Ricky Romero Has a Story to Tell

Ricky Romero’s career took an unexpected turn after some early success. (via James G)

When Ricky Romero stops to reflect on his life, he looks back at the miles behind him and he knows he has a story to tell.

I spent the summer talking back and forth with Romero, exchanging messages. And after listening to him talk about his upbringing and his parents, I began to reflect on my own childhood. And a heavy sense of nostalgia settled in, as I thought about time, and how it continues to press its fingers into our backs and push us all along.

I grew up with a single mom who put her son before her. We walked the road together, me by her side. I will never forget when we lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in the north end of St. Catharines, Ontario — the ‘Garden City’ that rests in the heart of the Golden Horseshoe along the lake. I was in grade six. It was 1991.

My bedroom was fully furnished with a desk, a dresser, and a tiny Magnavox TV that was hooked up to my Nintendo. Spoiled. My mom gave me everything that she could afford. She stretched her salary. It stretched as far as we needed it to go. My mom slept in an empty bedroom on a foam mattress, her clothes neatly folded on the floor, no furniture.

I’m not one to open up about those years, but hearing Ricky Romero talk so openly about his family and childhood caused me to reflect on my own. Ricky told me that his parents are 100 percent the reason that he made it as far as he did. And I can say the same about my mom. Not everyone is so lucky. I am. Ricky is, too. Ricky, now a proud father, is trying to teach his son the same things that he learned from his parents, which, as he tells me, “is hard work and believing in yourself.”

***

Ricky Romero grew up in Los Angeles with palm trees and western sunsets that blazed across the horizon kissing the sand and surf goodnight. He walked Whittier Boulevard and graffiti alley. He admired the cool lowriders dropped in the street; their colorful paint jobs; bass filling the air. The infamous eastern district, south of El Sereno, rich in Latin art, food, and culture, is a place Romero is proud to call home.

His corner of Los Angeles is far away from the Hollywood glam and the affluent hills where only a few people are privileged enough to live. Ricky wasn’t born with a silver spoon, he didn’t grow up in an upscale neighborhood, or have parents pay his way through UCLA. His roots are as humble as the man that he is; they are roots that he is proud to have, roots that define him as an individual.

The Hollywood image of the Eastside, the gang culture and violence, which is often portrayed in films and TV, doesn’t define this Los Angeles neighborhood. Romero will be the first one to tell you that Hollywood is painting a small corner of the picture. There is more there. Romero never saw East LA as a “dangerous place” to grow up in, even though it is if it is compared to a white-picket-fence suburb.

Ricky, the son of proud Mexican immigrants, may not have eaten food off of polished silverware, but he was born with a gift: a golden left arm and a rare talent that could lead to rare possibilities if he didn’t waste it. And he didn’t. Unfortunately, though, the reality for many children in East LA is that it is a hard place to dream, as the streets can be distracting, and Romero saw friends get lost along the way.

He grew up with a lot of talented kids, but some of them got caught up in that lifestyle of gangs and violence. He was sad when he would see guys take that wrong turn down that road that only leads to suffering and pain. For Ricky, though, there was only baseball, dirt diamonds, the mound, and his dream —nothing could pull him away from that.

In a heartfelt letter Romero wrote for Sportsnet, he opened up about growing up in East LA and what it was like to lose friends along the way, “To give you an idea of my neighborhood, 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.”

Ricky’s family didn’t have a lot, but they made it work. His father, to this day, wakes up at 4 a.m. every day to drive a truck, and his mother has driven a school bus for over 20 years. They have worked hard their whole lives – that’s what they know. No complaints. No one chauffeured them to their destination. The fridge always had food, the bills were paid, and no matter how many hours Ricky’s dad worked, he was always there to have a catch. And teach his son about the game of baseball. Life.

Romero feels blessed to have a father who was beside him for every step he took, as he coached him and was always there for him when he needed him most. He was his mentor then and still is today. Instead of being pulled into a gang, Ricky was in the field, getting dirty on the diamond, and playing baseball. If Romero wasn’t playing catch, he was in a cage hitting baseballs. If he wasn’t hitting baseballs, he was running laps. If he wasn’t running laps, he was working on different grips. A kid obsessed.

