“That’s My Little Mexican Shortstop”: A Reflection on Race, Space, and the Origins of the Southern California Bombers Baseball Club, 1998-2002

We were good! We were 13 years-old and travelling to places as far as Arizona, New York, Colorado, and Texas just to play baseball. Some of our teammates even traveled to Cuba to play a Junior Olympics tournament as members of the US National Team. We were the first batch of kids to come up in the Southern California Bombers Baseball Club. We practiced together at Whittier Narrows Park in El Monte, where my parents would drive me from the Pomona Valley twice a week to train. It was 2002, and we had won both the Triple Crown and USABF World Series, the two most prestigious youth baseball tournaments in the world.

We started off as a batch of kids out of West Covina Pony League. The team formed in 1997 after the West Covina 8 year-old All Star team went undefeated and won the West Coast Regional tournament. People nicknamed the team “The Ultimate Nightmare.” Coaches Ed Sifuentes, Rich Escalera, Art Cortez, Steve Montiel, and Greg Robles decided to keep the kids together to play as a club team through the winter. That team was called the West Covina Bombers.

I began playing ball in West Covina at age 9. I had left La Verne Little League after my father decided that the league was not competitive enough. After all, from age 7 to 9, I played on three different teams that hadn’t yet lost a single game. My father always managed them alongside Steve Stremel and the late Buzz Robison. Coach Steve owned a limo service out of his garage and we always made a spectacle of cramming 14 Little Leaguers into his limos for our arrival to the field, never to lose a game. This really ticked off opposing players, coaches, and parents. They were great times! But eventually I needed to move to a more competitive atmosphere if I was going to get better as a ball player, especially since I was always playing in age group older than me and still having success.

We finally confirmed it was time to leave after I became the center of a racially-charged incident. I was always a catcher, but I was moved to shortstop for a game after our starter got hurt. After making a diving backhand stop in the 5-6 hole and throwing out the runner, my dad commented aloud: “That’s my little Mexican shortstop!” Keep in mind that we were in the middle of “El BOOM Latino” and recognition of Latino identity had just begun to be acceptable. Some white parents decided to intervene on my father after the game to tell him that they thought the comment was inappropriate. My father replied with confusion: “What do you mean? He is Mexican.” It became an awkward moment in which my father had to pronounce my mother’s Mexicaness even though my parents had had sought to assimilate into whiteness by moving to the suburbs in the early eighties. The concerned parents responded that comments regarding race had no place on the baseball field and filed a complaint with the league. My mother was furious. I vividly remember her saying, “You don’t want to be playing in white ass La Verne anymore. Little League, little minds.”

The next year I began playing in the West Covina Pony League at Walmerado Park. We used a fake address and I had to keep quiet about my residence in “white ass La Verne” so that I could play in the league.  Only my coach Ruben Lopez knew that I wasn’t supposed to be playing in the league. Recently, the 2015 Little League World Series controversy involving Jackie Robinson West has shown us how important addresses are for city-based youth baseball leagues. I played in the Mustang Division (ages 9-10) for the Blue Jays. We had a solid season and placed third in the league – it was my first taste of losing and I kind of enjoyed it. It was also my first time being in a predominately Latino community. Coach Ruben would jokingly shout “Chicano Power!” and raise his fist when I would hit a double or make a good play. I was the whitest presenting Chicano kid on the team and he was aware of the incident that happened in La Verne. West Covina was different though.

Prior, my only recognizable experiences with Mexican identity and Chicanismo came when I visited my family around the holidays. Like most families from East LA, reunions always had over 150 people present. I saw my cholo cousins, heard my grandparents speak Spanish, whacked a piñata, made some tamales, and then eventually returned to my suburban home. After arriving to Walmerado Park, my social circles were about eighty percent Latino. All my new friends wore K-Swiss shoes with baby blue laces; their sisters’ painted eyebrows, tube tops, and pierced belly buttons drove me wild! I remember even picking up a new rhythm and cadence in my speech. My mom would always say, “What is this cholo accent you have?”

West Covina Bombers, Las Vegas, NV, 1998

West Covina Bombers, Las Vegas, NV, 1998

I began playing for the West Covina Bombers Baseball Club in 1998. These were the earlier days of club, or “travel,” baseball. I travelled the farthest distance to play on the team since it was only a product of West Covina’s Walmerado Park at the time. We travelled to Las Vegas together to play our first out-of-state tournament – we took first place. After that tournament the club divided into two teams – one managed by Ed Sifuentes and the other by Steve Montiel. Coach Ed sought to expand the team to include players from all over the San Gabriel Valley region whereas Coach Steve maintained a base of players out of West Covina. At this time, we began identifying as the Southern California Bombers Baseball Club. We started wearing white vests with black pinstripes – everyone loved Ken Griffey Jr. and he had just been picked up by the Cincinnati Reds.

