May 30, 2017, published in the Orange County Register:
Before every game, Cal State Fullerton infielder Sahid Valenzuela tells himself, “ponte perro,” the same words his father, Hector, whispered to him before his games growing up.
Be tough, be a grinder. Let’s go, get after it. Valenzuela, a 5-foot-9 rookie for the playoff-bound Titans, has been named to the initial watch list for the Brooks Wallace Award, awarded to the country’s best shortstop.
And this week he was named Big West Conference Freshman Field Player of the Year for 2017. He is the second Titan to earn the honor since Michael Lorenzen in 2011.
Maybe it’s because he’s batting .344, ranking fourth in the Big West Conference. Maybe it’s because he’s racked up a team-leading 21 multi-hit games. Maybe it’s because he’s collected knocks in 33 of his last 39 games — 18 of those being multi-hit outings.
Or maybe it’s because he scratched and clawed for most of his life just to get to this point.
“He’s got the heart of a lion, that kid,” said Alejandro Rivera, his uncle. “He’s the most humble person in the world, but he’s also going to let you know, ‘You gotta respect me.’”
“You play hard,” Rivera said, “but he’s going to play harder.”
Valenzuela and his teammates start post-season play Thursday when No. 17 Cal State Fullerton, 34-21, plays BYU, 37-19, in an NCAA Regional game at No. 10 Stanford. Stanford plays Sacramento State in Thursday’s second game in the regional competition.
Valenzuela got his first start against UNLV on Feb. 25. Sure, he had imagined the moment before. But to be there, clutching the bat, living out the moment that has lived in his head for years, was something else.
During the seventh inning, Valenzuela got his first career RBI, helping the team secure a 4-1 victory.
Now, Valenzuela’s 63 hits rank second on the Titans, and he has 28 runs scored and 20 RBI with a .398 on-base percentage.
“He’s shown tremendous maturity for a freshman, just to be as consistent as he’s been,” said Rick Vanderhook, CSUF’s coach. “He’s a mature freshman, that’s the way I’ll put it.”
That’s because when Valenzuela was 14, he left home — Somerton, Ariz., a town so small that he usually tells people he’s from Yuma, a small city about 20 miles away — to move to Northern California.
The Golden State, however, seemed like a distant dream as a kid. Somerton has sand dunes for off-roading; two grocery stores: Del Sol and King Market; and baseball. There’s a lot of talent in the area, Valenzuela said, but those players get overlooked. “I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me,” he said.
His father taught him the game, as Valenzuela heard the crack of the bat while still in the stroller. He also learned from watching his older brother, Hector Alexis Valenzuela, play. Hector taught his boys to grind, taking them to his job, washing cars and doing landscaping. Valenzuela learned to mow and weed, to replace sprinklers within minutes.
Then, Hector would give his boys, exhausted, a reward: hours of hitting and taking ground balls. Valenzuela would take 150 hacks from the left side, then the right side. “Sahid never got tired,” Hector said.
His older brother often told him: If you ever have a chance to get out of Yuma, if you have an opportunity to make something of yourself — you have to go.
The thought traveled through Valenzuela’s mind, but would it lead anywhere? That wasn’t clear.
Rivera didn’t know he was Valenzuela’s uncle. Not at first. Rivera coached a team, Aggies Baseball out of Watsonville, Calif. He went to Yuma to find an extra player for a Las Vegas tournament. Someone mentioned Valenzuela, who agreed to play. He was a freshman, maybe 115 pounds, but he hit the ball hard.
A few months later, Rivera returned to Yuma, and joked with some players about being “scared.” You scared of facing this guy at the plate? You scared of taking the mound against this team? The phrase is thrown around to hype players up before game time, before the pressure builds.
Rivera walked up to Valenzuela, not in on the joke. “You scared?”
“Of what?” Valenzuela said.
“You’re scared to move up to Northern California with me,” Rivera said.
Rivera stopped cold. “What do you mean?”
“I’m not scared, I’ll move there with you,” Valenzuela said, already dialing his father’s number to ask for permission. Valenzuela knew Rivera had connections — maybe he could help him play college ball one day?
Rivera, not expecting the joke to turn into a commitment, shook his head. Who makes a decision to leave one’s home like that on the fly? Rivera realized: the kid’s got guts. “I can’t let him down,” Rivera said.
It was only when Rivera attended one of Valenzuela’s family member’s quinceañera did he realize that he was related. He received the family’s blessing to take Valenzuela.
“He’s probably going to come back in two, three weeks,” Hector thought to himself.
Valenzuela packed up his belongings in Rivera’s 2008 Honda Accord and said goodbye to his family, his friends, his town.
“It was tough,” Valenzuela said. “But I knew what I wanted. I knew I had to sacrifice all of that.”
Shortly after arriving in Castroville, Calif., to live with Rivera, Valenzuela turned on the T.V. 15-year-old, murdered. Valenzuela was stunned. Rivera, who is from the area, shrugged. “You’re going to hear that a lot out here,” Rivera said. “Out here, it’s about survival.”
Rivera taught Valenzuela to not wear rival gang colors, blue and red; to scan house parties for dangers; to know that even when doing everything right, you could be the one on television — your life reduced to a headline.
The biggest lesson? Don’t look intimidated. “Fear can get you eaten alive,” Rivera said.
With one foot in that world, Valenzuela entered another: St. Francis Central Coast Catholic. There, your uniform had to be crisp, your socks the appropriate length, your face perfectly shaved. Students were taught discipline and etiquette. Valenzuela went to school, to practice, then home and did homework the rest of the night.
His first day of school, he showed up with his broken bat, but he had tied fishline around it to keep it sturdy, also bringing a worn, 10-year-old glove. He didn’t have much, especially due to the financial strain of Rivera’s job in transportation as a truck broker. But work ethic? Talent? Drive? Valenzuela, who was on varsity all four years, who batted over .400 three of those years, had those in droves.
Rivera couldn’t afford a gym membership, but he took Valenzuela with him at 5 a.m. to work out wherever they could. Valenzuela received more attention from colleges, especially after a monster junior season where he batted .500 with 20 RBI and 44 stolen bases, and was named All-State.
“It molded him into who he is: being hungry, going after it, not being intimidated,” Rivera said.
Something in Valenzuela’s gut told him to choose Cal State Fullerton over other Big West programs. It was the same feeling he felt as a 14-year-old, deciding to move to California on a whim — nervous, excited, hopeful.
Home run vs. UC Santa Barbara
When Valenzuela first arrived at Fullerton, he’d often turn to his roommates: “Wow, we’re actually here at Fullerton. It’s unbelievable.”
That’s why when the moment came, Valenzuela was ready. During the third inning against UC Santa Barbara on May 12, Valenzuela blasted his first career home-run over the left field fence. CSUF eventually won, 8-4.
“He gained respect right out of the gate,” Vanderhook said. “He has good aptitude and a good feel for the game. He just isn’t your typical freshman.”
Valenzuela, a criminal justice major, now helps anchor one of the top defenses in Division I, as CSUF’s .980 fielding percentage ranks 12th in the country.
“I love that I can help my team, contribute in any way I can,” Valenzuela said. “It’s awesome.”
Family friends in Arizona tell his parents, Hector and Claudia, about how well he is playing. The separation during high school was difficult; Claudia cried every day. But now, the move seems worth it.
“When people ask me, I’m so proud, I feel like I want to cry,” Hector said.
The Titans aim to make a splash in the postseason. Could the kid from Somerton make it to Omaha, site of the College World Series?
“I think we can go far,” Valenzuela said. “We just have to keep playing hard like we have. Hopefully we go as far as possible.”