For four years, Rafael Martin played baseball with no career path, no development schedule, no visible future beyond the casual association he still kept with the game.
Martin graduated high school in Riverside, Calif., and went to work for Slater Construction for four years, building concrete structures for storm drainage. He played in a Sunday afternoon baseball league and played beer-league softball during the week. It was something to do, and Martin, who played in high school, still wanted to be on a field somewhere.
"I pretty much just played and showed up," Martin said.
Then, on a lark, a friend contacted Alfredo Peralta, who was a scout for Saltillo in the Mexican League, and told Martin to try out. Peralta saw Martin's low 90s fastball, his solid control, and realized this was no mere weekend ballplayer.
Now, Martin might be a few months from being a major-league ballplayer.
His unlikely story took another turn earlier in the month, when the Nationals purchased Martin's rights from Saltillo and signed him for $450,000. He will likely start the season at Class AAA Syracuse, and could be called up to the majors later this year. The Nationals see the 25-year-old as a possible setup man for future closer Drew Storen.
Martin technically is the Nationals' first semi-high profile international signing since their troubles in the Dominican Republic, but only because he was playing in the Mexican League when they snagged him. He's lived in the U.S. for 20 of his 25 years, with only a couple years abroad as a child and three seasons with Saltillo taking him out of the country.
But that makes his path to the big leagues no less remarkable.
He pitched for Mexico's Caribbean Series team, which raised his profile enough to get more than 10 teams interested in signing the right-hander. He was returning from the Series, which took place in Venezuela, and was waiting for a connecting flight in Mexico City when he found out the Nationals planned to sign him.
Martin immediately called his father, Rafael Sr., and told him the good news: His improbable journey to professional baseball now had him within striking distance of the major leagues.
"He was speechless," Martin said of his father.
So are most fathers whose kids go from rec leagues to the doorstep of the major leagues.
Scratch that last statement -- there's not enough data to support it. Martin's father might be the only one to have lived it.