When you know, you know.
On New Year’s Eve, I decided to announce my retirement from the game I love so much. While some may have thought I’d already packed it in after I was released from the San Francisco Giants, I actually spent the past two years rehabbing and working hard to come back. I played a season in Mexico with the ultimate goal of making it back to the U.S., so my son, Sebastian, could watch me pitch in a big-league uniform — but that didn’t happen. By the end I was playing catch with anyone that had a glove and was prepared to play for whoever was willing to give me a chance.
This wasn’t at all how I expected it to end — but the writing was on the wall. The interest from teams had been getting lower and lower for the past year. The game is so much younger these days, and in baseball years I’m considered old at 34. I think the tipping point was this past winter when I was ready to sign with a winter-ball team and heard crickets from both Mexico and Puerto Rico. One day you’re an all-star, and the next no one will take your calls. That’s when I realized I had no business in this game as a player anymore.
Before I made the decision to finally walk away, I reflected for a week at home on how far I’ve come and how proud I am of what I’ve accomplished. I was hoping for a happier ending, but not every story has to have a happy ending. I’m just grateful that I have a story at all.
I grew up in East L.A., where the odds were stacked against me. My dad put a baseball in my hand when I was an infant and swore he would turn me into a lefty. Baseball was in my blood. He coached every team I ever played on and always had a vision that I’d be something special. I had big dreams, too. I slept with my bat at night as a toddler. I mean, as a kid, who doesn’t dream of one day being a professional athlete? But I also started preparing for the big stage from a very young age. I was just wired differently than the other kids in my neighbourhood. I threw bullpens in our concrete driveway (with my dad in full catcher’s gear) until the sun went down. I begged him to drive me to the park so I could field ground balls, hit batting practice, and get my conditioning in. At 10 years old, while the other kids played on the playground, I just wanted to run laps around the park.
The dream was real, but the road to getting there was unclear. Growing up, the only prominent athlete I had to look up to that made it out of East L.A. was Oscar De la Hoya. I didn’t want to be a boxer, but he taught me that I’d need to be a fighter if I wanted to make it out, too.
To give you an idea of my neighbourhood, the park I grew up playing in was the territory of one gang, and the street I lived on was home to another. Needless to say, it was easy for kids to get caught up in gang life, and some of my peers did. Some of the kids I played Little League with, on a team my dad coached, fell victim to gang violence. Some were killed, and others are currently serving time.
As tough as my neighbourhood was, I wouldn’t change my upbringing for anything. East L.A. has a population of a little over 100,000 people, 97 per cent of whom are Latino — the highest Latino population of any neighbourhood in L.A. County. It’s a vibrant community of immigrants who just put their heads down, work their asses off and always find a way to make it work. Everyone is hustling. EVERYONE. When I think of East L.A., I think of family and culture and, most of all, my parents. They are the perfect example of what it means to be from East L.A. They started from scratch and nothing was ever given to them. My dad came to the U.S. when he was 18 and didn’t speak a lick of English. He soon met my mom, who was 14 at the time, and by the time she was 16 they had me. To this day, he wakes up at 4:00 a.m. every morning to drive a truck, and my mom has been a school-bus driver for over 20 years. They are the hardest-working people I know and they are my heroes.
My parents are 100 per cent the reason I made it as far as I did. They always believed in me, and pushed me to be my best. My first memory of my dad’s unwavering confidence in me was when I was eight years old and had the day off school. I went to work with my dad, who was a sewing-machine repairman back then. His job that day was at the University of Cal State Fullerton. When he was done work we took a drive around campus. He pulled up to the baseball stadium and told me to get out and go check it out. At that point I had never stood in a stadium that big. I came in through the left-field gate and I was scoping out the field, in total awe. It wasn’t long before someone from the grounds crew came over and kicked me out. My dad tells me I walked back to the car with my head down and tears in my eyes. He told me, “Don’t worry about them, Ricky — one day you’re going to be playing in that stadium.”
Fast forward about 10 years and there I was, standing on that mound at Goodwin Field as a true freshman. Pretty surreal, right? Especially for a kid who didn’t even know it was possible to get a scholarship to play baseball.
