Wildfires, coronavirus makes Glendale Community College pitcher’s transfer back home anything but normal
It was a late October morning when Chris Torres and his family were notified they were going to be evacuated from their home in Simi Valley.
With the Easy Fire raging the nearby area, what was supposed to be a trip to a three-hour practice for Torres turned into a police escort to his grandmother’s house in Thousand Oaks.
For nearly a week, the 19-year-old was unable to commute to Glendale Community College, where he was just starting up his first semester of classes and his debut season as a sophomore member of the Vaqueros baseball team.
With California State Route 118 shut down as first responders battled the blaze, Torres was forced to notify his professors and Vaquero head coach Alex Kocol that he wouldn’t be able to make it to campus.
When the family returned home, things returned to normal after nearly a week, Torres was set to begin his Vaqueros career in January.
The normalcy lasted just a few months.
Like many other athletes, Torres’ junior college baseball season came in to a close in mid-March as the coronavirus outbreak shut down sports, public events and most businesses.
The Vaqueros pitcher has been restricted to home workouts and makeshift pitching drills to maintain his fitness.
“There were many ways I was trying to approach it,” Torres said. “I was sad about it. There’s nothing I can control, but the only thing I could control was my work ethic and stay with it. I know a lot of kids that don’t have a certain work ethic that stick with the game. But has it affected me mentally? It probably made my mental state stronger.”
Despite enduring wildfires in the fall and now currently cooped up at home due to the “Stay At Home” order, Torres has stayed positive, adapted and hoped for the best. However, his time at home since transferring to Glendale from Post University in Waterbury, Conn., has been far from uneventful.
The autumn blaze roped around the Santa Susana Mountains and inched closer to his home in Hidden Ranch just days before he was forced to evacuate. The fire scorched 1,860 acres and destroyed two structures.
The family has been used to fire warnings, though. His mom, Shannon, said they are always prepared for every fire season.
“It was definitely a big shock,” Chris said. “I’m a big believer in things happening for a reason. You can’t argue with it. It’s what you can control, so our family got up and did the safest thing possible. We couldn’t risk getting our house burned down and many of my friends had their house burned down. It was sad to see.”
When he was a toddler, the Torres family endured the Simi Fire in 2003, right around the time they moved into a newly built home in Simi Valley before the blaze ravaged the area.
No damage was done to their home then, but Shannon recollected surreal moments with helicopters and fire repellent being dropped constantly nearby. The family was under voluntary evacuation at the time.
“Every year, we always worry,” Shannon said. “We’re not the only ones. Southern California in general. It just kind of depends where you live.”
Torres grew up in Simi Valley with his parents and younger sister.
The reliever graduated from Sierra Canyon in 2018, where he was a dual-sport athlete as a pitcher for the baseball team and an outside linebacker for the Trailblazers football team.
As a sophomore, Torres was a contributing factor in the Trailblazers’ football title winning-runs in CIF Southern Section Division IV and CIF State Division II-A competitions.
“I knew I was the better athlete in baseball,” said Torres, who played shortstop for most of his life until high school. “Football, I wasn’t small, but I wasn’t more of an athlete in that aspect. I always had a strong arm and I just wanted to focus more on that. I knew I could go farther in my career than football.”
During his time during the evacuation, Torres stayed organized with the seven classes he was taking and often communicated with his instructors to make sure he wasn’t missing assignments.
Of course, he stayed in touch with his Glendale coaches and his teammates.
“We got through all of that, and to his credit, he did the work,” Kocol said. “He communicated to his professors and he didn’t miss a beat in terms of his training. He continued to improve the whole time until we got past the fires.”
Kocol said as a student, Torres is second to none.
“He’s been very diligent,” Kocol said. “He’s the best communicator that we’ve ever had in the program. In terms of being able to communicate and staying on top of stop, he’s extraordinary at it.”
Once the fire threat was quelled, it was back to work at Stengel Field for Torres.
In the months leading up to the season, the coaching staff helped polish his pitches. Upon first impression, Kocol said Torres was talented, but needed some fine-tuning to hone his skills.
At Post University, a small private Division II school located 30 minutes away from Yale, Torres was under the watchful eye of pitching coach and former Vaquero pitcher Cory Popham, a contributor in 2012 who went on to the University of the Pacific and is currently a pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays organization.
