One more time, down the hill…
For all of his teenaged years, before he was drafted and went off to play professional baseball, Aaron Sanchez and his dad Mike Shipley made this trek from their home in the high Mojave desert, across the San Gabriel Mountains and then descending into the hills and coastal lowlands that cradle the Greater Los Angeles Area, three, four, five times a week. It’s a 90-mile drive each way, an hour and a half if the traffic allows. They’d head out after school and come home late. They’d leave before dawn on weekend mornings.
They laugh about it now, kibitzing in the front seat of the family SUV, retracing those miles and reliving baseball memories.
The time Aaron, as a three-year-old, picked up a ball and threw it across the road from the driveway of the family home, over a fence and into the grounds of the neighbouring high school. His mom, Lynn, had no idea why Mike was so excited. “Oh my god, you’ve got to watch this kid,” Mike told her. “He’s throwing the ball 75 feet.”
When Aaron was six and Lynn called Mike to tell him that Aaron had come home crying and told her that he was quitting baseball. Why? “They make me roll the ball,” he’d explained. “They said I throw too hard and I might hurt somebody.”
That’s one of the moments that got Mike back into coaching — reluctantly — and from then it became a partnership, though not always an easy one. Aaron hated those early wake ups to go play in the elite program down in West Covina. Like any teenager, he’d plead with his mom to let him stay in bed. Sometimes that meant they’d get on the road later than planned, and Mike would have to lean on the gas to make it on time.
Mike and Lynn tried to make sure he was back in Barstow for birthday parties and school dances, so that he could lead a normal life — even if that meant more hours on the road. But still, there was a trade-off. “I took you away from a lot of your stuff,” Mike says. “But some of that stuff wasn’t all that important. I was more worried about you staying focused and on track.”
When the scouts started coming to see Aaron during his high school years, Mike made sure that his uniform pants were cut tight, so they could see the long legs, see the classic power-pitcher’s body. And just in case they needed a little more convincing, he got Aaron to wear foam insoles in his baseball shoes. They made a tall kid look even taller.
It was all worth it, they both agree. To get where they are. To achieve a shared goal. They’ve always been two peas in a pod, two halves of the same whole. Aaron’s ascension to the major leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays was a dual dream fulfilled. “Everybody said I was going to ruin you,” Mike says. “And I thought, ‘Well, then I’ll be responsible for that.’ For me it was that you were different from the rest and I wasn’t going to let you off the hook. No matter where it took you, I wanted you to have the opportunity to move on.
“And if it didn’t work out, you could always come home. You could always come home.”
You know the signposts because so many of them are familiar tropes of sports mythology: a kid who shows early athletic promise, a parent who doubles as his first coach, familial sacrifices made along the way, the struggles and uncertainties of the climb and, finally, that shared moment of triumph.
It is the tale so often told when it comes to our best athletes, and, in a nutshell, it is the story of the finest ballplayers ever to come out of Barstow. Sanchez, at age 24 will begin this baseball season as the jewel of the Jays’ stellar starting rotation.
Well, it is almost the story of Aaron Sanchez… except his is not quite so simple.
Life hadn’t always been so tough for Lynn Gesky. Her family had come to Barstow from the midwest via Winslow, Ariz., so her father could take a job with the Santa Fe railroad. Like so many others in town who worked for the Santa Fe or on one of the two military bases nearby, the Geskys lived a modest but comfortable working-class life, settling on the east side of town.
Barstow is the kind of place where you grow up, you go to school, maybe go away for a while, but then, all but invariably, come home, get married, have kids and the cycle repeats.
When she was 19, hanging out at a local club called Rosita’s, trying to make sure that the bouncers and bartenders got used to her face so that when the weekend came, they wouldn’t worry too much that she hadn’t quite reached the legal drinking age, Lynn saw a man across the room, dark-haired, with distinctive, sad eyes, accentuated by heavy eyebrows — a look that any Blue Jays fan would recognize the instant they saw an old photograph.
He was older than she was, but the chemistry, the physical attraction, was instantaneous. “I thought he was just the best-looking man in the club,” she says.
Lynn and Frank Sanchez were together off-and-on for the next 13 years. They married and had a son, Andrew.
