Christian Bethancourt is part of the new generation of Oakland Athletics. Like many of them, I have never imagined he’d be here.
While a lot of this year’s A’s assumed they might be playing somewhere other than in Oakland right now, baseball in the United States wasn’t always part of Bethancourt’s plan this season. I believed he’d be back home in Panama, starting a new profession – working as a farmer.
Once one of the major leagues’ most heralded prospects, a catcher blessed with an arm that helped carry him to the big leagues with Atlanta as a 21-year-old, Bethancourt now had to be honest with himself. He hadn’t been a major leaguer since 2017 and his baseball career was going nowhere – a disappointing season playing in Korea in 2019 was followed by a worse one in 2020, when he was cut by the Phillies after a spring training tryout. Even a strong Triple-A season with the Pirates last year didn’t earn Bethancourt a call-up.
It was time to make a difficult decision. Adaptability has always been in Bethancourt’s nature – he’s one of the rare major leaguers to be both a pitcher and a position player (as in just about every position: catcher, first baseman, second baseman, left fielder, right fielder). But, at 30 years old, was he ready to be flexible enough to give up his dream of becoming a major leaguer again?
“I was very much sure at that time that I wasn’t gonna make it back to the major leagues, which was my first and my only goal,” said Bethancourt. “I thought I had a really good year with the Pirates and I did not get a call back to the major leagues. Those are the times when you think (about your future).”
So, he did the sensible thing when confronted with a fork in his baseball road. He chose food and self-sustainment.
Bethancourt literally bet the farm on himself. Sensing two years ago this day would come, the self-described “city boy” partnered with his brother-in-law to purchase a 17-acre spread in his native Panama, where they would raise cattle and become meat and dairy farmers.
“I live in downtown Panama (City), but I always had that vision of liking animals and owning land out in the country, do you know?” said Bethancourt, whose farm is in Aguadulce, an agriculture and industrial zone about 120 miles from the bustling capital. “I’m a big fan of the farms, so I started thinking outside baseball and making an investment on a farm.”
Business on the farm was a bit slow during the pandemic, Bethancourt said, but it’s been growing back the past few months and he was prepared to devote himself to the job.
Then everything changed when Bethancourt received a call from the A’s this past winter. His hands-on farming experience would have to wait. He left his brother-in-law in charge of the farm and quickly signed a minor league contract with Oakland, which included a spring training invite.
“I was very excited to sign with the A’s, knowing the opportunity I could have here,” said Bethancourt, fully realizing Oakland was in the middle of a rebuild and that many big league jobs would be opening up.
He admittedly wasn’t prepared for just how quickly he’d earn one again. After batting a sizzling .391 with an OPS of 1.053 in spring training, Bethancourt was summoned to Toronto after the first week of the season.
“My expectations were never to be (here) this soon in the major leagues,” said Bethancourt, who came into Friday’s game batting just .189, despite some quality at-bats. “It was (supposed to be) more of ‘leave a good impression in spring training, go to Triple-A, do your thing and wait for something to happen.’
“Hey, things change!”
Bethancourt has never ascended to the heights predicted of him when Atlanta signed him as a 16-year-old international free agent in 2008. He’s played parts of six seasons while batting .219 with eight home runs in 506 at-bats.
But some things can’t be measured in numbers. Bethancourt still has plenty of admirers in the A’s clubhouse for his perseverance in just battling his way back to the big leagues.
“I’ve talked a little bit about the grind and the grit that he’s shown to be able to get back here to a major league ballclub,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said. “To be playing and be a part of a lineup pretty consistently, shows a lot about his character and a lot about his growth.”
A’s outfielder Stephen Piscotty said Bethancourt, with his determination, has added a lot to the team dynamic this season.
“We’ve certainly got a lot of guys kind of in his shoes, kind of making a name for themselves in this game,” Piscotty said. “You’re all for that and supporting that. You can tell the energy and passion that he has. He looks hungry. He just seems very determined right now, which is a great place to be.
“It’s good to have guys like that because it cascades around the clubhouse. It’s definitely a different dynamic on the team this year, but it’s cool to see that side of it.”
When he’s not serving as an inspiration to teammates, Bethancourt serves as one of Sean Murphy’s backups at catcher, along with Austin Allen. The last time Bethancourt played catcher in the majors before this season was in 2016, when his average throws to second base were a major league-leading 88.8 mph. His arm from him has also flashed while playing seven games at first base for the A’s, especially when he gunned down a runner trying to advance to third on a play.
“He has a game-changing arm, for sure,” Kotsay said.
The strong-armed Bethancourt has also pitched in the majors, appearing in 5 ⅓ innings and allowing six runs over six games with San Diego in 2016-17. However, his days as a two-way player seem to be over, leaving Bethancourt with just one regret.
“I wish it was more of the Shohei Ohtani level, but, yeah, I’ve done it. It was an experience,” Bethancourt said, while smiling.
Of course, it hasn’t prevented the good-natured Bethancourt from occasionally reminding his manager that he can pitch. Kotsay was recently in the locker room asking a couple of relief pitchers whether they’d be available that night. Bethancourt was standing nearby and made sure Kotsay saw him smiling and rotating his right arm to show he would be ready to pitch.
Kotsay smiled and shot down Bethancourt’s attempt at humor.
“No, you’re not pitching tonight. Your pitching days are over.”
As a career part-time player, Bethancourt still realizes if he’s to remain in the majors he needs to be ready to fill in anywhere and at any time.
In the meantime, he’s certainly content to help operate his farm from afar nowadays. Bethancourt says he only checks in with his brother-in-law twice a month – “especially on the paydays,” he said with a quick laugh.
He’s determined to enjoy life again as a major league player as long as he can, for he knows the day is coming when he’ll leave for a life on the farm.