With close relationships with Glendale assistant coach Sergio Plasencia, who was Torres’ club coach in high school, his choice to transfer to Glendale was easy and quick.
“They’re all alumni and it makes it comfortable for the players to look back and you can ask them a question with anything we need,” Torres said. “No one felt left out, especially with me with all the fires and the pandemic going on. … I just feel like, with Glendale, it was kind of different. I’m never going to have that experience anywhere else.”
Said Kocol of Torres’ decision: “It was a really short recruiting courtship. He came here and, literally, his words were ‘I want the best program and this is the best program, and so he came in.’”
Torres initially majored in sports management before making the switch to marketing at Post. He transferred after his freshman year where he pitched 36 1/3 innings, scattered 50 hits, recorded 12 walks and yielded 28 earned runs.
“I got playing time and loved the coaches there and they had nothing but respect for me and my decision,” Torres said. “It was just more of a personal thing of me coming back home and going back to my roots. I know Glendale is an outstanding program, so I wanted to be there.”
However, that opportunity was short-lived when the California Community College Athletic Assn. suspended the season on March 19.
“It kind of sucked for most of the sophomores because this was their year to bounce back and have the season of their lives to the next level,” Torres said. “Now it’s changed and we focus on academics, which I think is a great thing. It constitutes for itself.”
Time missed from three-hour practices was essential time lost for Torres.
“All you want to do is build chemistry with your team, especially with your catcher and your coaches,” he said. “You miss that. You’re learning about baseball. It was fear of missing out. Academic side, I wasn’t scared at all because I was on top of my stuff.”
In seven appearances this past season for the Vaqueros, Torres recorded two wins, one loss and one save in 21 innings pitched. He struck out 15, walked seven, yielded 16 hits and gave up 10 earned runs with a 4.29 earned-run average.
His last time on the mound was against West L.A. in a Western State Conference game in which he tossed three innings, walked one, struck out one and yielded two hits.
Cal State Northridge is one of Torres’ top schools he would like to move on to, as a few of his friends are currently attending the university.
For the time being, Torres throws pitches at a wall covered in rugs, carpets and yoga mats in his backyard. Weighted balls and jaeger bands help keep his arms and legs loose.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Kocol said. “If you want to be good at baseball, you have to have that impulse. To be good, you want to throw a ball into a wall. Whether you’re a pitcher, whether you’re an infielder or a catcher, if you don’t like that, if that’s not fun to you, you’ll never be good at baseball.
“When I saw that, it was bigger than baseball to me. That explains to me why he’s good. Look at this guy. He’s exactly what you need. It’s going to be why he’s successful. He’s going to come back next year and we’re really excited to have him. He’s a guy that guys love to play with him. He’s a great teammate. He’s just everything you can hope for.”
Just as his season was starting to pick up, things quickly shut down as the Vaqueros sought their third consecutive Western State Conference title. Glendale had a 13-8 record at the closure of the season.
“Obviously, we didn’t want this to happen,” Torres said. “I wanted to ball out, win a state championship and go to a great school after this. I wanted to build memories. I wanted to be a baseball player and I wanted to play. Getting that taken away from me can be a mental breakdown. A lot of people hung up their cleats this year and it’s sad to see.
He also rotates throwing with his family, pitching with his mother, father, Juan, and his girlfriend.
“Right now, Chris is focused on doing his best and we’re here to support him,” Juan said. “We’re very fortunate to have people like coach Kocol and all the coaches he has in the past. We can’t wait to see what his story turns out to be. He’s got a bright future. He’s a good kid. Everyone wants to be his friend and that’s the kind of person he is.”
The family has enough finances to get by with essentials for the time being. His father’s hours at Rydell Chrysler were cut due to the pandemic and his mother is a stay-at-home parent who also volunteers at her daughter’s school, St. Rosa Lima Catholic School.
“Total curveball. No pun intended,” said Shannon of the pandemic. “Now, it’s like what do we do now? But Chris is keeping a positive attitude. Coach Alex Kocol is just really on his side giving him great advice, keeping him motivated, grounded and he’s been such a help. Emotionally as well.”
The ample time he has with his family has made things better for Chris, as both of his parents have been strong supporters of his at-home efforts. He’s just waiting for things to get better.
“It’s really nice to have everybody home and to realize what family means,” Juan said. “For a lot of things, this is really nice to have, but we’re bunkering down and we’re doing what we have to do.”