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Flores flourishes by studying history of the game

No. 19 White Sox prospect enjoys lessons leading him to his goals
Bernardo Flores has logged a 3.18 ERA over 432 2/3 Minor League innings with the White Sox. (Joshua Tjiong/
September 2, 2020

Even as a young child growing up, Bernardo Flores was a student of baseball. At age 7, he started watching Ken Burns' iconic Baseball documentary series and fell in love with the game. There were things in the past that he could point to or aspire to, like his pitching

Even as a young child growing up, Bernardo Flores was a student of baseball.

At age 7, he started watching Ken Burns' iconic Baseball documentary series and fell in love with the game. There were things in the past that he could point to or aspire to, like his pitching hero, Nolan Ryan.

And in looking at the 2020 season, one filled with new turns of phrases like "alternate site" and "player pool," historical anomalies abound.

So if Burns were to update his series with an 11th inning that covers 2020, what would Flores envision for that episode?

"I think the big thing is that it's going to be a test, like a test of faith or something. And that's the way I observed it," he said. "It's like this year is just one big test. It's a test mentally, it's a test physically. It's a test, you know, I think even spiritually."

One of the Burns episodes that stuck with the No. 19 White Sox prospect was "The Faith of 50 Million People." That installment focused on the 1910-19 era, in which an influx of immigrants come to the United States, in turn, creating new fans of the game. During that episode, Flores took particular note of the work ethic players needed to be successful or have a chance at remaining in the game. It's something that has remained with him during his own journey in professional baseball.

Flores, whose grandfather worked in the Bracero program during World War II and whose father immigrated to the United States from Mexico, said his family life and history also has kept him motivated in the course of his career.

"It was like a hard-nosed game with guys that just really went after and attacked it," the 25-year-old said. "And this was like their livelihood. I liked that a lot, especially because that's the way baseball has been played. ... You go out there and you can live the American dream of making something of yourself."

By utilizing that attack mind-set, the southpaw has charted a steady course through the Chicago system and is on the cusp of the Majors. After a junior season at USC in which he amassed an ERA over 6.00, Flores was selected in the seventh round of the 2016 Draft. He's been flourishing ever since by sticking with his development plan.

The California native nabbed his second Organization All-Star honor in 2018, a season in which he played under three-time Major League All-Star Omar Vizquel while at Class A Advanced Winston-Salem. That gave Flores an opportunity to learn some valuable lessons, whether Vizquel was recalling what was going through his head during a diving grab at shortstop or at the plate against the Braves during the 1995 World Series. The stories and insight left an indelible impression on the young hurler.

"It was just incredible to be part of that and not just talk to history, but it was also great to get his input in terms getting inside the mind of a baserunner," Flores said. "What are you thinking as a guy on first base or second? Just to kind of see his opinion on what he's thinking when he's on base."

In addition to listening intently to Vizquel's stories and anecdotes, Flores did daily fielding drills with his manager. He jokingly hoped Vizquel could instill some of the magic that carried him to 11 Gold Gloves in the Majors. Sure enough, the lefty maintained a perfect fielding percentage and won his first fielding award in 2018.

"When I was with Omar ... right before batting practice began, I would take some ground balls ... some warmup a little bit," Flores recalled. "And I remember coming off the field and I told him wouldn't it be funny if some of that Gold Glove rubs off on me. I just said it as a joke, and lo and behold, that same year I ended up winning the Gold Glove.

"I mean, to have him present the award just capped it off. I mean, it was awesome. Playing under Omar and all that and learning from what he's done in the game and what he brought to the table is just incredible."

In a second season under Vizquel in 2019, Flores battled through injury and still posted a 3.33 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP across 15 starts for Double-A Birmingham.

That year, he got to soak in more baseball history during a trip to Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark still in use in America. The ballpark not only was the former home of the Barons but also the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues. Flores couldn't help but be awed by the experience.

"It's hard not to think about Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Larry Doby," he said of the Rickwood confines. "And then it's hard not to think about those who had a shot to make it like a Josh Gibson. ... You talk about all these guys and, you know, you go over there and ... you're stepping in the same hallowed ground as them. It's just important because you can feel, I mean, for me, I can feel the presence."

Off that year, Flores was more than ready to get going this season. He threw three innings in the Cactus League before play was halted in mid-March. In readying for a likely ticket to Triple-A Charlotte and eventually a callup to the Majors, he didn't feel down about missing time.

When COVID-19 put baseball on hiatus for four months, Flores remembered the work ethic shown by those long-ago players in Burns' documentary. He used the time back home in California to keep in game shape and stay on his routine every fifth day. With social distancing protocols in place, any pitches he could make on a mound meant more toward his progress.

"I remember sitting back in my hotel room and I thought, 'OK, we're going to get shut down a little bit, but how are we going to go about this?'" Flores recalled. "And the first thing I thought about was, 'OK, when is my next start? When am I supposed to be making my next start in Spring Training and how am I going to manage this every day?'

"What I thought about was making my next start, no matter what. Whether it was going to be in the complex in a back field or if it was going to even be at home like on a public mound, I was going to get it done. And I was going to continue to stick to my routine religiously because as a starting pitcher that's what I have. I'm not satisfied, I'm not content to just be here. I want to get there to the Major Leagues and I don't want to leave it. I want to have an impact when I get there and stay for a while. It's like, OK, I'm not gonna let it get to the point where I lose a day of development."

That made the transition easier when he was added to the White Sox alternate site roster right before the return to play. Even though Flores wasn't pitching in the International League like he expected to this summer, he was ready to go when Chicago called his name.

More than a few prospects in the White Sox system have made their debuts this year, including Luis Robert, Nick Madrigal and right-hander Jimmy Lambert , whom Flores has known since their high school days in California. Being part of a young core coming together has added to the excitement as Flores gets closer to his own debut. If he does toe the rubber this season for Chicago, he said he expects it to be not much different than what he's used to. Yes, there will be empty seats and piped-in crowd noise, but the game itself won't be different.

"It's still going to be pitcher vs. hitter and the same game that's been played for 100-and-something years, just maybe a little bit more different with protocols and stuff like that," he said. "But at the end of the day, it's still going to be the same competition, the same level of competitiveness."

And when he does make that debut, Flores wants it to be more than just a brief stint with the big club.

"Once I get there and it's like, OK well, what's next? What do I gotta do? I'm not done yet. Do you want to stay here and accomplish what you want to accomplish or do you want to just make it a cup of coffee,' which I certainly don't," he said. "I want to make it for a very, very long while."