By IAN WILSON
Life often pulls you in different directions.
At times, the path it sets you on can be rather unexpected.
On this particular snow-swept March night on the prairies, former Toronto Blue Jay starting pitcher Ricky Romero found himself pulled to Vauxhall for a fundraising banquet that was being hosted by the southern Alberta community’s baseball academy.
“This is my first time here. I actually got an opportunity to tour the facility … and got a chance to meet with the guys in the clubhouse,” said Romero before engaging in a question-and-answer session with emcee Shaun Haney.
“It’s really cool what they have here. I was in awe of everything. You have your little dorm, and then you have the baseball field right across the street, you have the gym, you have everything you want, I feel like, as a high school baseball player. It’s something obviously that I didn’t have.”
When the left-handed hurler from East Los Angeles was dominating opposing hitters from the mound for Theodore Roosevelt High School, Vauxhall was about as far away as, well, Toronto, Ontario.
“In my high school we were lucky if we had a baseball field, because we didn’t have any baseball fields on campus or anything. We’d practice at a public park. It could be used by anyone at any point. It was just like that. I think you learn to adapt, you learn to work with what you’ve got. That’s part of my story. I adapted as I went along,” Romero told Alberta Dugout Stories.
A star player in his home state with NCAA Division 1 Cal State Fullerton – playing alongside future Major League Baseball (MLB) infielder Justin Turner – Romero caught the attention of scouts while winning a national championship in 2004.
JOINING THE JAYS
The Blue Jays made him the sixth overall selection of the draft the following year, which sent him on a minor-league road through the United States, with stops in New York, Florida, New Hampshire and Nevada. When he wasn’t hampered by shoulder and elbow injuries, Romero was climbing the ranks to the Triple-A level.
“The challenges that I faced growing up, the challenges that I faced in high school, at Cal State Fullerton, as a first-round pick, everyone thinks it’s luxurious … and sometimes it isn’t. You feel lonely. When you’re struggling, you’ve got to figure it out, you’ve got to grow up and all that stuff happened to me, a lot of bumps along the way,” recalled Romero.
The big club came calling in 2009 and the southpaw settled right in with a rotation that included Roy Halladay, Brian Tallet, Scott Richmond and Brett Cecil. After he won his 10th game in the major leagues, Romero received congratulations from Halladay, a Hall-of-Fame pitcher who was judicious in offering up praise. The Californian finished the season with a 13-9 record, 141 strikeouts through 178 innings and a 4.30 earned run average (ERA).
There were some tough outs along the way. Hitters like Miguel Cabrera, Vlad Guerrero Sr. and Johnny Damon always made Romero’s job more difficult. Squaring off against Ken Griffey Jr., even if he was at the tail end of his career in Seattle, made Romero step off the mound and catch his breath.
Improvements continued over the next two seasons. Romero logged 210 innings in 2010 while posting a 14-9 record, lowering his ERA to 3.73 and boosting his Ks to 174. His 2011 campaign was even more impressive – 225 innings, 15-11 record, 2.92 ERA, 178 strikeouts and he was added to the American League (AL) All-Star Team roster.
Romero didn’t realize at the time, but he had reached the pinnacle of his baseball career. He was named the Opening Day starter in 2012, but his innings, wins and strikeouts dropped, while his losses mounted and his ERA ballooned to 5.77. Injuries decimated the rotation that season, but Romero tried soldiering on in spite of persistent pain in his knees.
The aches and the poor outings returned in 2013, a campaign that included his final four MLB appearances. It was largely a lost year for Romero, and season-ending knee surgeries took place in 2014.
He kept pitching in the minors and finished his playing days with the Toros de Tijuana of the Mexican League.
AFTER THE GAME
Romero made his retirement official on New Year’s Eve of 2018.
“Obviously, it wasn’t as long as I wanted it to be but the fact that I can tell my story now, and I had a chance to reflect on it the day I retired, over time you just kind of sit there and you think, man, what I was able to accomplish is really, really cool. It’s far more than I ever thought,” said Romero.
“The game of baseball teaches you about life, teaches you that it’s OK to fail but it’s how you get back up. That’s a part where I feel like baseball kind of brings that out of you. It’s almost like survival of the fittest. You get back up and keep punching or you stay down and the game will keep going. They’ll replace you really quick and that’s just the way it is.”
Added Romero: “It’s meant so much for me, throughout my whole life … I’ve seen the top, I’ve seen the bottom, and the bottom has taught me so many lessons and those are the lessons that I’ll teach my kids.”
Romero’s pitching days came to an end, but life provided several more paths to follow. He and his wife, Calgary-born Olympic soccer player Kara Lang Romero, have two sons and a daughter.