The dream of being a pro always stayed in the back of my mind, but realistically I thought I’d finish high school, maybe go play at the local junior college, pick up a trade and that would be it for my baseball career. But that all changed my senior year of high school. These days, kids who go on to play Division 1 sports are already committed to universities within their first year of high school. For me, my future was totally up in the air until late in my senior year when an article was written in the local paper about the dominant year I was having on my high school team. Within a week I had 20-plus MLB scouts and Division 1 universities coming to my games. It was basically unheard of for scouts to visit East L.A., and there I was having meetings with agents, financial advisors, MLB scouts, and D1 coaches in our tiny living room. Our world was completely shook.
I went on to be drafted in the 37th round by the Boston Red Sox, but didn’t sign, deciding instead to take a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton — just like my dad had predicted a decade earlier. I still look back on that as one of the smartest decisions I’ve made.
I was so lost my first day of university. It was definitely a culture shock. My teammates teased me for rushing home on Fridays to spend the weekends with my family for the first semester. But, as time went on, I adjusted to college life pretty well. My college roommates — Justin Turner, Danny Dorn and Blake Davis — are some of my best friends in life now. And the best part of it is we all made it to the big leagues. I did a lot of growing up at Cal State Fullerton. Both as a player and person.
Our team was loaded my freshman year, so I mostly came out of the bullpen and opportunities to start came here and there. I came in as a sophomore the next year with no real role on the pitching staff. Our pitching coach sat me down and told me that I’d been a disappointment so far and he needed to see more out of me. Pretty harsh words to hear, but it just made me want to be better. I did the only thing I knew how to do. Just like my parents, I put my head down and worked my ass off. Eventually, two guys from the rotation went down. I answered the bell and never looked back. We won the national championship that year, beating the University of Texas, and I went on to play for Team USA after that. That was one of the biggest lessons I ever learned from the game. It taught me to accept constructive criticism and use it to build me up instead of break me down. I’m grateful to this day for that tough conversation my sophomore year.
In 2005, I was drafted sixth overall by the Toronto Blue Jays. If my first day of college was a shock to the system, can you imagine how I felt when I heard my name called out by the Blue Jays? The only MLB team in another country — another country I knew nothing about. I turned to my mom and dad and said, “Where in the hell is Toronto?”
Little did I know that I’d end up falling in love with the whole country of Canada — and with a Canadian girl who’d eventually become my wife. You guys took this kid from East L.A. and showed him some real love over my 10 years with the Jays, and for that I will be forever grateful. (There were definitely some boos at one point, too, but it’s okay, I still love you guys.)
I experienced some of the highest highs and some of the lowest lows of my career in Toronto. From starting two opening days, pitching in front of a sea of red on Canada Day, and representing the Blue Jays as an all-star in 2011, to my struggles in 2012 and 2013 — it all taught me valuable life lessons.
The 2012 season was especially tough, with a lot of sleepless nights and tears shed alone in the darkness of my apartment in Toronto. No one wanted it more than me, and it was devastating to feel like I was letting myself, my family and the city I loved so much down. For the first time in my life, working my ass off wasn’t the answer. My body was failing me, and pushing harder just made things worse. At the time, I couldn’t possibly picture my life without baseball and I would have done anything to hold on to the game.
Today, I think about my career and my time in Toronto and feel nothing but gratitude — and I’m ready to let it go. As I looked back on the last few years, I came to the realization that although I may not have reached my goal of pitching in the big leagues with my son in the stands, I know that one day he will understand what I was able to do in this city. And more importantly he will know how both the success and the struggle is what made me the man I am today. And I hope he will be proud.
It was an honour to represent this city and country and I’ll never forget the 2011 sold-out opening-day crowd chanting my name as I made my way out to warm-up. To this day it still gives me chills.
My favourite thing about this country is how you sing your anthem out loud at the top of your lungs. I will always keep a bit of that Canadian pride with me.
Thank you, Toronto.
Thank you, Canada.
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