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Dream Come True

Fullerton's Romero gets support from East L.A. fans

June 21, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

OMAHA — Imagine what is going through the mind of Cal State Fullerton pitcher Ricky Romero as he prepares for today's start against Miami in the College World Series in front of about 25,000 people and a national television audience.

Consider how he felt when he got ready to face Tulane in an NCAA super-regional only eight days ago.

"I couldn't sleep the night before," Romero said. "I woke up real early, then I just sat around and started to watch the other games.

"One of my biggest dreams was to start a game in Omaha, and now it's coming true."

Tonight will be big not only for the sophomore left-hander, but his family and friends and the kids who play baseball in his native East Los Angeles. Many in his community figure to be in front of televisions watching a local kid become their hero.

"I've got a lot of calls from people wondering when Ricky is going to pitch so they can see him," said Ricky's father, Ricardo, who made the 23-hour drive to see his son in person. "I have a traveling team at home. All the kids on it want to watch him."

Regardless of how he fares against the Hurricanes, Romero has already surpassed expectations and beaten the odds.

Few in his community play Division I baseball, much less for a national power. But baseball has been a path that Romero has followed since he learned how to swing a bat, and it has helped make him the first in his family to attend college.

Baseball, he says, kept him away from the temptation to do wrong.

"Where I come from, not a lot of guys get to go to school and do this kind of stuff," Romero said. "I'm very fortunate to be one of those guys it has happened to.

"I told guys on our team that there is a lot of talent there [in East L.A.]. I guess a lot of those guys got lost along the way, whether because of bad grades or they got into gangs or drugs.

"That stuff never crossed my mind. I wanted to play baseball in the big leagues."

Romero could be on his way. In his sophomore season and first as a full-time starter, he is 12-4 with a 3.36 earned-run average. He has given up two earned runs or fewer in eight of his 20 starts, including shutouts of Nevada Las Vegas and Pacific.

Blessed with a fastball that routinely reaches 90 mph and a sharp-breaking curveball, Romero has "always had dirty stuff," Fullerton catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "He just had to learn how to command it."

Miami designated hitter Ryan Braun, a fellow Southern California native, didn't face Romero in high school. But he has seen enough of him.

"He's obviously an extremely talented pitcher who throws the ball well," Braun said.

Romero seized the opportunity to become a starting pitcher after spending his freshman season in an unfamiliar role as a spot starter and long reliever. On youth teams and in high school, he was always the ace.

"It was a little difficult getting used to the bullpen," he said. "I'd be up for an inning, then sit down. I'd be up again, then down. But I learned a lot from the older guys like Chad Cordero and Sean Martin. They helped me with the mental side of baseball."

Fullerton Coach George Horton said the confidence was always there.

"In some ways, I think Ricky wants to be the No. 1 guy," Horton said. "He will tip his cap to Jason Windsor, but I think that's what Ricky thinks. He's up to any challenge we throw at him."

Romero has had to make hard decisions, on and off the field.

Living halfway between Garfield and Roosevelt high schools, Romero initially chose to attend Garfield with many of his neighborhood friends. But before his senior year, he transferred to Roosevelt because he perceived it to be a better baseball program.

The decision proved beneficial. Romero was one of the City Section's most dominant pitchers in going 12-1 with a 0.53 ERA and 162 strikeouts to lead the Roughriders to the championship game. But the move also created ill feelings.

In his first game against Garfield, Romero was hit by a pitch in his first plate appearance.

"I got hit on the right elbow," he said. "They said the ball slipped, but c'mon. I was pretty angry. I told my coach that I wanted to hit the next guy that came up.

"He said, 'Calm down. Don't retaliate. Do what got you here.' "

Romero went on to no-hit the Bulldogs in a game shortened to five innings because of the mercy rule. Fourteen of the 15 outs he recorded were by strikeout.

As he has attained greater success, Romero also recognizes his importance to a supportive community. If he does make the major leagues, he wants to follow Oscar De La Hoya's lead in being a prominent athlete who has given back to the community he came from.

Horton said his pitcher would be the ultimate role model.

"The good news is that he was smart enough not to go down the wrong road," Horton said. "His parents gave him great direction, but let's face it, a lot of it is just Ricky Romero. Your parents can't be with you all the time.

"If he would ever come up to me and say, 'Coach, I want to date your daughter,' or 'I want to marry your daughter,' I would say, 'Yeah.' That's what I think of him."

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