Ramiro Velasco smiles as he bounces about his business on the baseball diamond. The so-called game of failure is, after all, still a game.
But make no mistake, failure motivates the 26-year-old Orange Coast College freshman, who now combats a preponderance of struggle by swinging away with his lime green aluminum bat.
“Baseball saved my life,” said Velasco, who is nine years removed from a noteworthy prep career at Santa Ana High, where he was among Orange County’s top hitters, as well as an All-CIF Southern Section linebacker.
Velasco, who in four varsity seasons hit a combined .542 with 10 home runs, 103 RBIs and 93 stolen bases at Santa Ana, and twice earned All-CIF recognition in baseball, said he planned on fashioning his own “Bo Jackson story,” when he entered Santa Ana College in the fall of 2008.
But halfway into his freshman football season with the Dons, for whom he was a starter and defensive mainstay, the demands of the classroom overwhelmed his dream.
“College is very different from high school,” said Velasco, who won the starting right field job for the Pirates, before being relegated to designated hitter duties due to a strained biceps tendon in his right throwing arm. “I found you had to actually apply yourself in the classroom and I found that to be difficult to do. I found myself straying away from the classroom and I wasn’t eligible to play anymore.”
Velasco, who is hitting .308 with five home runs, 19 RBIs and three stolen bases as the top-seeded Pirates (33-10) enter the second game of their best-of-three Southern California Super Regional series with Santa Ana on Saturday at OCC, stayed at Santa Ana after his brief football experience, hoping to play baseball the following spring. But still lacking the discipline to meet academic demands, he left school two weeks later.
Without athletics, specifically baseball, for the first time since before he entered kindergarten, Velasco floundered. He fell out with his parents, who asked him to leave their Santa Ana home. He began drinking, sometimes slept in his car when he could not crash at a friend’s place, and worked a series of odd jobs that included dishwasher, cook and construction.
He said he worked out on the monkey bars at a public park, played in some adult baseball leagues, and steadfastly clung to his dream of returning to baseball.
“I always thought it would be such a shame, such a sin, to let all that talent go to waste,” Velasco said. “I knew I couldn’t live the rest of my life without taking an opportunity to find out what I could do.”
Velasco said he tried out for baseball at Cypress College in 2011, but found he was still unprepared to succeed in the classroom.
He fathered a daughter, now 5, and continued to scuffle.
“My parents kept giving me opportunities [to move back home], but I would just seem to screw it up’” Velasco said. “Then, I remember one night thinking, ‘I can’t live with myself if I don’t see what I can do.’ I started looking up schools.”
After eventually making contact with OCC, Velasco enrolled and passed his 16-unit class load last spring. He made the baseball team in the fall.
“I remember when I told him he made the team, there were a few tears,” OCC coach John Altobelli said.
“It was very emotional, because that was like the moment of truth,” Velasco said. “If I didn’t make the team, there was no more baseball; no more dream.”
Velasco said once he got back on the field, there were no reservations.
“I’ve taken fear out of my life,” he said. “I just have complete confidence in my ability and what I can do. When you hit rock bottom, it’s pretty easy to see the top. I’m just bouncing back and reaching for the stars. I have big-boy responsibilities now.”
Velasco is living back home with his parents, working part-time as a bouncer at a nightclub, and mashing in the middle of the lineup for the Pirates.
“It’s been fun to watch,” OCC shortstop Travis Moniot said of Velasco’s return. “He’s 26 but he plays it like a kids’ game. He is always positive and he’ll do anything for you.”
Altobelli has also been impressed.
“He has probably been the biggest surprise of the season for us,” Altobelli said. “He brings energy, and I know that’s hard for him, sometimes having to work late to make a living. He has brought a lot to our program and he has had some quality at-bats. And for a guy who hadn’t played in a lot of years, it has been amazing to watch what he has done.
“He has had life deal him some tough cards and he understands how important this island of baseball is to kind of forget about the real world.”
Velasco, a political science major who turns 27 in July, is pursuing his education, and would like to continue in baseball, ultimately at the professional level.
“I’m revitalized,” said Velasco, who noted that he has survived some perilous situations, including having a gun pulled on him more than once. “I could have lost my life a lot of times. I’ve probably lived a lot of lifetimes. The fact that I’m still here breathing is a blessing.
“I don’t know if I will be drafted or not [a longshot for someone his age],” said Velasco, who could return to play at OCC next season. “I want to be drafted. At this age, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I work very hard. I’ve lost pints of blood, I’ve sweat and ocean of sweat and there have been a lot of tears along the way. I’m still working on my story.”