Andres Blanco practices his swing each afternoon in a lonely batting cage. He lifts weights and stretches without the company of teammates. Blanco - the Phillies super utility player - is the first player to arrive at Citizens Bank Park, pulling into the empty ballpark nearly seven hours before each game.
Blanco left his native Venezuela 16 years ago with a $3,000 signing bonus. He is lauded for his work ethic and character. Blanco gets to the batting cage early so it will be open when the team's everyday players are ready to hit. Blanco hits the weight room first so the trainers can then focus their attention on the starting lineup.
"That's the type of guy he is," teammate Freddy Galvis said.
Blanco is enjoying his first prolonged taste of the major leagues as he crafts a role with the Phillies as a key reserve. He will earn $1.45 million this season, a world away from his original signing bonus. He is one of baseball's best pinch hitters. Only three players have more pinch hits than Blanco's 13 over the last two seasons.
Blanco, who turned 32 last month, did not spend a full season in the majors until last year. It was a long journey. He signed with Kansas City when he was 16. The Royals were the only team to offer him a contract. Blanco jumped at it. It was "do or die," he said.
His had little more than just a dream to provide for his family. And finally that dream is being met with success. Of his 13 pinch hits since 2015, nine have been for extra bases. His seven pinch-hit doubles over the last two seasons are the most in baseball.
Blanco bounced between the majors and minors since debuting with the Royals in 2004. He missed the entire 2013 season with a shoulder injury. Blanco was almost 30. His career could have ended there. But then he found a role.
"He's the best utility infielder I've seen in 48 years," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There might be guys that are better, but as far as all-around defense, hitting, clubhouse character, this guy has been a special player for us. It's a tough role. It's tough to find."
Blanco keeps four gloves - an infield glove, catching mitt, outfield glove and first base mitt - nestled inside his locker. He has his own set of catching equipment in case the team needs him behind the plate. Blanco mostly plays in the infield, but he can help at any position, and he is ready for anything.
"Somebody has to do it," Blanco said. "And I like to do it. I want to do it.'You have to go to the outfield.' I grab the glove and go to the outfield. I don't ask, 'Why? Which one? Now? Later?' No. You said go, and I'm going. That's it."
Just as important as those roles is the one Blanco plays in the clubhouse. Mackanin called Blanco a mentor for the team's other Latino players. He is a special person, Mackanin said. Galvis, who also hails from Venezuela, said Blanco is "genuine." Blanco is the perfect teammate, Galvis said.
"If you're playing everyday, that is the guy you want backing you up," Galvis said. "He cares about you. He's not wishing bad for you and wanting your job. He's wishing the best for you and trying to take care of you. Sometimes, I'll tell him, 'I feel a little tired today.' He then runs into the weight room, grabs some vitamins and some protein and brings it to my locker.'Take this. You'll be ready.' He's always giving and wishing the best for you."
Blanco returned this offseason to Venezuela. The country on the northern coast of South America is in unrest. Blanco said it gets worse every day. There is a shortage of food and jobs. Protesters fill the streets almost every day to demonstrate against the socialist government.
He visited with local youth baseball teams this winter and distributed equipment, hoping the sport could provide an escape. Blanco also created his own foundation that holds clinics and provides medical help.
Blanco wants the nation's youth to have what he had growing up. Blanco's foundation is currently renovating an outdated baseball stadium that is home to his MVP Baseball Academy.
"We play. We practice, and hopefully the kids forget about what's happening outside in the world and what's happening at that moment in my country," Blanco said. "My country is struggling a lot. I hope it changes, and we can start to have the country that I liked to see back in the day. We'll see."
Blanco was the first player to arrive at the ballpark on Wednesday morning. He learned it was his day to start. Blanco has started eight of the team's 41 games. He starts a little more than once a week. Blanco used two of his four gloves as he moved from shortstop to first base.
And in the third inning, he provided a key hit. Blanco ripped an RBI double down the right field line. He pulled into second base, clapped his hands and pointed into the dugout. Galvis and the rest of the team rushed to the dugout's top step to point back. The reserve was enjoying his day in the lineup. And his teammates were, too.
"I didn't know how far I would go. I didn't know if I was going to be a big leaguer," Blanco said. "Every day I just remember where I came from and that I need to help my family. Everyone always said,'You have to play hard.' So I made sure to play hard every day no matter what.
"And look I've been here a while."