Rosemead PONY Baseball returns for year two

In a year when the pandemic changed everything, the return of baseball brings some life back into a community.

sports, baseball

2020 was a tumultuous year for sports. The coronavirus pandemic engineered a shutdown. From professional to collegiate to youth sports, athletes from all levels had to press pause. Uncertainty filled the air and it became a question of if, not when, sports could re-enter our lives.

When it came to youth sports, that feeling of uncertainty was especially high in California – one of the most restrictive states in terms of guidelines. Many young athletes had to step away from their sport and instead endure long hours on Zoom for the majority of the past year.

All that changed when the state loosened its restrictions this February, allowing for the return of outdoor youth sports. This paved the way for a number of leagues to return, including Rosemead PONY Baseball, a youth baseball league located in the San Gabriel Valley east of downtown Los Angeles. PONY stands for Protect Our Nation’s Youth, and nationally, the organization dates to 1951.

William Manjarrez, an 8-year-old first baseman and pitcher in third grade at Holy Angels Elementary School, was ecstatic about the news.

“[My favorite part about being back] is getting to learn new things,” Manjarrez said. “Baseball is my life. I get to see my friends and I get to play with my brother.”

Originally known as San Gabriel PONY Baseball, the league moved to a new city and renamed itself Rosemead PONY Baseball in 2019 under the management of league president Robert Esparza and vice president Jerry Rodriguez.

The league got off to a great start for their 2020 season, Rodriguez recalls. The league held picture day and its snack bar was up and running. Nearly a thousand people showed up for Opening Day on March 7.

Four days later, the country all but shut down.

“The following week [after Opening Day], we started to hear rumblings in the news over the possible shutdown when all the professional sports started to go down, starting with professional basketball,” Rodriguez said. “It was just a domino effect from there and when youth sports got shut down, there was nothing we could do.”

William Manjarrez’s brother Charlie, an 11-year-old shortstop, pitcher and catcher in sixth grade at Holy Angels, felt sad when he wasn’t able to practice.

“We still did some baseball at home but it’s not the same as coming [out] here and playing and having all our friends here, doing the real games,” Manjarrez said. “So that was a bummer.”

Vanessa Hightower, a special educator for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said she and her son Jacob were both heartbroken.

“We’re a family who adores baseball and we had no idea what was in store for us,” Hightower said. “We’re missing out on the social interaction, his training and his growth.”

Jennifer Martinez, the former director of client services at the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, now serves as the league snack bar manager. She said the loss of sports affected her kids, too: 11-year-old Nathan Martinez is a third baseman and fifth grader, 9-year-old Julian Martinez a catcher and shortstop — both at McKinley Elementary.

“It’s been challenging, trying to control their behaviors, their outbursts. They’re fighting a lot, [they’re] at each other’s throats,” Jennifer Martinez said. “They are growing boys. They need to socialize. They need to be out and about [and] burning off that energy.”

As the calendar turned to 2021, the league began registration in January, preparing for its potential return.

In February, Rosemead PONY Baseball got the clearance to play ball.

Jacob Hightower, an 11-year-old pitcher and third baseman in sixth grade at Garfield Elementary, was overjoyed.

“My mom got a text and it’s from Rosemead Parks. And later that day, she said to me that I could go back to practice,” Hightower said. “It was very great having the feeling to go back on the field and practice with my teammates and my coach.”

Esparza and Rodriguez also added that the league wouldn’t be where it is today without the help of Tom Boecking, Rosemead’s director of Parks and Recreation, and Tam Chu, the city’s recreation supervisor.

The league is now enforcing a range of safety protocols. For instance, before practice, players must have their temperature taken. Players are not allowed to share equipment and must bring their own bats, gloves and helmets. Everyone must maintain social distancing and wear masks during practice.

This has now become the new normal.

“Everybody was kind of weirded out about the masks and it’s really hard doing practices and conditioning and stuff like that because it’s really hard to breathe,” Charlie Manjarrez said. “But now, I think everybody’s adapting to it and they know how hard they can go while still being able to breathe in the masks.”

“My emotions are switching [on-and-off] from being a little sad that we still have to stay six feet apart and wear a mask,” said Esparza’s son, Robert Matthew, an 11-year-old catcher, first baseman and pitcher and a fifth grader at Washington Elementary School. “[But] I’m also happy that we still have a lot of fun playing baseball. All of us, every division still has a ton of fun just playing even though there are still rules we have to follow.”

Carlos Manjarrez, who is Charlie and William’s father and a coach, said he believes the hard work the kids are putting in during their practices and conditioning is a testament to each kid’s love for baseball.

“The best thing that I could take away from being out here at this time is the grind,” said Manjarrez, who’s also the owner of The Fresh Gourmet restaurant. “The kids are working hard and they push each other.”

Another parent, Angelina Barron, an adult school educator at Five Keys Schools and Programs, said playing baseball again has lifted the mood and improved the studies of her 11-year-old son Anthony, a fifth-grader from Valley View Elementary School, who plays second base, catcher and pitcher.

“Now he has a responsibility. He has to do his classwork because he has his after-school activity,” Barron said. “So now [with] assignments, the end of the day comes and [he tells me] ‘I’m done.’ It’s their own initiative [and] taking back their own responsibility even at such a young age.”

Business is picking up for the league, so much that families from neighboring cities are bringing their kids to play in Rosemead, according to the league’s secretary and coach, Miguel Romero.

“The crazy part is that we started getting people from El Monte, West Covina, Diamond Bar,” Romero said. “It was awesome because we’re getting new people and they get to see what we’re all about.”

The reality, meanwhile, is that there aren’t enough spots for everyone. The Rosemead league is capped at 200 spots and 15 teams.

For these kids, who are fortunate enough to be playing, they’ll make the most out of their time in Rosemead.

“The best part of being out here every day is seeing a smile on a boy or a girl’s face and being able to do something and learn something,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the biggest satisfaction that we get.”