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Ricky told me that’s how he stayed busy and out of trouble. And he hopes his story will help other kids from his neighborhood believe in themselves. He hopes more kids realize that coming out of East LA and becoming something is achievable. He hopes that they all realize that they can shine their light on the world one day.

Romero’s message to inner-city kids like himself is to always dream big because anything is possible. He made it clear to me that nobody thought he would make it to the big leagues coming from where he did. And he did it by establishing work ethic and never giving up. He kept fighting, and even when all odds were against him, because all that mattered was his family and baseball.

He was too busy visualizing his name in neon on jumbotrons in major league stadiums to get caught up in anything else. As a young kid with big baseball dreams, he imagined himself standing on a major-league dirt hill, a baseball in his left hand, his fingers dug into the red-laced stitching, as he got the sign from his catcher. He imagined the spin of the ball out of his hand and the swing and miss. Romero’s fingers dug into his dream. His dream dug into him.

***

Baseball gripped Romero in East LA and never let go. It led him to different minor-league stadiums, to the Rogers Centre in Toronto and even to Tijuana, Mexico, where his mother was born, which was special for him. His days under the hot Mexican sun, though, would end up being his last as a professional ballplayer.

Before playing his final days in Tijuana, Ricky Romero had a breakout All-Star year in 2011. He pitched pitch 225 innings. He struck out 19.4% of the batters who set foot in the box, while walking only 8.7%. From 2009 through 2011, the years Romero pounded the zone, he went 42-29, pitched 613 innings, threw 9,604 pitches, and 5,861 of those were strikes. Unfortunately, his story was about to take a hard turn down a dark road full of discomfort and pain. And a hard turn away from the strike zone.

In 2012, Blue Jays fans watched the hopeful future ace of the organization begin to miss the zone. His numbers started to bend in a way that led to abuse being shouted at him from the Rogers Centre grandstand. Ricky told me that hearing boos in Toronto didn’t feel good — nobody likes to be booed in his own stadium — but he understood why they were doing it.  “I would have booed me,” he said. That year, he pitched 181 innings, but his strikeout rate fell by four percentage points and his walk rate increased by almost 50%. He threw 3,084 pitches that season and 1,266 missed the zone. Something physically wasn’t right.

I asked Ricky about his injuries, the torn quad tendons in both legs, and pitching through the pain until finally going to see Dr. Neal ElAttrache, but he’s tired of talking about that story, “I think by now almost everyone has read or listened to what happened about my injuries, but little by little my body started feeling shitty as the season went on. Yes, I was doing the proper things to stay on top of it as far as treatment and all that, but my knees weren’t getting better. The more I went out there the more I felt like I dug myself into the hole. The hole that I was hoping to get out of as quick as possible.”

Looking back, if he could do things differently, he told me, he would have taken the time to really focus on healing. The physical pain led to a mental collapse in his game, as he struggled to get back to himself. “Never again did my body feel like it once did when I was at the top of my game,” Ricky said.

Before his body started to hurt, his “go” pitch depended on what he was feeling the night of his start, because everything worked off his four- and two-seam fastballs. When he located his pitches “it made everything else better.” When he struggled to locate, nothing worked for him. When things were going well, he loved putting guys away with his change-up, which was as beautiful as any piece of art on any red brick wall. His curveball was a “feel pitch,” but once he would get it under control in a game, and he had those three working, he knew it was going to be a good night.

Everything depended on him painting the plate with his fastball, though. In 2011, his best professional year, Romero through his fastball 60.5% of the time, followed by his change-up 19.8%. In 2012, he threw only 45.4% fastballs because he wasn’t able to command them,  because of the pain.

In 2013, he pitched only 7 1/3 major league innings. He struggled again to throw strikes, and spent most of the year in Triple-A, trying to figure it out. This was the beginning of the second chapter in his baseball life. The comeback. After a 2014 knee surgery sidelined Romero’s season, the Blue Jays released him the following year while he was pitching for their Double-A affiliate, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. He got the hard news on April 25, 2015.

The Blue Jays organization gave up on Romero, but he hadn’t given up on himself. The San Francisco Giants signed him a few weeks later to a minor-league contract on May 9, but three seasons and just 30.2 innings pitched later, and surgery to repair a torn left flexor tendon in his elbow, they released him on April 29, 2017 – almost two years to the day that the Blue Jays let him go.

