For the first few months, all Goldeyes catcher Luis Alen knew of his first child were the pictures sent from his home a continent away in Venezuela.
This season is different, though. Alen is in the pictures, too.
There they were on a sunny Monday afternoon, father and tiny son on the Shaw Park field together. At only 10 months, little Luis Fernando Alen isn't yet able to toddle to first base. So Alen and his wife, Karelys Sandoval, held the boy's hands and raised him up on wobbling legs. His tiny feet eagerly scuffed at the dirt around the batting cage -- not the first time he's felt the ballpark earth in his young life.
"Now I have the blessing that they are here with me," Alen said. It's the first time in six Fish seasons his wife has come to stay the whole campaign.
'I don't want to put my family in an uncomfortable situation. I feel better now that I've got them here. I know they're pretty much secure here and they're not going to need anything'
-- Luis Alen
Baseball and family don't always combine easy, a lesson Alen has learned already. When the 2013 American Association season opened, Sandoval was too far into her pregnancy to risk the travel to Winnipeg. So she stayed in Venezuela while Alen returned to his familiar place behind the Goldeyes' plate: he was with the Fish on June 20, when Luis Fernando was born.
In those first days, Alen tried to find time and flights to get back home around the Goldeyes' jam-packed schedule. In the end, Alen and Sandoval decided the best thing for their young family was for Luis to stay and play the games.
"I wanted to be there for them," Alen said, hoisting his son on his shoulder as the boy clutched happily at a reporter's iPhone. "It was really tough."
Pictures. He had so many pictures. Every day, Sandoval would send photos of their son, images of his big, brown eyes and thoughtful expression. Those photos carried Alen through to three months later, when the Goldeyes' season ended and father and son met for the first time.
"It was real exciting," Alen recalled. "It was the first time I actually saw him, held him, hugged him. It was real, real nice."
But at home, Venezuela was troubled. By the end of last year, inflation had ballooned to 56.2 per cent -- the highest in the world -- and many store shelves stood bare. Starting in February, the capital of Caracas was gripped by protests against President Nicolas Maduro's government, some of which were marred by violent clashes between protesters and police. In April, Maduro and opposition leaders held a televised meeting in an effort to defuse escalating tensions.
In Maracaibo, the colourful lakeside city about a 10-hour drive west of Caracas where Alen and his family live, things are more settled. Still, the couple have been taking precautions, being careful to avoid the streets at night.
"I don't want to put my family in an uncomfortable situation," Alen said. "I feel better now that I've got them here. I know they're pretty much secure here and they're not going to need anything."
When Alen told the Goldeyes he wanted to bring his wife and young son up with him this season, the organization's response was a unanimous "yes." There's a little baby boom going on around the team anyway. Pitcher Chris Kissock's partner is due with their first child just a few days after Luis Fernando's birthday. Pitcher Kyle Bellamy's wife is also expecting their first baby in July, and plans to be here for the season.
So yeah, child-rearing has been a popular topic around the clubhouse lately.
"It's tough enough for guys, being away as much as they are," Fish general manager Andrew Collier said. "Any way that we can accommodate wives and kids to be here as well, then hopefully the players will be happy and hopefully that translates to them playing better."
Fish staff didn't want to pass up a chance to meet the littlest Alen. Few players are as deeply entwined with this franchise as his father. At 29, Luis Alen is not quite the elder statesman, but he is, perhaps, the heartbeat of the team. The longest-serving Fish catcher is beloved by fans, who have twice voted him the squad's best player. He speaks softly but clowns around the clubhouse lightly and leads quietly from behind and beside the plate.
Last year, Alen batted .315, his third consecutive season at or over that mark. And he's incredibly savvy, striking out just eight times against 32 walks to the first bag. As for his work behind the plate, well, talent gave him instincts, but experience gave him wisdom. It doesn't take long for new Goldeyes to find that out.
"I loved throwing to him today," incoming pitcher Ethan Hollingsworth said, after hurling a couple of innings in Sunday's debut exhibition game. "We talked before the game about things that I wanted to work on, fastball command to the glove side, and he stuck with that. And anytime I wanted to deviate from that plan and throw an off-speed pitch, and I was thinking it, he was calling it.
"So we were on the same page very fast, and that can be pretty rare that you match up with somebody that well in your first time throwing."
For Alen, there's now a little something more to play for with his Goldeyes legacy and his son both right at hand.
Sure, Alen grinned, it would be a thrill if Luis Fernando grew up to be a ballplayer like his dad. Right now, the catcher is happy just to marvel in the little milestones every day brings.
"Now, everything we do is all around him, is all about him," Alen said. "We want to see him grow up and get a chance to do his best at anything he does. Every day is a better day when you wake up and you look to the side and you see him right there in bed next to you. It's awesome. I can't even describe the experience. You wish to have a baby, but when you have him it's just another story."