Some words burn into a player’s memory, motivating or enervating—unbeknownst, in many cases, to the men who speak them. For Ricky Romero, they came courtesy of a vigilant groundskeeper at Goodwin Field, the pristine ballpark at Cal State Fullerton, when the future Blue Jays ace was nine years old. Having encountered a jug-eared Latino kid gazing wide-eyed across the meadow, the man jerked his head toward an open gate in the left-field corner. “You can’t be here,” he said.
Young Ricky had been standing on the warning track, drinking in the sight of the fabled Fullerton Titans as they shagged flies, and, as he puts it, “grass like no grass I’d ever seen.” He was at the university that day with his father Ricardo, a sewing machine repairman who was making a service call on the campus, and who had urged his son to catch a glimpse of the field. Now, chastened by the scolding, Ricky trudged back to his dad’s beat-up company truck. “I got in and told my dad they’d kicked me out,” he recalls. “My father turned to me and said, ‘You watch, one day you’re going to be pitching from that mound.’ ”
The memory still gives Romero chills. He would indeed pitch from that hill—as the ace of Fullerton’s 2004 championship team, while riding a fully funded scholarship into the 2005 Major League amateur draft. He’d fight injury and self-doubt on an unexpectedly long route to the Toronto Blue Jays’ starting rotation, and with each milestone passed, he made a bigger liar of that groundskeeper. Last week, Jays manager John Farrell announced that the 26-year-old left-hander would be the starting pitcher at the team’s home opener, and the irony hit Romero like a wave. Opening day starter is an honour reserved for the presumptive leader of a pitching staff. Not only is he here, he’s evidently here to stay.
Pride in Romero’s achievements runs through his family, Mexican immigrants who scraped out a dollar-store version of the American dream from their four-room bungalow in gritty East Los Angeles. Ricky inherited his talent from a father who still plays competitive hardball; he, in turn, had been coached by Ricky’s maternal grandfather. When his wife, Sandra, took their four-year-old boy out for T-ball, Ricardo made some pointed inquiries about the acumen of the coach: “She didn’t think he was all that good,” he recalls with a grin. “So I signed on as a helper, and pretty soon I was coaching that team.”
Pitching lessons began on the long, dusty driveway leading to his house, but this was no scene of baseball pastoral. While Ricky and his father whipped the ball back and forth, gang members loitered on nearby street corners. From time to time, shots rang out at night. “There were guys I grew up with or played against who took that path,” says Romero. “My parents did a good job raising me, of teaching me right from wrong.”
He fought his way onto the college radar after enrolling at Theodore Roosevelt High School, where he went 12-1 in his senior year and was named league co-MVP. When the universities came calling, it was not a question of where, but how much: Romero wanted to attend the University of Southern California, but his father urged him to consider Fullerton, which offered to cover 100 per cent of his costs. “USC was going to cover only 80 per cent,” says the elder Romero, “and there was no way we were going to be able to afford to pay [the balance].” As for a certain day at Goodwin Field, Ricardo can’t deny its memory played a part. “I thought of it then,” he says, winking, “and every day since.”
Cal State was good to Romero. A national title in the 2004 College World Series, where he pitched wins in both the semis and the finals, led the Jays to draft him sixth overall the following June. Blessed with a 90-mph fastball, he counted among a bumper crop of future stars that year, five of whom landed three years later on a Sports Illustrated cover dedicated to the depth of the draft. Romero, alas, was not one of them. After a sparkling debut with the Jays’ single-A farm team in Dunedin, Fla., he’d struggled in double-A, going 2-7 as his ERA ballooned to 5.08 with Toronto’s affiliate in New Hampshire. “I was being hit around [the field], and I’d never been hit around before,” he says. “I was, like, why is this happening to me?”
Today, the hardships of the Romero story are written on his face. An inch-long scar reaches from his right upper lip, the result of a dog bite he suffered as a child. The colour on his cheeks has deepened from hours of pitching in sun and wind, and his expression hardens at the slights he endured when he was in the depths of his struggles—including one cast by former Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi. Buried in that Sports Illustrated story was an offhanded admission from Ricciardi that he’d drafted the wrong guy. “I cut out the headline from the story, and put it in my locker,” Romero says. “I remember reading it and saying, ‘I’m going to prove everyone wrong one day.’ ”
As they so often do with pitchers, Romero’s problems boiled down to confidence. Shoulder and elbow injuries had hampered his performance, he recalls, and as his ERA swelled, his self-esteem cratered. Reviving it took time, but in the summer of 2008, while playing in New Hampshire, he rediscovered his groove. The following year, with his major league future on the line, Romero made the Jays lineup out of spring training, maintaining his control in the face of major league hitters. A 13-9 season led to an even stronger performance in 2010, winning 14, losing nine and pushing his ERA down to 3.73. His bag of pitches now ranges from the fastball, which cuts inside on right-handed batters, to a devastating changeup, which unsettles opponents expecting high-speed pitches.
There are heights yet to scale, of course. Seventeen pitchers in the American League had better ERAs last year than Romero, and he has not yet thrown an inning of post-season baseball in the majors. But for now, he’s king of the hill in Toronto, and when the subject turns to his recent success, the awestruck kid returns. “To have done everything I have in the first two years of my career is just amazing,” he says. “What makes me proud is that it’s not something that’s just been given to me. It’s something I worked for every step of the way.”