Chris Chinea’s first word in life was “ball.”
So you can imagine how the rest of Chinea’s life has unfolded.
“Pretty much all baseball,” he said during a recent interview.
He uttered “ball” while his parents waited for the normal “mom” or “dad” to tumble from their son’s mouth. No, not this kid.
After all, Chinea was born in Miami to a Cuban family who fled the island country for a better situation. He’s been playing some form of baseball since age 2, and he started playing with a ball just at just a few months old — long before his first word.
“I was playing with the round toy,” Chinea said. “I guess they (had) told me so much what it was, I just said ‘ball.’ ”
For the first time in his three-year LSU career, Chinea is an everyday player for the Tigers. LSU has jumped out to a 12-1 start to the season and is ranked no worse than No. 7 in the nation partly because of this hard-hitting designated hitter who’s the son of a Cuban-born father.
Chinea is one of three players to have started every game this season. He’s batting .326, has a pair of doubles and seems to hit in the clutch better than anyone. He’s got nine RBIs, and he went 0-for-1 and walked twice in Wednesday’s 7-1 win over Grambling.
What’s not in those numbers? Just how hard Chinea hits a baseball. He leads the team in exit speed, the speed of a ball off of the bat.
Since the LSU staff began using the TrackMan technology in 2013, no player has topped or matched the exit speed on a Chinea hit last fall: 113 miles per hour.
A good exit speed is 98 to 100 mph. That’s routine for the 5-foot-11, 220-pound junior.
“He hits the ball harder than anybody on the team,” said Will Davis, the program’s longtime assistant. “If he gets the barrel on the ball, he can’t not hit it over 100.”
“I’ve always had the power,” Chinea said. “Born with it? Not sure. I’ve always hit it hard.”
It’s one of the reasons Chinea has started the year batting cleanup. To stay in that spot, coaches want him to learn how to “lift” more of these hard-hit balls over the fence.
They’re expecting the home runs to eventually come.
Chinea had two homers last year, the only long balls of his LSU career. He hit 27 during a four-year high school career that led to such a hot recruitment. Chinea never batted lower than .481 in high school, and he hit .597 as a sophomore — right around the time he committed to stay home and play at Miami.
Miami pulled its scholarship offer months later.
“They had a change in their assistant coaching staff, and their new recruiting coordinator came in and decided Chris didn’t fit into their plans,” coach Paul Mainieri said. “We found out about that. We had always liked him.”
LSU’s Miami connections run deep. Former recruiting coordinator Javi Sanchez is from the city and so is Mainieri. In fact, Chinea and Mainieri share the same longing for Cuban food, specifically Chinea’s favorite dish of pork, rice and beans.
LSU has long recruited Florida — three of its everyday players are from that state, including Danny Zardon and Conner Hale. South Florida, specifically, is burgeoning with a baseball-playing, Cuban community.
Chinea’s father, Carlos, then 2 or 3-years old, fled to Florida with his mother during the time Fidel Castro began to assume power of the country in the 1960s. Carlos’ father came six years later.
Chinea’s mother, Maria, is the only member of her family born in the U.S. Her parents and two sisters fled Cuba, too.
The U.S. and Cuba are moving toward normalization of relations for the first time in 50 years. Chinea hears about it often when returning home.
“They won’t go back,” Chinea said.
The family is entrenched in south Florida.
Chinea’s father, in fact, began an acting career in Miami. He was a regular extra on the 1980s hit show “Miami Vice.” Carlos has shown his son clips of the show, including an episode in which Don Johnson, the series’ star, slapped him across the face.
“That was his claim to fame,” Chinea said smiling. “He was taking it seriously, but he had to move to California, had to leave my mom so he decided to stay back.”
It’s a good thing, too. His father was the one to buy him a plastic tee and a plastic ball. He began hitting at the age of 2.
“I haven’t stopped yet,” Chinea said.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.