This One's for Fernie : Partially Paralyzed Ace Pitcher Was Inspiration Behind Falcons' 46-5 Season Record, State College Championship

Times Staff Writer

Brought to attention by the universal coaching command, "OK, listen up," the Cerritos College baseball players were about to be reminded to turn in their equipment.

It had been a championship season.

But injured pitcher Fernando Leyva would retain his gear, which, instead of bats and practice pants, consisted of a brace encasing his right leg and crutches fastened to his forearms.

The muscular Leyva, whose black hair rose from his forehead in a high flat top, stood in the locker room last week while his teammates sat.

It was symbolic because Leyva's rapid comeback from the paralysis he suffered in a December car crash had stood as the inspiration which drove Cerritos to the 1987 state community college title.

The 20-year-old Leyva, a Montebello resident and graduate of Schurr High School, had hoped to drive the Falcons in a different way.

A right-hander known for his intensity and distaste for losing, he was expected to be the team's top pitcher this season.

"He was the guy we'd have given the ball to in a big game," Cerritos Coach George Horton said. "He's as hard-working a player as I've coached."

As a freshman in 1986, Leyva won five games, lost three and had a 3.32 earned run average.

Bret Barbarie, the Falcons' sophomore shortstop and player of the year in the South Coast Conference, talked about Leyva after the team meeting.

"He's such a competitor, (the type) you hate playing against but love playing with," Barbarie said. "I hated to hit against him in an intrasquad game. He didn't need to strike you out. If he got you to pop out, he was happy. He just wanted to get you out."

Leyva was partially paralyzed at 2 a.m. last Dec. 28 at an intersection in Monterey Park.

He said he had been drinking tequila at a club in Montebello and was asleep in the front seat of a car driven by a friend. His friend ran a red light; there was a five-car accident in which nine other people were injured.

"The impact threw me to the other side; half my torso was sticking out the driver's window," Leyva recalled in the locker room after his teammates had left. He was sitting in a dressing cubicle now, a position that had taken him a few minutes to get into.

"If you would have seen the car, you would have thought no one would have lived," he said.

Several hours after the crash, Leyva awoke at County-USC Medical Center. He saw doctors looking down at his bruised and cut face. But it was his numb legs that concerned them.

"I couldn't move either leg," said Leyva. "I had feeling in both legs but I felt no pain. A couple of days later, the doctors told me that I'd never walk again. That was real scary."

In the Hospital 3 1/2 Months

Two weeks later, Leyva began his rehabilitation at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, where he stayed for 3 1/2 months.

"I got things back in the left leg in February," Leyva said. "It's probably 50% of normal. Every muscle in it is working, but it's just weak."

The right leg has not responded--the brace prevents it from buckling--and the inability to use it has worn on Leyva.

"Originally, his spirits were good," Horton said. "He kept talking about pitching again. But as time went on he got a little frustrated. I saw improvement physically, but mentally he was going backward."

"You go through a phase when you're angry," Leyva said.

The Cerritos team went through a listless phase in January, performing unlike a team that would have a 46-5 record.

"We hit the skids after Fernie's accident," Horton said. "I told them: 'Just think how fortunate you are. How would you like to be in Fernie's spot? Just think what he'd give to be out playing baseball again.'

"It hit the spot and turned us around. We rallied around him."

His Name Boosted Team Spirit

The team dedicated the season to Leyva.

"Before every practice and game, we'd get in a group and go, '1-2-3, Fernie.' " said pitcher John Marshall, who won two games in the recent state tournament at San Jose.

Many of the players put Leyva's No. 16 on their batting helmets.

Barbarie would tell a pitcher during a tough situation: "Be (a battler) like Fernie."

Leyva, who had to drop out of school but plans to return in the fall, accompanied the team to San Jose.

"I missed being with the guys, that sports camaraderie," said Leyva, who gave a speech to his teammates after they lost an early game in the double-elimination tournament.

"(That) kind of pumped everybody up," said Marshall. "Just him being there, walking again, picked us up."

The Falcons went on to win five straight games in the tournament.

Although the accident was alcohol-related, Leyva said he is unmoved by television announcements that urge young people not to drive after drinking.

"I wasn't driving," Leyva said. "(But) it makes me mad at my friend."

He said his friend will soon begin serving a nine-month sentence in the Los Angeles County Jail for drunk driving.

"I was never a drinker," Leyva said. "That was the first time I drank in four months."

Leyva, who lives with his parents, now battles frustration and waits for improvement in his right leg.

"It will come back eventually," he predicted. "I got spoiled because the left leg came back so quick. Having patience is the hardest thing, me being 20. I should be out there playing ball. Watching games is great but it hurts deep inside 'cause I want to compete. I always wanted to be better than anyone else."

Leyva was on his feet again, heading slowly out for his car, which he drives by working the pedals with his left foot.

Spiers Wilson, the Cerritos College equipment manager, watched Leyva pass.

"He's a tough son-of-a-gun," Wilson said. "Got a lot of guts, this guy."

Will Leyva come back next season and pitch?

"I bet he does," Wilson said.

"I will," Leyva said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World