He fought to earn a chance to play pro ball, then battled his way to the Major Leagues, then toiled away to finally earn playing time. He didn't find a home at a position until 2001 with the Cardinals, and he didn't have long-term security until he came to the Tigers three years ago to become their starting second baseman.
Now, he has a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and an All-Star Game start to his credit. In other words, he finally has the respect he couldn't find for so many years -- not that it has affected him.
"My entire career has been like that," Polanco said Tuesday. "I got drafted in the 19th round, and the scout told me it was to fill up some Minor Leagues. He said, 'If you make it to the big leagues, you'll probably be a backup.' Not just him, but a lot of guys. It was like, 'Who's this guy you signed, 5-foot-7 or 5-8? Can't run, can't throw.'"
Fourteen years later, Polanco is recognized among the best second basemen in the Majors. A .341 batting average and an errorless season will do that. But he can't be satisfied. He has had to prove himself wherever he has gone, so why stop now.
"I like it," he said. "I like it better than just [having it handed to you]. I appreciate it."
Just about every player has an area where they can improve, and manager Jim Leyland has made a point to ensure his players stay hungry instead of marveling at what a good team they have.
Asked if there's anything Polanco can do to improve, however, Leyland paused briefly and answered simply: "No.
"If he can be anywhere near where he was last year," Leyland added, "I'd be tickled."
The main statistics are well-known, starting with his zero in the error column. In the field, his 181 consecutive games since his last error marks the longest streak by a second baseman in Major League history. At the plate, he finished third in the batting race behind teammate Magglio Ordonez and Ichiro Suzuki.
As Leyland discussed his second baseman and second hitter, he ran off a few other key statistics, these ones situational. Polanco's .366 average on 0-2 pitches was 196 points above the league average. His .402 average following an 0-2 count topped the league average by 119 points. While big league hitters batted .198 with two strikes, Polanco hit a Major League-best .350.
"I don't know if I've ever seen anything like that," Leyland said.
Those numbers helped make Polanco the toughest batter to strike out in the American League, fanning once every 21.4 plate appearances. They also help explain why, in a lineup stacked with All-Star hitters, Polanco is the unquestioned bat in the second spot. In some ways, he's an example of a good two-strike approach.
"He fouls off tough pitches," Leyland said. "When he gets behind, I think he's got a plan. I don't think he tries to do too much. He gives up a little bit when he gets to 0-2, and he kind of takes what's there."
How good was Polanco's season? When Polanco was honored with the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards after the season, even his good friend Albert Pujols was impressed, Polanco said.
"He said, 'Think about it -- that's special,'" Polanco said with a smile. "He's deep into it. I'm like, 'Now that I think about it, this is great!'"
That's still not enough to leave Polanco comfortable. He still sees room for improvement, including better shape and fewer days off.
"I think that'll push me to work even harder this year," he said. "It's over. In the past. Whether it's a good year or a bad year, it's in the past. You don't have a choice. You can't rely on what you did last year."
He'll have virtually an entire new infield all around him. Beyond new third baseman Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen has moved from Polanco's right at shortstop to his left at first base. In Guillen's place at short is a familiar face in Edgar Renteria, a teammate of Polanco's for the better part of four years with the Cardinals.
The fellow Miami area residents, Polanco and Renteria talked off and on over the offseason before visiting during TigerFest. They don't anticipate any problems getting accustomed to each other on double plays and where they like to receive the ball.
"It's just a matter of a couple of days," Polanco said. "It's better than if we never played together before."
Leyland will make sure to get them games together once Spring Training contests begin, but he's not expecting a big adjustment, either. The way he sees it, they'll get the work in that they need.
In a Spring Training that Leyland calls the most important of his Tigers tenure, Polanco isn't one of his big concerns.
"If you had 25 of him," Leyland said in half-jest, "you probably wouldn't need a manager."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.