That didn’t stop Ricky from believing in himself. He wasn’t done with baseball yet, and he held onto his dream. Romero woke up every day to an audio message of his voice saying, “I will pitch in the big leagues in 2018.”

He went to Mexico for a few months, playing for the Toros de Tijuana in 2017. “It was an awesome experience,” he said, “with 17,000 of the loudest fans you will ever see.” In Mexico, like other Latin countries, there is a pre-game fiesta, a nine-inning fiesta, and a post-game fiesta, too.

It’s a different baseball culture, rich in sound and energy. Ricky loved soaking up the Mexican streets while he was there, but he had one thing in mind, and that was to pitch his way back into the big leagues as a 32-year-old veteran, so that his son could see him set foot on a major league field. That didn’t happen. Romero had played his last big-league game in 2013.

He came home and started training and then threw in front of roughly 20 teams, but didn’t receive a call. That was when he realized that the writing was on the wall. He told me that he still maintained a bit of hope, but his phone never rang. That’s when he decided it was time to let go of the game that gripped him his entire life. He announced his retirement on New Year’s Eve, 2018.

***

From playing catch with his dad in East LA to standing on the mound for Cal State Fullerton to hearing his name called out at Chase Field for the 2011 All-Star game, it has been one hell of a ride for Romero. It’s a ride that continues today.

In the letter he wrote for Sportsnet, he shared a story about how when his father was done work one day, they took a drive around Cal State Fullerton’s campus. His dad pulled up to the baseball stadium and told him to get out and go check it out. At that point, he had never stood in a stadium that big. He described how he came in through the left-field gate and how he “was scoping out the field, in total awe.”

It wasn’t long before someone from the grounds crew came over and kicked him out. His dad told him he walked back to the car with his head down and tears in his eyes. He remembers looking up at his father heartbroken, “Don’t worry about them, Ricky — one day you’re going to be playing in that stadium,” his dad said. And, sure enough, he did.

Romero helped them capture the national championship in 2004. The dreams that he had that day, as a boy standing on that field, came true. And the vision that he had of people sitting in the grandstand watching him pitch there became real.

His professional journey began in 2006 after the Blue Jays selected him sixth overall in the first round of the major league draft, but his big-league dreams found him the day his dad took him to Cal State Fullerton. His first minor-league game took place in Tri-City of the New York Penn League while he was with the Auburn Doubledays. He didn’t pitch there for too long, as soon he would get called up to High-A Dunedin, skipping Low-A Lansing. He remembers his early professional days, the anxiety, the nerves, the butterflies tickling his duodenum. And now he relates to minor leaguers today, who have those same feelings, while he works alongside Rob Fai, the voice of the Vancouver Canadians, calling a few games in the Northwest League.

Romero has finally joined the grandstand. He signed a contract this season to be the color commentator for the six games being televised on Sportsnet for the Vancouver Canadians, the short-season affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. Romero gets to look out at the picturesque view from the Nat Bailey press box and at the wall of Canadian evergreens that sit in the background behind the stadium.

He gets to talk the game and think about what goes through the mind of a ballplayer, which intrigues him. He gets to watch the future of the game now, as many of the young players in the Northwest League are beginning their own journey; writing their own story. He is beginning a new story now, too. A new life with baseball.

With the great stories he has to share and with his love of sports, Romero has collaborated with long-time LA reporter, Beto Durán, who covers the Lakers, on a podcast: ‘Let’s Go Ricky Ro’. They met during Ricky’s early Blue Jays days while Durán was working for ESPN Radio. They are of similar backgrounds, being sons of Mexican immigrants, something they are both proud of.

Durán told me that one day, during the last year of Ricky’s comeback, they were playing catch and Ricky shared a great story with him. Beto wanted to hear more, and told Romero that they should start a podcast because of his natural baseball insight and, of course, his experience in the big leagues. Romero didn’t think he was interesting enough, but they went to spring training, recorded a few episodes with Romero’s former teammates, and got great feedback.

