WINCHESTER — Spending hours traveling from town to town during a blistering summer on a school bus isn’t what many of us would call a perfect way to spend your vacation.
While some players in the Valley Baseball League might complain about the daily grind in the heat, one of them won’t be Winchester Royals outfielder Drenis Ozuna.
The 21-year-old outfielder, who was born in Florida, but spent time living in the Dominican Republic, has seen the love that kids in the “DR” have for baseball.
“It’s whole bunch of kids running with no shoes playing with sticks and tennis balls,” he said of the nation that has spawned numerous MLB superstars like Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols and Vladimir Guerrero. “That’s pretty much it. You spend hours outside playing baseball. And when it’s time to come in and eat, you eat and then you go back outside and do the same thing.”
Having been one of those kids, Ozuna, who now hails from Orlando, Fla., won’t complain about getting a chance to play the game he loves.
“I’m very appreciative,” he said. “I look back home at pictures and the internet and stuff like that and golly, I wish I could help. Hopefully one day I can get drafted and I can help and I can give back. I just appreciate what I have on a daily basis.”
Winchester manager Mike Smith says Ozuna’s chances of getting drafted aren’t a pipe dream.
“Drenis is a pro prospect,” Smith said. “... He brings a lot of energy to the game. He hits for power. He can run. He has a great arm. He has five tools. He can play at the next level. He just needs to get that chance to prove that.”
Ozuna actually started the summer at the prestigious Cape Cod League in Massachusetts. He played 11 games and hit just .192 before reporting to Winchester. Ozuna said he had a 10-day temporary contract to play in Cape Cod before having to join the Royals.
He’s been a terror since arriving in Winchester. In a dozen games heading into Wednesday, Ozuna is batting .385 with 13 RBIs and he’s scored nine runs. He’s had hits in 10 of 12 games, including four doubles and a homer.
“I know when he was up in the Cape he saw guys throwing 94 [mph] with a lot of sink to their balls,” Smith said. “He struggled a little bit at times. Since he’s gotten here, he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s definitely given some energy in the clubhouse, too.”
While he would have liked to hit better, Ozuna said he enjoyed his short stay in Cape Cod. “It was competitive,” he said. “I love when you’ve got to compete every day. You can’t take a day off.”
Ozuna was playing in Winchester just two days after finishing in Massachusetts. The whirlwind summer is a microcosm of his baseball sojourn that has taken him from Florida to Oklahoma.
After a successful career at Olympia High School, Ozuna intially played junior college baseball at South Florida State, hitting from .389 for a team that went 21-32.
Wanting to move elsewhere, Ozuna had a local connection who knew Connors State College head coach Perry Keith. Ozuna headed West and made an impact in his only season at the Oklahoma school. In 37 games, Ozuna hit .391, with 11 homers and 60 RBIs. He also scored 58 runs.
Needing to move on to another school, Ozuna found another Oklahoma home. Veteran coach Kirk Kelley, who had seen Ozuna from the opposing dugout at Eastern Oklahoma State College, returned to NAIA school Oklahoma Wesleyan and asked Ozuna to join his program.
That was a good call.
Ozuna turned in a stellar season, batting .437 with 22 home runs, 78 RBIs and 76 runs scored in 56 games. Ozuna especially was hot down the stretch, hitting in 18 of the team’s final 20 games with 11 of those being multi-hit contests.
“Actually, it’s as the season goes it gets warmer,” he said with a laugh when asked about the late-season hot streak. “It’s pretty cold. You have to find your comfortability when it gets that cold. When it gets warmer, I get going.”
While his numbers were impressive enough to earn him a first team spot on the All-NAIA team for the entire country, Ozuna says he doesn’t put much stock in statistics. While Oklahoma Wesleyan went 45-11, the Eagles did not advance to the World Series in Idaho, falling to 2018 runner-up Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) 5-4 in the regional title game.
