Like so many growing up in Puerto Rico, Joe Espada dreamed of playing in the big leagues. He came close, reaching as high as Triple-A.
Although he never reached the highest level on the field, the game opened a door for Espada to become a Major League coach.
The 38-year-old, born in Santurce, has been the Marlins' third-base coach since 2009. In his tenure, he's gained widespread respect for his work ethic and passion.
Espada is a classic example of an overachiever who achieved his big league dream, even though he never played an inning.
"I'm happy to be here, and I remind myself that it's not easy to stay here," he said. "Work ethic, go out and do the best you can every day. Don't take any day for granted, because you might not be here the next day."
The message Espada repeats to himself is also what he conveys when speaking with youngsters.
Major League Baseball is honoring Hispanic Heritage Month, and Espada is always mindful of where he came from. When it comes to promoting the game or instructing others, he is generous with his time. Frequently, Espada assists with baseball clinics in South Florida, as well as in Puerto Rico.
"In Puerto Rico, baseball is the No. 1 sport," Espada said. "It is getting better, as far as talent coming up. I remember growing up, baseball was your way of getting out. It was a way to a better life. It was a way to get you a scholarship and go to school. That's the message I try to give to the kids."
Through baseball, Espada got his education at the University of Mobile in Alabama. He maximized his opportunity, and in 1996, was a second-round Draft pick of the Oakland A's. In the Minors, he played mostly shortstop and some second base, in a professional career that lasted from 1996-2005.
As his playing days were winding down, he went into coaching, starting off as an assistant at his alma mater for a couple of seasons. Espada joined the Marlins' Minor League system in 2006.
In recent years, he's taken time in his offseason to assist some friends with baseball camps in Miami and Atlanta.
To children, Espada gives them a reality check.
"They all want to play in the big leagues," he said. "I remind them that not all of them will get an opportunity to get to the big leagues. But baseball could get you a scholarship. It could get you a four-year degree, that's for sure.
"I've had players come back to me where I did clinics, and tell me, 'Joe, I got a scholarship to a junior college.' Or they'll say, 'Joe, thank you for coming here last year and talking to us.' To me, it means a lot."
Some years, Espada has coached and managed winter ball in Puerto Rico.
His sense of obligation to give back comes from his own personal experiences. As a teenager, he recalled seeing former or current big leaguers around the youth fields, offering their insights and suggestions.
One of the big league stars of the time was Ruben Sierra, who years later was a teammate of Espada in winter ball.
"I used to see him in baseball clinics," Espada said. "He'd show up and talk to us for a few minutes."
One of the biggest coaching thrills for Espada has been coaching third base for Team Puerto Rico at the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
An underdog team from the start, Puerto Rico reached the championship before losing to the heavily favored Dominican Republic squad.
"We came together and we played incredible baseball," Espada said. "Talking to coaches in Puerto Rico and community leaders, enrollment for baseball has been huge since the WBC. Tournaments like that bring us together."