During those spring recordings, one of their guests was a one-time top Blue Jays prospect, Travis Snider, who is playing in Triple-A as a 31-year-old in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ system. Romero and Snider and Travis opened up about their time in “Manch Vegas,” a.k.a. New Hampshire, and shared a story about having a heart-to-heart over a 30-pack of “Bud-minuses,” a.k.a. Bud Lights. They talked about the bond they had because they were both first-rounders who were struggling in the minors – something they were not used to experiencing.

Snider, like Romero, was taken in the first round by the Blue Jays, selected 14th overall in 2006 right out of high school. Snider opened up about how even though the cliché is that baseball is, ‘a game of failure,’ drafted players never really experience true failure until they turn pro. Ricky now sits with Rob Fei and thinks about this as he watches a new wave of baseball players deal with how hard the game actually is.

***

Mike Wilner, the radio voice of the Blue Jays, told me a story about Ricky Romero and the 2010 “Fathers’ Day Game,” which was nine innings that went beyond baseball and outside the white chalk lines. It was John McDonald’s first game back with the team after his father passed away.

The sun was shining on McDonald that hot June day, as the Rogers Centre roof was open and the Toronto sky was painted light blue. McDonald set foot in the right side of the batter’s box in the ninth inning, the Jays trailing the San Francisco Giants 9-3, and drove Jeremy Affeldt’s 0-1 offering over the left field wall.

When he touched home plate, he pointed to the clear, blue sky. Romero and the rest of the Blue Jays dugout stood up, clapped and embraced their friend with emotional high-fives. It couldn’t have been written any better, but baseball has a way of writing its own stories.

Wilner told me that McDonald and his dad, Jack, had a tradition of bringing a group of fathers and sons to the ballpark every Father’s Day, hosting them in a suite and meeting with them before the game, so it was especially hard for McDonald after losing his dad to continue this tradition. When McDonald was in the clubhouse getting ready to greet the fathers and sons, Wilner saw Ricky ask him if he wanted him to go up with him for support. Wilner, off in the distance, noticed Ricky’s act of kindness. That memory has stuck with Wilner years later. It says a lot about Romero, a person who is constantly thinking of others, and who understands family.

If it wasn’t for Ricky’s family, he wouldn’t have been there that day for his friend. He wouldn’t have played professional baseball; he wouldn’t have been a Blue Jay, or even played in Tijuana. Romero told me that he wouldn’t have ended up where he is today without his parents.

He is beyond grateful for them and for being able to fulfill his childhood dream of pitching in the big leagues. He told me he never played for the fame of it, or for the money aspect of it. He played because it is what he grew up wanting to do. He was lucky enough to have his father beside him along the way.

He is still searching for where it goes from here, but he knows that he wants to stay in baseball, “Teaching, talking or whatever it is to help the next generation of ballplayers,” Ricky said. In a way, baseball will always grip Romero, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. He still plays catch as a son, and, now, he plays catch as a father, too.

Romero was born in a corner of the world that doesn’t have “decent sneakers.” He saw all the other runners miles ahead of him because they were born with a massive head start, but that never stopped him. He was able to catch up to all of them. This is something he hopes more children from East LA will do.

Romero hopes his story will inspire the kids in the East LA streets, even though he understands that most of them can’t throw a baseball with high-90s paint, or break it 12-6 — that doesn’t mean they can’t dream. They can dream about opening up a business, or becoming a teacher, or nurse or customizing cars and dropping them with style to the street. Through every hard step.

Some children have the chance to play in the sand along the shore of the peaceful corner of the lake, while others get the concrete curb. Ricky Romero’s story is one of hope for the kids on that curb, and he’s here to remind everyone: “Yeah, things didn’t end the way I would have wanted them to, but that’s life. Not all stories have happy endings. I’m beyond grateful that I have a story to tell.”


Ryan is a lover of birds and all things minor. He writes for Blue Jays Nation dot com.

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Woodman
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I hope Ricky has a fulfilling life despite his career not turning out as well as everyone hoped, he seems like a good person. I’ll remember his great changeups.

Earl of E
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Earl of E

Thank you for this great article. Wishing Ricky the best in his new career – it is well deserved.

StuShea
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StuShea

Thanks for writing this.

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

Great story. It’s a good reality check that whether they’re stars or fringy or never crack the majors, everybody’s got a story and many of them are remarkable.