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Hochman: A clean sweep – Ascencio goes from custodian to Cardinals' Spanish broadcaster

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Polo Ascencio, Cardinals Spanish Broadcaster

Polo Ascencio, the Cardinals’ Spanish broadcaster, poses with the old radio he’d listen to ballgames on when working as a custodian. He brings it with him to the broadcast booth at Busch Stadium. Photo courtesy of Polo Ascencio

Before he was “La Voz” of the Cardinals, Polo Ascencio would listen to baseball broadcasts on a hand-held radio while working as a custodian.

“The connection that we have with fans is the connection that we all got at some points in our life,” said Ascencio, who does Spanish radio broadcasts, along with partner Bengie Molina, on WIJR (880 AM) and via the MLB app. “Whether being here in St. Louis or San Diego or LA or New York, there’s always a voice that is a connection to your childhood, to your friends, to your dad, to your mom and even to lonely nights.”

Ascencio, 43, will be in the booth Friday for the Cardinals’ home opener. In the adjacent booth will be the San Diego Padres’ Spanish broadcasters, whom Polo’s father listened to while in a hospital in the weeks before he passed away.

In the series after that, the Los Angeles Dodgers come to town. Their Spanish broadcaster is the legendary Jaime Jarrin, who has a special role in Polo’s life.

And the series after that? The Cardinals play in Monterrey, Mexico.

What a ride this will be for Ascencio, whose personal journey from Tijuana, Mexico, to St. Louis is improbable and inspiring.

On Sundays they didn’t go to church; they went to a sanctuary. His family would make burritos, throw them in a cooler, hop in the station wagon and go to the ballpark. Polo’s father played semi-pro baseball.

“When people ask me, ‘what was the first game you ever called,’ I say that when I was a kid as a bat boy, I was calling the game in my head. ‘Here’s the pitch from Jose to Pedro.’ I didn’t realize that it would turn into this. That’s where my story starts, on so many different levels.”

His padre loved the Padres.

San Diego was the family’s favorite team. There are old, faded photos of Ascencio in a Padres outfit. But in 1981, Fernando happened. It’s a story so many fans of a certain age share.

Fernando Valenzuela became an instant pitching star for the Dodgers and became a hero to Mexican baseball fans.

“He sounds like me, as in Spanish,” Ascencio said. “He looks like me, as in brown skin. And I like that guy! I want to be like that guy.”

After high school, Ascencio married and moved to his wife’s town in Carpinteria, Calif., which is near Santa Barbara. He worked for his father-in-law’s business, carpet-cleaning and restoration.

“Anything you can think of,” he said, “I cleaned it.”

In 2001, Ascensio got a job as a custodian for the Santa Barbara County Education Office.

He’d work afternoons and into the nights. He’d listen to the great Vin Scully broadcast the Dodgers games in English. And the great Jaime Jarrín broadcast the Dodgers games in Spanish. And on Thursdays he’d routinely turn in for a local Spanish sports-talk show.

“I’d listen while I was dusting, vacuuming, cleaning up toilets, picking up trash,” he said. “Sometimes people think — those guys are in the business, so they know everything. But those guys, they didn’t know everything.”

GETTING A START

The show was generally soccer and boxing talk. But Ascencio would call in, while hiding in a room corner during his custodian job, and talk baseball.

The hosts loved his energy. His personality. His knowledge. They’d let him talk and talk. He soon became a part of the show, with a regular baseball call-in segment.

“My internship,” he joked.

“As soon as I’d hang up, there goes the vacuum again.”

Ascencio also was writing baseball for a Spanish website. In the mid-2000s, the Dodgers launched a Spanish website, but the editor passed on Polo. In 2006, Ascencio yearned to attend the initial World Baseball Classic. So he gambled. He applied to Major League Baseball for a credential, basically combining his role as a radio “host” and online writer.

MLB gave him a credential. He took some time away from cleaning the building to go watch and interview the greatest baseball players on the planet.

That spring, he also used his WBC credential to get into a Dodgers-Angels exhibition game.

“If they let me in, they let me in,” he thought. “I look, and who is standing in the dugout? Fernando. Because he’s a broadcaster for the Dodgers. I approached him, ‘Hi Mr. Valenzuela, my name is Polo Ascencio, do you have five minutes? The 25th anniversary of “Fernando-mania” is coming up. I’d like to do a preview.’ He said he didn’t have time. I thanked him and it was still OK, because I was meeting my freaking idol! So as I’m walking up the steps, I hear, ‘Five minutes, that’s all you got.’ So I wrote the thing, and I sent it to the Dodgers guy. The guy said, ‘You talked to Fernando? He said, ‘Fernando never talks to me.’ That was my first real article for the Dodgers’ website.”

MOVING UP

The guys from the radio show soon got a gig on a public access TV show. They brought Ascencio along to talk baseball.

That led to a gig on Univision Santa Barbara. From 9 a.m.-2 p.m., he was in a tie at the TV station, recording his sports segments and doing other work. He’d then change into his custodian uniform in his car and work from 3 p.m.-midnight.

“So lot of times, I’d be watching myself on the news while vacuuming,” he said.

While online one day, he stumbled upon a job to be a TV reporter for the Dodgers “Spanish on demand” content. It was fate. His new job was at Dodger Stadium. But he was let go in 2014.

That offseason, a friend allowed him to help broadcast the Mexican Winter League. Ascencio was out of a real job, though.

Extremely down. Away from his wife and two kids. But he got a text from Jarrin. It was an “eloquently written” text. Jarrin had stumbled upon Polo’s broadcast and loved it. He texted encouragement across the border.

HEADING TO ST. LOUIS

In 2015, he worked as a stat guy for Dodgers games, and in 2016, alas, was back to cleaning carpets with his father-in-law. That’s when the Padres’ Spanish broadcaster, whom Polo had gotten to know, told him about a new gig in St. Louis.

In 2016, Ascensio did the inaugural Cardinals broadcast in Spanish. Each year, he’s done more games. This year, he’ll do 53. When he saw Valenzuela at Dodger Stadium, the pitcher-turned-broadcaster bowed down to Polo and said “Senor Cardenal!”

Ascencio shared that he brings his hand-held radio from his custodian job to the booth at Cardinals games. Asked why, he paused and said: “You’re gonna make me cry, dude.

“It’s a reminder. Never forgetting where you come from. But don’t let where you come from stop you from where you want to go.”


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