His MLB playing time provided him with over $30 million in career earnings, but his retirement thrust him into a more fulfilling role as a father. Romero’s time with his children no longer had to compete with road trips that regularly took him away from home, or hectic schedules that come with spring training and 162-game regular seasons.
“My wife and I talk about that a lot. Things happen for a reason … at the time that I retired it was tough, yeah, I was bitter. ‘When can I get back? Why can’t I get back?’ Looking back at it now, I got to do what everyone dreams of when you put on the uniform and I got to do it at a very high level. I got to face a lot of great hitters, future Hall of Famers, current Hall of Famers. All that stuff is pretty cool that I can tell those stories to my kids one day. They don’t understand what I did yet, but one day they will,” explained Romero.
“The biggest task at hand is raising my three little ones. I think that’s what brings the biggest smile to my face.”
He also got pulled back towards the sport that means so much to him.
Romero started the Let’s Go Ricky Ro! baseball podcast with reporter Beto Duran in 2019. Other work as an analyst emerged, including a SiriusXM radio gig for the MLB Network and appearances on Sportsnet.
“It’s been great, probably former teammates would say, ‘He’s pretty quiet.’ But I feel like the podcast opened the doors for me for a lot of things,” said Romero, who counts boxer Oscar De La Hoya among the athletes he admires.
“I’m talking the game and my experiences, along with what I see. I’ve always had an interest level with that, so I’m pretty fortunate I was asked to do that.”
Time away from the diamond also gave Romero perspective on what it means to be an alumni of the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I love it. Anytime I get asked to do stuff like this, especially out here, I love being part of it. When you’re a Toronto Blue Jay and you retire and you get to do stuff like this across the country as an alumni, you realize the impact that we have by putting on that jersey. When you’re a player, you just know Toronto,” noted Romero.
“I think it’s when you start doing stuff with the team and you get to see all these different parts of Canada and how much the Toronto Blue Jays mean to them. There’s hockey teams all across Canada but there’s only one Toronto Blue Jay baseball team and I think that’s pretty neat and pretty special. People know who you are all over the country.”
AWARDS & ACCOLADES
Romero was the main attraction at the 17th Annual Vauxhall Academy of Baseball Awards & Scholarship Dinner, but there was also hardware to hand out to students and supporters of the program.
Raphael Ranger, a Grade 12 student from Alma, Quebec, was named the Sports Connection Medicine Hat Award winner, while Grade 11 pupils Brett Getz and Eric Reiling claimed Reno Lizzi Underclassman Scholarship honours.
The Reno Lizzi Scholarship winner was Grade 12 catcher Cardel Dick, of Abbotsford, British Columbia.
“It’s really special receiving this award considering all the guys that have received it before me and listening to coach (Les McTavish) Mac talk about them as people and as players. My brother, Carlin, won it before me so it’s very special to be able to receive this award,” said Dick, who joins an award-winning group that includes Garrett Hawkins, Ty Penner and Adam Macko.
“I’d definitely like to thank my older brother, Carlin, for paving the way for me. I’d like to thank my parents, especially for allowing me to come here and do what I do.”
Dick has committed to play for the University of Nebraska Omaha Mavericks next year.
“They’re a really good program and I’m super excited about that and looking forward to making a difference there and continuing my baseball career,” he said.
The righty batter will also reunite with Carlin this summer to suit up for the Lethbridge Bulls of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL), a club he played seven games for in 2022.
“I got to play for them for a couple weeks last year and it’ll be really exciting because I’ll get to play with my brother, which I haven’t done since we were 10 or 11 years old, so it will be really special and a lot of fun,” said Dick.
Meanwhile, some names were added to the academy’s Wall of Excellence, as well, including Ralph Alpin, Intact Insurance and Todd Ojala, who has been the principal at Vauxhall High School since 2004.
“We noticed, as happens in rural Alberta, that schools get smaller and people move to the cities, and we have a great school with a great staff, great teachers, a very academic school and a great history of sports programs,” said Ojala, the president of the baseball academy’s board of directors.
“There was a teacher that came to me one day and said, ‘Hey Todd, what do you think of having a baseball academy?'”
At the time, in the mid-2000s, renovations were taking place at Vauxhall’s Jets Stadium ballpark.
“It was a beautiful stadium in such a small town and I saw this vision of other people and I thought, ‘Why not? Why not give it a shot?’ It could help with the school enrolment, it could help with the community, it could help with the economy. There’s so many pluses to it, if we do this the right way we could be successful.”
It’s been headed in the right direction ever since.