“Numbers are really great and everything, but we didn’t get to the World Series,” he said. “I was disappointed. I have never been to a World Series or a state finals. I have got some goals, so the numbers don’t mean much if you don’t get your team to where it needs to be.”
Ozuna, a 6-foot-1, 215-pounder, said he hasn’t added a lot of weight since high school, but a modified mental approach helped his power numbers surge at Oklahoma Wesleyan.
“It’s a different mentality and approach,” he explained. “You have to be more aggressive at the plate. Who cares if you strike out? You have to stop worrying about things like that because that’s going to happen. You just hit the ball.”
It’s just that simple.
“Some people do overthink,” Ozuna said. “I’m just thinking about, ‘I’m going to see this one pitch and hopefully I’ll get this one pitch wherever it is and I’m going to hit it hard as I can.’
“You’ve got to simplify it. If you don’t simplify this game, this game will eat you alive. When you have a bad game, you have to forget about it. It’s a game of failure.”
Smith, who scours the internet for potential players, admits he was fortunate to land both Ozuna and his teammate Mike Anderson, who is 4-2 and a VBL All-Star as a starting pitcher with the Royals.
“It’s a good NAIA school with a good coach,” Smith said of Oklahoma Wesleyan. “I immediately reached out to him early and got lucky to get Drenis and Mike Anderson. It worked out well for me. … I just stumbled upon him and got lucky.”
Teammates are glad to have him, too.
“Ozuna has really brought a fire to this team because he is a very outward competitor and I think that kind of rubs off,” outfielder Aaron Palensky said. “He’s an excellent baseball player. He’s fast. He’s got power and hits for contact. I think he’s a smart player that can maybe lead a charge to the playoffs for this team.”
In addition to being an excellent hitter, Ozuna, who also pitched in high school, has impressed Smith with his defense. His play immediately prompted a position switch.
“He covers a lot of ground,” Smith said. “I’ve moved him from left into center field. He just glides to the baseball and you’re not going to run on him.”
“I want to say I’m fast, but the first step in the outfield is very important,” Ozuna explained. “The first step off the bat, It’s got to be very good — backward or forward, wherever you’re going. That makes up a lot of range. A lot of people don’t have that baseball instinct. If you have just got a little bit of instinct, you don’t have to be that fast.”
With last name like Ozuna and being from Florida, Drenis says he’s often asked if he’s related to former Florida Marlin and current St. Louis Cardinals power hitter Marcel Ozuna.
“I just try to say, ‘No, I’m not,” Ozuna said of those questions. “If I’m going to somewhere, I want to make it with my talent. I don’t want to make it because I’m related to somebody or have that little bit of blood. I want to make it because I made it.”
Smith thinks Ozuna has a chance and that was evident from the first moment he saw him.
“You could just tell,” Smith said. “He’s at a different level.”
Ozuna says he’s getting noticed by scouts, but he says winning aids in the process — not only for him, but for deserving teammates.
“I feel like there’s a lot of players on my team who should have gotten picked up or should have gotten at least a chance or opportunity, but they don’t get an opportunity or a chance because they go to this NAIA school,” Ozuna said. “I promise you some of those kids at that NAIA school will outdo anybody at a D-1 because they have more heart.”
And heart is something he knows a lot about having spent some of his youth in the Dominican Republic.
“Every kid over there has something special about them because they don’t have much,” he said. “They don’t get much, either. They make the most of what they have.”
He says so many players are spoiled by how good they have things here, whereas the kids in the “DR” are forced to use ingenuity to play the game they love.
“It’s just like seeing them take little tools to make a bat and doing this-and-that to make a ball so they can play. We don’t appreciate it,” he said. “We complain when we have bad balls and they don’t have balls. We complain that it’s dirty or it has a little stitch coming off. They would love to have that dirty ball or the one with the stitch coming off.”
And Ozuna, who wants to be a coach and athletic director like Kelley if a pro career doesn’t happen, can’t curtail his passion for baseball.
“I just love this game,” he said. “If the day comes, I hope I die on the field. I just love the game that much.”