We had a player coming from as far as Compton on the team, but we were almost all local kids. We were an above average club team in the Southern California youth baseball world. The best clubs were the Southern California Mamas Boyz (with Hank Conger and James Kang), East LA Thunder (with David Soto, Steven Escandon, Jake Rodriguez, and Nacho Alejandre), and the San Diego Sting (with Steven Strasbourg, Thomas Neal, Xavier Scruggs, Nick Noonan, and Brett Bochy). We played quite frequently and had about a .500 record against the big clubs.

After about two years I started playing for the Montebello Brewers. In Summer 2000, they invited me to play a tournament in Oklahoma. I also wanted to follow my old friend and Bombers teammate Daniel Robles. Finally, my family would be able to frequent my home games at Grant Rea Park, as it was only 15 minutes from East LA. I moved between a few different clubs until finally deciding to return to the Bombers in 2001. By then, the Bombers Baseball Club was starting to peak.

I played on the “older” team. My father and Greg Robles started a fourteen-year-old Bombers team because Daniel and I wanted to play with our childhood friends. After all, many of the folks from the 1998 team out of West Covina’s Walmerado Park were still around, like Fudgie Sifuentes, Chad Rosenfeld, Ricky Cortez, Rich Escalera, and David Contreras, to name a few. They all played for the thirteen year old team, which was beginning its bid as the best youth baseball team in the country. Both teams practiced together at Whittier Narrows Park and sometimes shared players for games – I often played for the thirteen year old club during Winter ball or exhibition games. Sometimes my weekends would often consist of seven baseball games between both!

Southern California Bombers 14U team, Riverside, CA, 2002

Southern California Bombers 14U team, Riverside, CA, 2002

Each team played over one hundred baseball games that year. Our fourteen year old team was a five hundred ball club; the thirteen year old club was something like 109-6. By 2002 the thirteen year old club was the best youth baseball team in the country. The team had won both the Triple Crown and USABF World Series – the two biggest International tournaments in amateur baseball.

The fourteen year old team never reached its full potential. I was always so jealous of my Walmerado friends who played with the younger club for the big tournaments because they won almost every single local and regional tournament they entered that year. After all, I was actually thirteen years old but had to play in age group above because I missed the cut off date by a month. We had a lot of talented players, like Joseph Cruz, Mikal Garbarino, and Javier Lizarraga, who were also Walmerado products and eventually went on to get drafted out of high school, but we never did much as a team. So I watched the younger club with envy and played with them when invited.

By April 2002, the younger club started expanding to incorporate kids from all over California. Our practices at Whittier Narrows grew to include about 50 players at one point. There was a Southern California Bombers Black (1st team) and a Southern California Bombers Red (2nd team), and the thirteen year olds had merged with another one of the top teams in the country, the Glendora Rebels. There were kids on the team from Long Beach, Redlands, and San Diego. There was even a kid that would travel from Modesto to play weekend tournaments! By then it was a type of super squad. Scouts were coming to games and we were not even high school kids yet.

 

IMG_20151124_212034

Southern California Bombers 13U team, 2001, Moreno Valley, CA. Author in center getting head-locked by Ricky Cortez

We were all in eight grade at the time and preparing to move on to high school. There was always a lot of brouhaha about who was going to end up where. There were even rumors that certain kids were being offered money to go to attend certain high schools. As far as I could tell, the Bombers had been conceived as a project in the late nineties as a way to feed local baseball talent to Bishop Amat High School in La Puente. After all, one of our coaches also coached there.

Things started getting a bit tense between some families when players decided to go elsewhere. I was always torn between going to Bishop Amat or Damien. I used to get hell for it too. How could I possibly want to go GAYmien, the all-boys Catholic high school in La Verne?! I must admit that one of the pulling factors of Bishop Amat was that I would be surrounded not only by all my baseball friends but also by a bunch of Latinas in school uniforms. It would be like that Britney Spears video I watched over and over in 1999, but only better because they were brown.

My father and Greg Robles dissolved the 14U team in July 2002. We were all about to enter high school and go our separate ways. I remember August 2002 as the first month I had free from baseball since 1999. I hardly knew what to do with time and ended up getting into some trouble blowing up mail boxes with M80 fireworks, trying to live out the childhood experience I saw on TV. Life without baseball was boring and begged for some deviance. I ended up going to Damien High School that September, although I felt very torn about it at first. Damien’s Latino population was about 36%, but at Bishop Amat it was almost two-thirds – it took some time to get accustomed.

I stayed in touch with only two friends from the Bombers: Ernie Rangel and Javier Lizarraga. Ernie commuted to Mater Dei from Rialto, and Javier went to Northview High School in Covina. They were both from Tecate, Mexico and still maintained connections there through family. We spent Fall 2002 playing baseball for the Tecate Municipal baseball team. We would spend every weekend playing ball in Mexico and I would finally be forced to put into practice the broken Spanish I had learned from my family. The fields were all dirt – far from Whittier Narrows. It was good preparation though because Damien’s facilities were known for being pretty neglected. At the time, Damien was the most affordable private school in Southern California and focused more on academics than sports. I recall one of my freshman year coaches pensively glaring out at our field, declaring, “I haven’t seen trenches like this since ‘Nam.” Those all-dirt fields at in Otay Centenario de Tijuana are located four blocks away from my fiance’s childhood home.