Frank was the oldest of eight in a loving, rough-and-tumble Mexican-American family. He had charisma, and he had problems — problems holding a job, problems with alcohol. “My father was a drinker so it wasn’t odd for me to see alcohol in my house,” Lynn says. “But my father was a functioning alcoholic. He never lost jobs over it. He always brought home a paycheck. He was always kind to mom and us girls. So, the fact that Frank had a beer in his hand wasn’t a red flag for me until you realize he didn’t go to work today. I don’t think Frank was always a mean drunk to me, but he was a constant drinker.” The marriage was a roller-coaster ride, and it took Lynn years to summon the courage to step off.
When she did, she was on her own. There were no divorces in her family, and the separation didn’t play well with those who might otherwise have supported her. “I had no idea what I was going to do. When I left, I left that home and I left Frank in the house. I had no income.”
And then she received some unwelcome news.
“The day I found out I was pregnant with Aaron is so clear — I can pull it back with sights, smells, feelings, things around me. I was staying with my sister and we had gone to get a pregnancy test. We were standing in the bathroom. I watched the pregnancy test turn positive and my world fell apart like pieces of shattered glass on the floor. I really didn’t know what I was going to do … I cried and I cried. I cried more over the fact that I was pregnant with Aaron than the fact that my marriage had dissolved. It was more heartbreaking to me that I was going to have another tie to Frank. I didn’t want to do that to another kid. You’re supposed to learn lessons along the way. And I was going to repeat the lesson rather than learn it. I was devastated.
“I had had a couple of miscarriages between Andrew and Aaron’s birth. So I figured it was God’s will. If it’s meant to be, I will have this baby. Or maybe I will have a miscarriage and we’ll just move on. This will solve itself. I really, totally said, ‘This will solve itself.’”
Lynn pushed ahead with a divorce as fast as she could. “I wanted to make sure that Frank couldn’t take these children from me and that I wouldn’t have issues with what was legal and what wasn’t.” On the documents, Frank was listed as the father of Andrew and “the unborn.”
The dissolution of the marriage was finalized by the time she had a healthy baby boy and named him Aaron. Lynn was now the sole support of an 18-month-old and a newborn. Her last job, looking after other people’s children along with Andrew, went out the window when she left the home she shared with Frank, and Frank wasn’t inclined to offer financial support. (“Frank would not help me. He had a real problem with handing me money.”)
“I ended up on the full welfare system. I was eligible for housing and I was eligible for food stamps and I got a monthly pittance. I thought, ‘Buckle down, you can do this, it’s for the kids, it’s for a short period of time, you have no other choices, you’ve got this.’ I got a house in what we call the projects. My rent [was subsidized] and I paid my utilities with the welfare and I bought food for the boys on food stamps and I thought I can make this work.”
They settled in a rough, crime- and drug-infested section of Barstow called Section Eight. Lynn went back to school and dreamed of getting a good job and getting out, dreamed of a better life for her and her boys.
And now it was Aaron’s first Christmas. He was too young to know what that meant, but Andrew was old enough to be excited about the season. Lynn had 30 dollars left for the month — enough money for a Christmas tree or presents, but not both. “I decided that Andrew really wanted to see the tree and the lights. My family would be buying Christmas gifts and Frank’s family would be buying gifts, so they wouldn’t go without gifts. I’ll give Andrew the ambience of the Christmas tree every day. He was so into it. He was so into bringing all of his stuffed animals out at the bottom of the tree and sitting with the lights.”
Sports matter in Barstow, high school baseball and basketball and Friday night football, and Mike Shipley was one of the better athletes it had produced.
Barstow is a city of about 23,000 that sits approximately 4,000 feet above sea level, which means that in summer it can be blisteringly hot and that in winter it can be surprisingly chilly, to the point that it experiences the odd snowfall. Distant mountains are visible in all directions, while the great brown plains in the foreground are dotted with mesquite bushes. The historic Route 66 is the town’s main drag. Equidistant to the east and west are Las Vegas and Los Angeles, which means that Barstow serves as a gas/food/ablutions pit stop for many a road trip, and that occasionally you will see night-before revelries paid for during emergency stops by the side of the highway.
