TAFT, California —— Baseball is an unforgiving game.
If you love it, it takes you two hours deep into the most rural part of Kern County, California, between almond farms and along dirt roads washed out from recent floods. The further you get away from Interstate 5, the deeper the pot holes get on the road, and the more you wonder if this isn’t a sign to turn around and go home. You’ve only really come there to watch one player, after all: Richard Ortiz, the star power hitter at tiny Taft College in the southwestern part of the county. He’s playing third base against the College of the Sequoias, a ranked junior college program with legitimate four-year talent on the roster.
Ortiz himself is a legitimate talent, set to head off to Grambling State University in the fall after wrapping up what will be an impressive two-year career at Taft. He’s worth a two-hour drive—or so it would seem based on everything he’s done in an impressive pair of seasons with the Cougars.
But on this day, Richard Ortiz isn’t quite himself. He strikes out early in the game with two runners on base. Later, he grounds out harmlessly, stranding two more runners in a key situation. The game proves close, though, and Ortiz’s teammates pick him up in a come-from-behind 4-3 upset win over their ranked opponent. It’s all done in spite of four runners left on base from the one All-Conference power hitter they’ve got in the lineup. And so you drive home, two hours back over the hill to Los Angeles, thinking about what you just saw—or, maybe, what you didn’t see.
But something keeps calling you back, and five days later, you find yourself in Taft again to watch Ortiz in an afternoon game against Porterville College.
Then, it happens. And suddenly, you get it.
A moonshot over the left-center field fence, the epitome of a no-doubter off the bat. Watch that video and you can tell Richard Ortiz knew it was gone the moment he hit it. At the end of the inning, Porterville’s pitcher returns to the dugout and you overhear him complaining that if the fence had been a little bit higher, it’d have only been a double.
Sure, you think. Maybe thirty feet higher.
A couple days later, it happens again; Ortiz hits a home run in another Taft win against Porterville. A few more days pass, and it happens once more. Ortiz hits his third home run in as many games—sixth of the season—and the Puerto Rican power hitter proves to you what his coaching staff has known all along: stick with this kid. He’s going to hit.
He just won’t take the credit for it.
“I had a good year last year but I have to thank my coaches for that,” Ortiz says. “They were really the first ones to help me from the start, especially [assistant coach Chris] DeFreece, and they really got me ready, and we really spend a lot of time just talking about hitting. I think that’s been part of my success here.”
If talking about hitting is what led to Ortiz’s success, Taft head coach Vince Maiocco might as well go on a speaking tour. The 225-pound backstop—who’s been playing third base out of necessity the last few games—hit .321 in 36 games last year as a freshman, with two home runs and 14 doubles in 165 plate appearances. So far this year, he’s gotten more refined at the plate with his power, and while his batting average is a bit lower (.290 in 22 games), he’s already slugged eight doubles and six more home runs, both signs of a coming power surge that will serve him well at the next level with Grambling.
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Along with the numbers have come accolades (including an All-Conference nod last year) and a reputation among opposing pitchers as the one guy opponents can’t forget when they arrive in Kern County. To that end, 2017 has been an encouraging adjustment for Ortiz, who’s been able to significantly increase his power output despite being pitched very differently than just a year ago.
“Any breaking ball they throw, I have to just spit on it, and wait for a fastball to come,” Ortiz says, admitting it’s been a change to react to more breaking balls as his reputation grows. “The coaches preach it to me a lot: stay calm on every pitch, and just wait for your fastball. Some at-bats, it’s like, ‘no, not that pitch, let me get another one. Let me get another one. Let me get another one.’ And every inning I have to make that adjustment. Don’t hit curveballs and changeups. Just wait and hit that fastball.”
That’s a smart (and difficult) adjustment for a junior college hitter to make, and one Ortiz will need to put together if he hopes to find playing time at Grambling. But the physical tools are there, the raw power is unquestionable, and Ortiz’s teammates and coaches alike rave about his quiet, easygoing demeanor that carries a maturity masking a vicious competitiveness just underneath the surface.
