A few weeks ago, a video surfaced of a massive lunch-time brawl at Sylmar High School, located in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles.
Described as a race and gang-related free-for-all, the brawl featured about 40 students fighting as teachers and law enforcement officials attempted to break it up.
It was ugly and unsettling. Sylmar High School’s most famous graduate has seen the video, but would rather not talk about it.
“It’s sad,” said Blue Jays pitcher Marco Estrada.
Sylmar, Calif., where Estrada was raised after he and his mom, Silvia, immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when he was a little boy, is not necessarily the ideal place to grow up. Last week, Estrada’s Jays teammate Kevin Pillar, who hails from the West Hills section of Los Angeles, mentioned Sylmar when talking about high school baseball in the L.A. area. When told of this prior to Friday’s game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, Estrada laughed.
“Kevin was in the rich-people area,” said Estrada. “I was in the ghetto.”
Estrada chuckled when he said that, but he wasn’t kidding. Looking back at his childhood growing up in one of L.A.’s toughest areas, the Jays’ right-hander agrees that he’s fortunate to have made it to where he is now, one of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. And a solid human being.
He credits his mom, and his wife Janai, with everything he has in life and everything he is. And even though he describes Sylmar — somewhat jokingly — as a ghetto, Estrada retains a deep affection for his little corner of L.A.
“Was it a tough area? It was,” said Estrada. “It wasn’t the greatest, but like I said, it’s home for me. It’s all I knew. So for me, it felt safe. I knew everyone around my area, so it wasn’t a big deal. Once in a while … well, pretty often, you’d hear the (police) helicopters. I grew up seeing things. It’s not upscale by any means, but it’s what I call home. I love it out there.”
Sylmar is known for several things, most of them not good — such as the largest drug bust in history in 1989 when police seized 21.4 tons of cocaine (with an estimated value of $6.9 billion), and $10 million in cash from a warehouse bust. It’s not Beverly Hills. It’s not even Pasadena.
Estrada doesn’t come across as an overly emotional guy, but hearing him talk about how he and his mom stuck together and made a life for each other in one of the toughest areas of a tough city, you can see the pride in his eyes. Talking about his mom, who toiled day and night cleaning houses and working as a nanny, there is so much affection in his voice, it’s overwhelming.
“Raising me, being a single parent, no siblings. Just her and I. She worked very hard just to be able to pay for the spikes I wore and the glove that I wore,” said the 32-year-old. “She just retired. I was finally able to tell her, you don’t have to work anymore. All the way since we moved to the United States when I was five or so, until this year, she worked. And finally she retired.
“She was always working, which sucked in a way,” Estrada added, meaning that he didn’t get to see his mom as much as he wanted. “But she’s my mom. The one and only.”
Estrada said his uncle and aunt helped raise him when his mom worked. Like a lot of kids growing up in tough areas, the veteran pitcher said sports was his salvation, and he credits his mom for insisting that he participate.
“My mom basically said: ‘You have to play sports, you have to do something,’” said Estrada. “She said: ‘I don’t care what it is, you’re not coming home from school and not doing anything.’ She knew what she was doing. She knew what I was raised around and she didn’t want me to fall into the wrong hands. It’s a good thing she thought that way.
“I had friends that played baseball that were really good that didn’t make it out of there alive,” Estrada added. “Things happened and unfortunately they’re no longer with us.”
Estrada found his future through sports, though it wasn’t exactly an easy trek. When he was six, he skipped T-ball to go right into baseball. And he hated it.
“I might have been the youngest kid on there. I think I was still supposed to be in T-ball. But I just jumped to whatever the next level was,” he said. “But I kept getting drilled every game. You know kids don’t have any command. And I got tired of it. I was like: ‘What’s the point? I’m just going up there to get hit.’”
He decided not to play the next year, but his mom kept pushing him.
“My mom told me: ‘You have to play something. Pick a different sport, or pick something else, but you have to do something.’ So I said: ‘Let’s give baseball another try.’ And I got pretty good at it. I don’t know what happened or why, but I started hitting the ball pretty well and made the all-star team I think every year after that. Something clicked.”
Estrada was mostly an infielder during his Little League years and actually didn’t become a committed pitcher until he was a senior at Sylmar High. In fact, he didn’t make the varsity team at first in his senior year. How many major-leaguers can say that?
“I had really good years in JV, but I only made the varsity team because one of our pitchers broke his collarbone and it was like: ‘You’ve got a pretty good arm, I guess we’ll use you,’” Estrada said. “And I ended up having a really good year. I was the best pitcher that year.”
Part of the reason Estrada wasn’t considered a hot candidate to play on the senior varsity team was that he was rather slight.
“I went from 5-foot-nothing to 5-foot-11 in one summer basically and gained a little weight. But even in my senior year, I was 5-foot-11 and maybe a buck-50,” he said.
Estrada attended Glendale Community College after his senior year at Sylmar and then transferred to Long Beach State University. It was a tough but wonderful time for Estrada, whose high school sweetheart, Janai, worked hard to help cover their expenses while he went to school.
“She was the other reason why I was able to get to college. She worked hard to help pay for the apartment we stayed in,” said Estrada. “She would drive all the way to valley (to work). God bless her.”
All these years later, Marco and Janai are still going strong and have two kids. Family is extremely important to Estrada, partly because of what his mom and his aunts and uncles meant to him. And possibly because he grew up without a father.
“I never met him,” said Estrada. “I never asked. I never cared.”
A lot of kids who grow up without a father feel they missed something. Estrada is not one of those.
“Look at me,” he said. “Does it look like I missed something? Look where I’m at. I didn’t know any better. That’s the way things were. But my mom did a really good job.”
He’s never looked for his dad nor as he ever heard from him. Again, it’s not unusual for someone who makes it big in sports or entertainment to discover they have a father because the man suddenly makes himself known. But not in Estrada’s case. The only thing he really knows is about his father is that, apparently, he had two other kids after he left his mother.
“I have a brother and sister somewhere out there,” said Estrada. “My father’s never tried contacting me, but a couple of years ago I think the boy ended up sending a message. I don’t have Facebook or Twitter or any of that stuff, but he contacted one of the players, I think it was Carlos Gomez. He said: ‘Do you mind telling Marco who I am, here’s my information.’ I don’t think he left a phone number, so there was no way for me to respond. I have no desire to meet my father, but the other two, I’d like to meet them some day.”
Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said Estrada has the respect of every guy in the clubhouse because of the way he carries himself and the work he’s done to become an elite pitcher. But mostly because he is such a good man. He is down to Earth despite evolving into one of the best starters in the American League, and he credits a lot of that because of where he came from.
“Other than some of the nice shoes I buy, I don’t think I’ve changed much,” he said. “I’ve got a few toys, but I’ve worked hard to get here. I respect everybody, I respect everything and it’s because of the way I was brought up.
“I think that’s why I am who I am. I feel like I’m a pretty humble guy. I don’t like to show off too much. I know where I came from. I came from nothing. We lived in garages. Just me and my mom.”
via Steve Buffery, Toronto Sun | photo Toronto Sun
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