestigious baseball academy in Canada the following season. It ended up being the cherry on top of an incredible 2013 for Valero, who broke out in his peewee campaign with Calgary.
“The year before that, I still wasn’t that good,” a humble 15-year-old Valero said.
“That year, everything blew up.”
He would go on to smash 18 home runs with the Cubs before his 13th birthday.
A year later, he was drenched in red and white colours in Okotoks.
Looking back, Valero’s story is far from a conventional one. It began in Maracaibo, Venezuela, as the young utility player followed in the footsteps of his father, also named Cesar, who had fallen in love with the game, but couldn’t afford to play competitively during his childhood.
Valero moved to Canada when he was five years of age, at the time when his former country began to deteriorate socially and economically. His parents, Maria and Cesar, applied for permanent residence. When the family received word they had been successful in doing so, a decision was made to sell everything they owned, putting all their chips on the table to make the transition to Canada. Once here, it was all about baseball.
“It was funny,” he joked.
“In Canada, I was watching the Little League World Series and the second baseman from Maracaibo used to play T-ball with me. I was complaining why we moved, I should have been playing there.”
On how it felt to have moved out of Venezuela to become one of the top rated young Canadian players, Valero simply said “everything happens for a reason.”
Their first stop was Quebec, but the family quickly found a home in Calgary, where Valero’s talent took flight.
In his bantam year with the Dawgs, the now 6-foot-2, 185-pounder provided plenty of memories for the club.
“Cesar has had many big hits since he has been with the Dawgs,” Cox said.
“Some of his bantam home runs as a first year were big shots. We do remember one that he hit into the trees at Conrad park. He turned on a 90-mph pitch in Florida that brought some pretty big division one scouts over to the dugout. Just a couple of days ago he hit a 100-mph fastball off the bat which is pretty impressive for a 15-year-old.”
Valero’s parents attend as many games as they can, bringing out the best in their kid. As Cox notes, one whistle from Cesar senior is enough for junior to know “he better bring it today.”
Now in his third year in Okotoks, Valero has garnered attention from several big schools vying for the youngster’s ability to play ball. Arizona State, Indiana and Louisville all came knocking before Valero committed to the NCAA powerhouse of Oregon State University.
Aside from signing a four-year term with the Beavers, Valero has had plenty to be proud of this year. His 18U club won the Spokane 2017 Wood Bat Classic, where he drove in a run to lead the Dawgs past Northwest Premier, 3-2, in the finals. Okotoks then travelled to Ohio, coming out on top in an 84-team pool, taking the Buckeye Elite Showcase Tournament.
“It was awesome,” Valero said.
“People think ‘No, the States are better, everything is better, we are going to beat those guys in Canada,’ we were perfect at that tournament, we didn’t lose a game.”
Everything is settling in place for Valero. He has grown and developed into a kid with a bright future while the door remains open for him to further his game in Oregon -- if Major League Baseball doesn’t come calling first.
“OSU is going to get a polished baseball player who at some point could be a top rounder some day, that’s if he even gets to OSU,” Cox said.
“His work ethic in the weight room has shown and we have done a great job of getting this skinny kid stronger and quicker. It could be scary the potential Cesar could get to.”
For a player who can patrol shortstop, third base and the outfield, the versatility he demonstrates on the defensive side of the ball may just bring him over the top. When it comes to elevating his game to the next level, Valero can take solace in knowing he has someone who is right in the thick of the MLB dream to offer guidance, Dawgs Academy product and Arizona Diamondback selection Clayton Keyes.
“I look up to that guy,” he said.
“He’s always been the best kid in the Academy, the best player, so I look up to him.”
To take the next step in fulfilling a lifelong dream, Valero has yet another T12 Tournament Showcase to attend to. It will be his third in his career already, debuting as a 13-year-old. That year, he scorched a single off a 88-90 mph fastball and was the youngest player in the building.
“Cesar and I were sitting and watching the game in the dugout when he was 13 where I told him, ‘Hey, hopefully you get to come here next year as well,’” Cox remembered.
“He said ‘I hope I get to come back the next five years,’ he could be a six-year T12 member.”
There will be plenty of familiar faces this time around as Valero enters another showcase. Twenty-two members of the Dawgs Academy -- up from 18 a year ago -- will be spread out across four clubs as the OSU-commit represents team Alberta. Regardless of the circumstances, Valero says he is looking to take on a leadership role in the dugout and embraces the pressure of playing in front of professional scouts.
“I’m not the youngest guy on the team anymore, so I can kind of help the younger kids and the guys who haven’t been there before, help them relax,” he said.
“The first time I was there, my first year, that was the only time I was nervous, every other year I’ve gotten used to it.”
For Valero, the T12 presents another opportunity to cement himself as a first-tier player in the country and another chance for his dedication to seep into scouting reports. At just 15 years of age, he scored a nine at Perfect Game and is equipped with the tools, both physically and mentally, a young player needs in a sport that can humble you every single time you lace up the spikes. In the end, his intangibles and high baseball IQ are what sets this youngster apart from the rest.
“This is my passion,” he said.
“It’s my dream. My dream is to obviously play in the major leagues, I’ve always loved the game. It’s a game of failure, you’re always going to fail, but I’ll never let it take me down … On the field, I try to keep my head up whether I strikeout or hit a double, make an error or a nice play. I always smile because there’s nothing better to do than play baseball.”
The first time Cox saw Valero on that cold and wet afternoon, the 2019 grad made two errors at third base. Instead of allowing the mistakes to affect his game, he kept his head up and put forth a solid tournament, another reason why the Dawgs opened their arms and welcomed him to the family. Since Valero first picked up the bat in Venezuela, he never allowed the small things get to him, and has demonstrated veteran-like poise on and away from the diamond time and time again.
“Valero interacts with the younger players in the Dawgs Academy daily,” said Cox.
“And I say daily because he is at the park every day.”
The now proud Calgarian continues to impress himself, his parents and the Dawgs Academy with what he has accomplished and the maturity he has displayed while doing so. On September 14 he will be back at it again ... with a smile on his face.