Sports

James Burns: Pros come home to roost -- and reintroduce

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

People pay good money for views this close, this real.

Merced College baseball players and coaches, well...

They don't pay a cent.

Four pro ball players, separated by age and pay grade, huddled near the bullpen recently to watch the Merced College baseball team work through its winter paces.

There was a Tiger.

A Red.

A Brewer.

And an Angel.

"It's not often you see something like that," Merced College assistant coach David Cardoza said, pointing to the collection of pros at the far corner of the complex. "It's pretty cool that guys like that come back."

Indeed.

DUSTY Ryan, the Tigers' catcher of the future, knelt near the backstop in his leg gear, thumbing through a baseball bag emblazoned with a familiar "D" logo.

To his left was starting pitcher Curtis Partch, a 21-year-old Reds prospect, sipping from an energy drink as orange as the hair on his head.

And next to him, flamethrower Omar "Big Mex" Aguilar, a recent addition to the Brewers' 40-man roster.

The centerpiece, of course, was Brian Fuentes, the Angels' new closer and three-time National League All-Star.

He sat in the middle of this pro powwow, arms propped atop his knees, watching the future of Blue Devil baseball through slick black shades.

"All those guys got something special about them," Cardoza said. "It takes some talent and a little bit of luck, but they'll get there like Brian."

It's easy to get lost in this scene.

Rare are the moments that you get to see Fuentes' unorthodox delivery from 15 feet.

Or playfully rib a dead-serious reliever like Aguilar after a wild toss skips off the diamond.

"So you are human."

"Yep," he says, "everyone is."

In a matter of days or weeks, these four will get their big-league orders and head their separate ways, leaving this small stage for baseball cities and towns spread across the map.

But for a few weeks during the winter, the pros come home to roost and be reintroduced.

Their presence out here serves a dual purpose: 1) It gives them a chance to stay fresh, working out in a baseball setting; and 2) to see old faces and rekindle old friendships.

But there's something else at play here that doesn't come up in conversation or team huddles.

Their individual stories and careers serve as inspiration to the 30 JC kids hoping to land a spot on coach Chris Pedretti's spring roster.

All four are walking proof that the formula works: talent + faith + hard work = success.

NEITHER Fuentes nor Ryan nor Aguilar nor Partch were overwhelming players during their two-year careers at Merced College.

They were good, obviously, but their path to the pros was paved on potential -- not track record.

Fuentes and Partch were wild things, Cardoza said, and spent more time in the bullpen than on the mound.

Ryan had a strong arm behind the plate and projected well, but was drafted in the 48th round.

And Aguilar, who once touched 98 mph on the gun as a freshman, spent most of his sophomore season resting a sore throwing arm.

Yet they all survived -- and continue to survive in an industry that spits out more players than it promotes.

The industry is a fickle one. It shows no favorites, and to reach the highest rung takes an equal blend of talent and luck.

Most of those who get drafted spend years bouncing around the minor-league system, playing thousands of games in relative obscurity.

We see the sunny side of baseball. Lavish ballparks like AT&T Park and larger-than-life superstars.

Even our minor-league experiences are top-notch. Fresno, Modesto, Stockton and Sacramento have either built new parks or refurbished old ones to make the game more appealing to the fan.

THE hard truth, though, is that a large percentage of the pros play in dingy stadiums, travel by bus and live out of old dorms and hotels.

They make no more than you or I, shop in clearance aisles and discount stores, and survive on tuna fish and PB&J sandwiches.

Fuentes earned his path to the big leagues. He survived the grind and found his pot of gold.

Aguilar, Ryan and Dos Palos' Leonard Davis are on the cusp.

As for guys like Partch, Jake Jefferies, Eddie Gamboa, Thomas Eager and Doug Fister, well...

Their journey is just beginning.

Every year, though, without fail, the pros come home to roost. And be reintroduced.

They huddle near the bullpen -- a Tiger, a Red, a Brewer and an Angel -- walking, talking testaments that the formula works.

Views this close, this real, are priceless.

And I'm willing to bet that the 30 JC kids working through their winter paces would agree.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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