Mike Shipley grew up in West Barstow. He was a pitcher, a star at Barstow High and Barstow Community College. The California Angels drafted him twice but he declined to sign because the bonuses the team offered didn’t amount to much. Instead, he accepted a full-ride scholarship to the University of Tulsa, a chance to further his baseball career while getting an education. Shipley packed up his wife and his young son and they headed east. He’d play there, he’d have another shot at being drafted, and if that didn’t pan out, in the worst-case scenario he’d come out of it with a degree.
Except that wasn’t the worst-case scenario.
“I had a pretty good year my first year, I finished fifth in the NCAA in strikeouts … I came back in September and I had a tweak in my shoulder. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Nobody really knew what it was. So it was, ‘Take a break. Don’t do anything.’ I did a lot of cardio, a lot of jump ropes, a lot of sit ups. Then when I came back in December, it was still there. When they shot dye in there, they found a couple of spots. They said there wasn’t anything I could do other than sit out for the season. But I needed to get moving. They sent me to another doctor and I got a cortisone shot and it worked for one game. Each time, it worked for one game. I don’t know to this day what was really wrong. My fingers used to get numb. My hand would shake real bad. It was rough.”
The last game Mike Shipley ever pitched was in Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. He just couldn’t throw anymore.
“It was a sad way to finish. It was over. I just decided it was time to go to work. I had a son to raise. A couple of people tried to talk me into going back. But back then when they did the surgery, it was a big surgery and there was an 18-month recovery. I didn’t throw that hard to begin with and I’m sure it wouldn’t have been the same.
“It was a tough trip home. I was divorced within about a year, a year and a half. It was tough on my son. I ended up working at Santa Fe. It felt like it wasn’t where I belonged. I had a tough time. I truly did. That’s probably why I ended up being divorced. I pretty much ate, drank and slept baseball my whole life. Now I was back in town and lost.
“I stayed away from baseball for quite a few years because of it. People would ask for help or [to] workout [a young player]. I just didn’t want to be around it. Instead I just went off and kind of drowned my sorrows here and there. I shouldn’t have … I lost a few years of my life in some not very good ways.”
It was Christmas, there was a party, and Lynn was told there was someone coming who she ought to meet. “I was going to the college and I had an older friend in the classroom, and she just kept telling me about this guy… I had just had Aaron and so I still had a post-baby body. I said, ‘Give me until December and we’ll come back to this. Because by December I will have all of this weight off me and the baby will be a bit older.’
“I remember the day she told me it was Mike Shipley. And I said, ‘My god, have I been passing up a date with Mike Shipley? I’ve got to get this together whatever it takes.’ I said, ‘Just give me one date I’ll go from there.’
“I knew his name in town because he played ball and he was in the paper all the time. And I had gone to school with some of the Shipleys — Mike’s brother, Skeeter, is a year older than me. And they were just dolls. Oh my gosh, if Skeeter said hi to you in the hallways at school he could make your entire school year. I knew Mike was the older brother but I didn’t know much of Mike. I just knew he came from a great family, and I knew that if I was going to do this, I was going to get as far away from what I’d been with as I could.
“I was so insecure about the party. I knew the other single girls in the room and I kind of said, ‘That one’s mine. Give me a chance here.’”
Mike is a little less detailed in his memories. “The people holding the party had a single friend. I went just to meet this person and we hit it off pretty well.”
They talked and they did hit it off. The East Barstow girl and the West Barstow boy. And now it was 11 o’clock and the party was winding down. But Lynn didn’t want it to end right there. “I’m not done with Mike. We should go for pie or coffee. But women’s lib is in, and if he’s not going to pay for the pie and coffee I’m screwed because I can’t pick up the tab. I said to Mike, ‘Would you like to come over to my place.’ I hadn’t got his phone number. I hadn’t made sure I’d get a second date yet. He said, ‘Sure I’ll come by your place.’”
They arrived at the modest apartment in the projects.
