Jorge L. Ortiz
USA TODAY Sports
With his powerful build, 310 career home runs and a serious countenance, Edwin Encarnacion comes across as anything but a romantic.
Then he posts a picture of his Valentine’s Day proposal to his girlfriend and that whole fearsome image comes crashing down.
The photo shows Karen Yapoort — a Dominican model and TV personality of Turkish descent who has been Encarnacion’s girlfriend for a year — down to her knees while she covers her face with her hands, apparently overcome with emotion as she reads the words “Will you marry me?” spelled out in Spanish with rose petals on the floor. There’s also a bouquet of flowers surrounded by a heart drawn with more petals and a large teddy bear to complete the picture.
Of course, she said yes.
The Instagram posting has drawn nearly 40,000 “likes” and 1,500 comments, not to mention questions about its originator.
“I did everything myself,” Encarnacion, the Cleveland Indians’ new DH-first baseman, tells USA TODAY Sports in Spanish. “I kind of earned my decorator degree with that one. People don’t believe it was my idea because they don’t know that side of me.”
Encarnacion’s sensitive side was exposed more than he expected in his first run at free agency during the offseason. As a three-time All-Star and one of the game’s premier sluggers, he figured there would be abundant demand for his services.
It made sense. Over the last five years, Encarnacion averaged 39 homers, 110 RBI and a .912 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with the Toronto Blue Jays. His 127 RBI in 2016 tied for the American League lead, and his 42 home runs were the third-highest total in baseball.
The well-regarded MLBtraderumors.com website ranked him second on its list of the top free agents available, after outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. The retiring David Ortiz had made a public plea for the Boston Red Sox to sign Encarnacion as his successor.
So Encarnacion turned down the Blue Jays’ early-November offer of $80million over four years, amid speculation that he would command a nine-figure deal. It never came.
With several DH candidates like Mark Trumbo, Jose Bautista and Mike Napoli also available, and teams increasingly mindful of defensive performance, the market for right-handed sluggers tanked.
The Blue Jays promptly moved on from Encarnacion, signing Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33million contract in mid-November. Two of the majors’ biggest spenders, the Red Sox and New York Yankees, addressed their first base-DH needs with one-year deals.
Suddenly, Encarnacion found his suitors had dwindled, and he leaned on Yapoort to help him deal with his new reality.
“I didn’t know free agency was going to be so challenging,” said Encarnacion, 34. “There were times when I wasn’t drawing the interest I thought I would, and it got me down. She would support me and tell me not to worry, that it’s in God’s hands and He knows where to lead you. I helped because as much as you try to avoid it, you get worked up about these things.”
It wasn’t until the typically penurious Oakland Athletics tried to sweep in with an offer reported to be in the $25million-a-year range, but for a shorter term, that the market loosened up.
The AL-champion Indians, who fell just short of claiming their first World Series crown since 1948, made their biggest investment ever in a free agent when they landed Encarnacion with a three-year, $60million deal that includes a club option for a fourth season.
That still represents a $20million loss in guaranteed income, but Encarnacion realizes he still landed in a nearly ideal situation with a contending team. In fact, the Indians eliminated the Blue Jays in last October’s AL Championship Series.
“Toronto was always my first option, but I had never been a free agent, and anybody who gets to free agency wants to find out what’s out there,” he said. “I think they got too hasty in making their decision, but now I’m with Cleveland and I’m happy to be here.”
Encarnacion’s signing was a stunning coup for a team that opened last season with the fourth-smallest payroll in the majors. Manager Terry Francona didn’t even ponder the possibility until president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti notified him of the impending addition the day before it happened.
“I knew (Napoli) was asking for multi years, but I always figured we would get back to Nap, and I was thrilled with that,” Francona said. “As excited as we all are to have Edwin, it was a little bittersweet, because I knew Nap was going to end up going somewhere else. I think we all felt that way.”
Napoli, who delivered 34 homers and 101 RBI in his one year in Cleveland, has been an influential clubhouse presence wherever he has played. Encarnacion is not as vocal, but he was beloved by teammates in Toronto, especially the Latin players.
Watching Encarnacion banter with locker mate and fellow Dominican Carlos Santana in the Indians clubhouse, it’s easy to see him quickly fitting into a team that’s widely expected to repeat as AL Central champion.
His acquisition and the expected return of outfielder Michael Brantley from August shoulder surgery should boost a lineup that scored the second-most runs in the AL last season.
Santana, who along with shortstop Francisco Lindor encouraged Encarnacion to join the Indians, sees some similarities with the charismatic Napoli.
“They’re the same person, the only thing being that Edwin speaks Spanish and Napoli speaks English,” Santana said. “They have a lot in common. They’re proven players. Lots of players here have asked me about Edwin and I told them he’s a great guy and a player who works hard and wants to win.”
And, as it turns out, is a bit of a romantic as well.