That fall in Mexico concluded my amateur baseball career. I moved on to play three years of varsity baseball and Damien, where we were the LA Times #1 ranked team at one point in my career. I then played NCAA Division III baseball at Pomona-Pitzer, where we won the SCIAC Championship my freshman, junior, and senior years. We spent the whole of my junior year as the #1 ranked Division III baseball team in the country, but we choked in the western regional playoffs. After all, we were just a bunch of nerds playing baseball and most of us went on to do bigger things in life. I am now a third year PhD student in Latin American History at UC San Diego, but baseball still remains a very important window through which I explore and make sense of the world.

Left: Author at-bat for Southern California Bombers in 2001; Right: Author at-bat for Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens in 2009:

Left: Author at-bat for Southern California Bombers in 2001; Right: Author at-bat for Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens in 2009

I owe most of my life’s trajectory over the past thirteen years to the foundation set by my experience as a member of the Southern California Bombers Baseball Club. The Bombers community offered support and guidance beyond baseball. We were required to present our report cards to our coaches every semester – we had to maintain a 2.5 GPA to play on the team. Many of us would have probably failed most of our classes if it wasn’t for this requirement – working class minority suburban communities are not exactly known for their successful education systems. We were taught at a young age that baseball could be a ticket to college so long as we had decent grades. Through baseball we could have access to scholarships, which were some of the only ways that many of us could access college (My current university, UCSD, is a great example of this, where our Latino student body is 11% although Latinos make up roughly 50% of the total California population). I know baseball played a huge role in my eventual acceptance to Pitzer College. Other Bombers went on to university at Columbia, Pepperdine, USC, and La Verne, spaces we would likely have been excluded from had we not been ballplayers.

Most importantly, my time with the Bombers helped me understand the racialized geography of Los Angeles and the country at large. I had never given much thought about my own racial identity prior to playing baseball in West Covina and El Monte. I always just figured I was Greek because of my birth name, Troy Andreas Kokinis. But I knew nothing about Greece nor had any access to a local Greek community. My Mexican mom would always tease me about the light skin on my arms. She would place her arm next to mine and say, “It’s okay Troy, you are a white boy. You have those white Ohio legs like your father.”

Mexico. Greece. Ohio. La Verne. East LA. El Monte. What the hell was I?! I began thinking more critically about race when playing club baseball. I was able to map the entire freeway system of LA at age 13 and had arrived at a point at which I was able to identify the racial and class makeup of teams by knowing which area of the city they came from – any team off the 710 was going to be Spanish speaking, teams in South Orange County were predominately white, teams off the 10 between the 605 and 710 were predominately Latino but came from Asian neighborhoods, and so on. I also knew that whenever we left for tournaments outside of Southern California we were certainly going to have the darkest skin there. I could hardly avoid recognizing difference, especially when it came to the resources and facilities available in certain communities versus others.

I eventually felt that difference upon attending an overwhelmingly majority white liberal arts college. But how was that possible? Although I was part of the community I never felt Latino. I was always read as white among my peers and I lived in a “white ass La Verne” suburban home. Upon finally being immersed in white culture I realized that it was totally foreign to me. I gravitated to the few local Latino kids at Pomona-Pitzer – two were on the baseball team alongside me, Michael and Andrew Nino. I still gravitate towards Latinos since I never really bought into the white bourgeois notions of respectability that graduate school tries to ingrain in us, but since my baseball career has ended I am able to make an even weaker case for reading as a Chicano – all those hours on the field had once left me with me a skin pigment that rivalled that of my mother. I now play the role of that white-presenting male who takes race all too seriously while serving on this and that Diversity Committee or PoC organization in the university. But at 27 years old, I am no longer interested in claims of authenticity and feel fully comfortable with my own experiences discovering the complicated and nuanced ways that race structures our understandings of everyday life. It took more than a decade of education on a San Gabriel Valley baseball diamond to finally grasp that.

Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis grew up in LA’s Pomona Valley suburbs and is currently a doctoral student in Latin American History at the University of California San Diego. He is in the research stages of his dissertation, titled “Anarchism, Organized Labor, and Armed Struggle in Dirty War-era Argentina and Uruguay, 1955-1985,” in which he focuses on the urban guerrilla groups Resistencia Libertaria (Arg) and Federacion Anarquista Uruguaya (Urg). Other interests include Latin American fascism, Mid-century Spanish and Italian anarchism, Chicano art history, Southern California micro-­punk scenes, and Morrissey.

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