“I didn’t want to give him the grand tour because I didn’t want him to see the crib. I didn’t want him to be swayed by that. It’s one thing to say you have a 15-year-old and they’re going to be gone in three years. But I had infants who were going to be with me for their entire life without a lot of help. It was a big deal. And I didn’t want to bring people in and out of the boys’ lives, either. I’d seen friends who had done that. Kids get attached. And then you go on to the next boyfriend. I didn’t want to do that to them. I wanted that whole family that I had dreamed of from the beginning — even with Frank, that’s what I was looking for.”
Mike saw the tree, saw there were no presents beneath it, and said something about that. “We don’t have any,” Lynn explained.
That was the 19th of December.
On Christmas morning, there was a knock at the door. It was Mike. “He brought Christmas for all of us. He got Andrew the cutest stuff and Andrew loved it. And Mike got Aaron a little pop-up thing where you pushed it and the little people would pop up, and he would laugh and laugh about that. And I got roses and a gold chain.
“He was our Santa Claus that year.”
And then, Lynn starts to cry.
Mike and Lynn stayed together, got married, blended their families, and settled into a house they couldn’t really afford across the street from Barstow High. Both of them wound up working for the city.
It took time for Andrew to accept his new stepfather. He was close to his biological dad. When Lynn and Mike sat together on the couch, Andrew wedged himself between them, trying to keep them apart. And sports were never his cup of tea. He’d take a day of shopping with Lynn over a day of playing catch with Mike.
But Aaron was different. He had no memory of Frank as father, no memory of a world before Mike. He took to his stepdad instantly, and the tales of their intense bond are the stuff of family legend. “It’s the weirdest thing,” Mike says. “It’s like they threw him in my lap. He liked me from the very, very beginning.”
There’s the story about the time Lynn had to take Andrew to the emergency room for an ear infection and left baby Aaron in Mike’s care. It took longer than she had hoped. When she returned home, all was quiet.
“Where’s the baby?” she asked Mike
“Oh he got up and I changed his diaper and I fed him and he’s laying back down.”
Which was particularly interesting because Aaron had never been bottle-fed before. “Mike had found a sample bottle of formula in cupboard, put a nipple on it and gave it to him. I remember coming home with my sick Andrew to my little Aaron and thinking he’s done more for me in that moment than their own father had.”
At his first birthday party, Aaron parked himself in Mike’s lap while he opened his presents. “I think I lost Aaron [then],” Lynn says, laughing. “That’s where he made the switchover. Aaron wanted me twice a day. He wanted me in the morning when it was wake up time and he wanted me at night when it was bed time. But for the rest of the day, if he was with Mike he was totally happy. Didn’t need me.”
If Mike wore a hat, Aaron wore one the same colour with the brim tilted the same way. If Mike was cutting the lawn, Aaron would come out in boxer shorts and cowboy boots and ride around with him on the mower. If Mike got up early and flipped on the television, Aaron would soon be there with him.
“I don’t know how old he was — one or two. I’d sit down and he’d sit in my lap and all he’d watch was sports. He didn’t watch cartoons, he doesn’t like to watch movies to this day, but he’d watch ESPN,” Mike says. “And the only toy he ever wanted was a ball. The other kids got G.I. Joes and Barbies. For him, it didn’t matter how big or small the ball was, he wanted it. That’s all he liked to do.”
“He was just my buddy,” Aaron remembers. “He was somebody that invested time in me … I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was that made us click. I just enjoyed being around him. Everything he did I thought was fun.”
“I think it’s funny,” Lynn says. “If you look at pictures of Frank — Aaron has the Sanchez traits. It’s the pointed nose, it’s the smile, it’s the eyebrows. But if you watch him and Mike on any given day, they are one and the same. They walk the same, they wear their hats the same, they will dress alike, what’s important to one is important to the other. That boy is a mini-me of Mike. As much as he looks like the Sanchezes, and has blood related to the Sanchezes, that boy is Mike’s boy.”
Having this new spirit in his life inspired Mike to return to the game he had long abandoned. He started coaching the Barstow Community College team, and of course Aaron came along whenever he could. “He would bawl and cry if he couldn’t be up there,” Mike says. “He rode on the buses with me. He learned a lot of bad language on the buses. But he loved it. He would rather be with me than with the other kids. If that car started up, he was grabbing anything so he could he could hurry and get in. At practice, I would stick a college guy’s catching gear on him [so he wouldn’t get hurt] — the shin guards went up to his hips — and I would send him into left field and say, ‘Don’t turn sideways.’ He would do that every night.”