In other words, Richard Ortiz is the guy at Taft. He just doesn’t act like it.
“He’s one of my best friends on this team,” first baseman Nick Kawano, the team’s leadoff hitter, offers when asked about Ortiz. “He’s a great asset to this team. He’s just like me, he gets things going, and he makes things happen, and he’s the guy we really depend on to win games. And he makes things easy. It’s hard if you have to string together three or four hits to score a run. But if I can get on base, Ortiz always has a shot at putting something in the gap, and with my speed I feel like I can score. That really helps us out.”
There’s another component to this story, you know.
Richard Ortiz didn’t show up at Taft from a high school down the road in Bakersfield, or even a few hours away in Fresno, or Las Vegas. No, Richard Ortiz showed up on the Taft campus as an 18-year-old, fresh-faced kid straight out of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Fly across the country, learn an entirely new culture along with the nuances of rural, small town living, and live up to the academic expectations to be part of Maiocco’s baseball team, and then hit .321 in your freshman year and become an All-Conference catcher?
When you consider Ortiz’s path to Taft, a two-hour drive down pothole-covered farm roads suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.
But ever the soft-spoken slugger—the gentle giant, perhaps—Ortiz shrugs it off as just another set of responsibilities that must be taken care of along the way to his ultimate goal.
“When I was little, I went to Orlando to play, I went to Atlanta, and really quickly I realized wherever it is, it’s just another baseball field,” Ortiz cautions, speaking with the maturity of someone who’s seen far more of the game than you’d expect at his age. “This summer I’m actually going to Canada to play [in a summer league]. But it doesn’t matter where the place is, the game doesn’t change.”
For Maiocco and the staff remaining at Taft, Ortiz’s departure will be bittersweet. It’s Maiocco’s job to farm out these players to the best four-year schools he can find, and Ortiz is more than ready to go. The fact that he’s off to a Division I school is even better, and should make for good recruiting fodder the next several seaons in Taft. And yet, Maiocco must now find another way to replace all those home runs, and all that run production.
Enter: Richard Ortiz.
Yes, the slugger’s reputation and experience at Taft have been formative for other talent back on his home island, and Maiocco may just reap the rewards as other Puerto Rican baseball players begin to recognize tiny Taft College as a place to find an honest shot at the game on the mainland.
“I’ve already spoken to a couple [Puerto Rican] catchers, including one that has already committed to us,” Maiocco admits, no doubt hoping to find the next Richard Ortiz and develop that kid, too. “And that becomes a big selling point for us, to tell kids that if you come to Taft for two years and get yourself in position, you can go to a four-year school, and in some cases you can go to a D-I school. Those kids absolutely look at which junior colleges do a good job of placing guys at the four-year level, and that’s one thing we’ve always done well, getting guys out of here and on to bigger and better things after they attend Taft for a couple years.”
And while he won’t take credit for that, either, maybe you can give a small hat tip to Ortiz again for this: he’s a high-profile success story in what’s becoming a nice Puerto Rican pipeline of baseball talent to Maiocco and Taft College. In that way, Ortiz’s impact ought to be felt long after he’s gone from Kern County.
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With nothing left to prove at Taft, then, and the future firmly at his feet, another major cultural and athletic adjustment awaits Richard Ortiz. If it goes half as well as his transition to Taft, he’ll be just fine.
“I know Louisiana is going to be pretty different from here,” Ortiz says. “I know Grambling will be tougher. But I’ve come here to play baseball, and if I play the same game, and play hard for myself and for my team, the next level will take care of itself.”
“But yeah, I think I’m ready for the next level,” he says. “I’ve been working hard on and off the field. I know it’s going to be more hard work, more responsibilities on the field, more time in the gym. But I’m ready.”
Yeah, you think as you drive back over the potholes and away from Taft one last time.
He sure is.