That kid, who would grow up tall and wiry, turned out to be an athletic prodigy. He played a bit of football and a lot of basketball, but baseball (of course) was his game. As he approached his teenaged years, it was clear that Aaron’s talents were going to outstrip Barstow, that he had a real shot at succeeding in the world beyond.
“Mike probably saw more of Aaron’s talent than I was capable of understanding,” Lynn says. “I knew he was good. But I had no concept of the draft, professional ball. I think Mike saw that long before I did and knew what he was capable of. I just trusted him. I trusted Mike wouldn’t put my children in danger and that he was doing the right thing when he took him to play ball outside of Barstow.”
When Aaron was 10, Frank Sanchez died of liver failure. He was 48 years old. When he’s asked about his biological father, Aaron typically demurs, especially when it comes to the details of his death. “He knows it was because of his tortured lifestyle,” Lynn says. “He knows that. I just think that he doesn’t want to talk about it.”
“It did hurt a little bit,” Aaron says, “but it didn’t feel like I lost a father figure in my life because I didn’t. I always knew who Dad was in my heart. No offence to my real father. But I grew up with Mike as someone who had raised me from day one.”
At one point, Aaron considered changing his last name to Shipley, but Mike and Lynn told him that if he was going to do that, he’d have to talk to the Sanchez family about it. Lynn and Mike had made sure that Aaron and Andrew retained a connection with the extended Sanchez clan, and Aaron’s paternal grandmother, Lydia, remained an extremely important figure in his life until her death during spring training last year.
Aaron thought long and hard about it, and then decided he didn’t want to have that conversation with his grandmother, that he would remain a Sanchez. “Does it hurt Mike that it doesn’t say ‘Shipley’ on the back of Aaron’s jersey? No,” Lynn says. “Does it bother him that he’s sometimes called Mr. Sanchez? No. It’s just who we are. Everybody knows who got Aaron where he is. Everyone knows where the credit goes.”
The father/son, coach/player dynamic is emotionally complicated. It doesn’t always work out. It’s not all Wally and Wayne Gretzky.
With Mike and Aaron, the sense of shared purpose remained all but unshakeable, but as Aaron’s baseball career became the entire family’s priority, it presented both practical and financial challenges, and put stress on their relationship.
In search of better competition and better coaching, father and son began making the trek to West Covina — an affluent suburb on the eastern edge of Greater Los Angeles — where Aaron joined an elite baseball program, a kid from the working-class sticks competing with those from far wealthier sections of Southern California. “I didn’t like the people that I played with down there.” Aaron says. “When you come from a city where there’s not much, you get looked at different. And you have to play twice as hard to be out there on the field.” That, plus weekend games, plus travel team commitments, plus private coaching (Bret Saberhagen was one of Aaron’s tutors) sucked up an enormous amount of time and cost a significant amount of money.
Meanwhile, in his other life, Aaron was in junior high, being invited to birthday parties and dances. “I always felt like I was missing something back home,” Aaron says. It was a difficult balance. There were plenty of days when he didn’t really want to get into the car and head to yet another practice.
“My wife would say, ‘Mike can’t you leave him alone?’ And I’d say, ‘No, we committed to this and we’re going to stay with it.’ So I made him a bed in our Sequoia [SUV]. I picked him up and threw him in the car and off we went. And my wife was yelling at me and calling me names. I said, ‘Lynn you don’t know anything about this.’ I think Aaron finally realized I wasn’t going to let up.”
And there were doubters outside the home, fellow Barstownians who weren’t necessarily rooting for the tall poppy, who were darned sure that Mike Shipley was living out his fantasies through his stepson. “For the most part people were pretty gracious, but there were people who said, ‘He’s not as good as he thinks he is, his father is going to ruin him,’” Mike says. “But Aaron’s so hard-headed, it would not matter what was said about him. I was the one who got feisty about it.”
There was one near breaking point. Aaron was 13 years old, playing basketball for his school team down the hill in Redlands. Mike was going to pick him up after a game and take him to baseball practice. Aaron told his friends that he wasn’t going, that he was quitting baseball for good. “I told them it was over, it was done, I don’t want to go,” Aaron remembers.
When he arrived at the basketball game, Mike was told what Aaron had being saying. He would have none of it. “I went over there and he said, ‘I don’t want to play anymore.’ I said, ‘Well that’s too bad. Let’s go.’
“‘No, Dad. I don’t want to play.’
“‘I understand that, but get in the car.’”
“Mike was not going to allow Aaron to quit,” Lynn remembers. “That was one of those moments when you wonder whether you’re doing the right thing as a parent. Mike would literally throw him in the car and say that we’re going … As they were leaving, Aaron would say, ‘Mom, don’t make me. Mom, don’t make me.’ I’m so torn but I can’t step between him and Mike because that’s not what we do here. Mike would say, ‘Lynn, back me on this’ and I would.”
Aaron relented. They went to baseball practice.
“Every time once we got to practice, we were 100 per cent fine,” Mike says. “And we’d have the best talks of our lives when we were coming home. But going was like pulling teeth.”
Not long after, Aaron received a recruiting letter from the University of California, Davis — nothing too specific, just a first contact with a promising 14-year-old who could throw the ball exceptionally hard but didn’t necessarily know where it was going. For Aaron, it was something of an epiphany. The letter made it real, made sense of all the things Mike had told him, put all of those early mornings and late nights and missed social opportunities into perspective. “That’s when it got serious,” Aaron says. “Everything that I was trying to accomplish was right there.”
There would be no more rebellions.
June 7, 2010
Major League Baseball’s amateur draft. Mike and Lynn and Aaron went to a friend’s house to watch it play out on television with a group that grew larger by the minute, including extended family (among them several of the Sanchezes), friends, and a photographer from the local newspaper. Aaron wasn’t thrilled with the idea of watching his future decided in front of an audience, but he was also brimming with confidence.
“I remember being a 17-year-old kid thinking he was going to be a millionaire before he went to sleep,” he says. “It was fun, nerve-wracking. Any emotion you can possibly think of, I had.”
The Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim — under a slightly different name, the same franchise that had twice drafted Mike Shipley — had three picks in the first round. They knew Sanchez better than anyone. He had played for an all-star team that they organized, and Dino Ebel, a Barstownian who had known Aaron since he was a kid, was the Angels’ third-base coach under manager Mike Scioscia.
Other teams had expressed interest, including the Toronto Blue Jays, who brought Aaron and Mike to Toronto for a visit and a showcase. They went to a game and though the crowd wasn’t large, both had thought the same thing: “Imagine how loud this place would be if it was full.” The Jays held the 11th pick in the draft, but that seemed a little high for Sanchez, and with the Angels at 18, 29 and 30, his destiny seemed pretty clear.
Sanchez also had a scholarship offer from the University of Oregon on the table, which provided some leverage, but informed by Mike’s experiences, there was almost no chance he was going that route. Better to get started in the pros, get your coaching in the pros, and if the fates dictated you were going to get hurt, better that happened after you had at least collected a big signing bonus – which, given where Aaron figured to be drafted, was a sure thing.
The Washington Nationals took Bryce Harper at No. 1. No surprise there. Manny Machado went to Baltimore at No. 3. At 11, the Jays took a college pitcher named Deck McGuire, which would prove to be one of the organization’s less memorable acquisitions.
And now it was time for the Angels. At 18, Kaleb Cowart, a third baseman from Georgia. At 29, Cam Bedrosian, a high-school pitcher, also from Georgia. At 30, another Georgian, outfielder Chevy Clarke. (Feel free to look them up…)
The first round was over. Up next, the “sandwich” round, where teams that had lost a free agent received a compensatory pick. Sanchez’s stock seemed to be dropping for reasons that were hard to fathom. Things were getting a little tense at the viewing party — tense enough that Mike and Lynn stepped outside for a second to take a breath.
They heard a cheer. On television, Roberto Alomar had stepped to the podium as the Jays’ representative and announced the team’s next pick. (Later on, Lynn and Mike would rewind the tape and try to relive the moment.) Aaron was crying.
Just then, Mike’s cell phone rang.
It was Alex Anthopoulos on the line.
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