Yuma Sun

PONCE

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has four more siblings. She attends Arizona Western and is pursuing a nursing degree. The only paid employee in the home right now is his 73-year-old grandfathe­r, Manuel Ponce Silva, who runs baseball clinics for the San Luis youth.

His father lives four hours away in Baja California, and Ponce rarely gets to see him. And his uncle — named Manuel after Ponce’s grandfathe­r, a government official for the State of Baja California — was murdered in November, found in his Mexicali apartment with a bullet in his head and his face hit with a blunt object.

Before every start on the mound, Ponce draws a cross and his uncle’s initials in the dirt.

Ponce knows what a profession­al-baseball career will mean for this family. That money could come as soon as this summer in the form of a signing bonus from the MLB team that drafts him.

“I feel really special, because in a way, I didn’t know I was going to make it this far,” Ponce said. “I also feel a little bit of pressure because I’m afraid to let down people that have faith in me.

“I think about it a lot. Every time I go to my house, I think and I think and I think. I don’t know, I think about it too much sometimes. Instead of looking at it in a positive way, I sometimes look at it in a wrong way. It sucks because I’m supposed to be a positive guy, not a negative guy.”

He deals with this internaliz­ation by going to sleep and trying to forget it the next day.

Ponce, who has a 3.56 GPA, is also well-aware of what a college education and degree will do for the rest of his life if baseball does not work out. He plans to pursue a degree in physical therapy in order to stay involved in baseball, even if he is not playing.

Tension soared for him when he had not received his acceptance letter from San Diego yet. But on April 4, after months of anticipati­on, the mail came, and he was in. He pitched a onehitter with 14 strikeouts against Willow Canyon that night.

Ponce left Joe Orduno Park with the playoffs on his mind. He will start Saturday, his 18th birthday, against Boulder Creek in the first round of the 6A State Tournament. Ponce wanted to face Hamilton High School, an athletics juggernaut with four baseball state titles since 2003. And why not? He has a 9-0 record, 0.53 earned run average and 75 strikeouts in 53 innings this season.

Those statistics, and the attention he has gotten in the past 12 months, did not come easy. The setting for everything that followed is this same park, the one that was now fading in the rearview mirror of the jet-black Chevy Malibu that Ponce drives home.

Ponce was born in Yuma and lived in Mexico for three years before moving in with his grandparen­ts in San Luis.

“My grandparen­ts wanted a better life for me,” he said.

When he was young, Ponce said he was “getting kind of fat” — hard to believe now for the toned, 6-foot-2, 190-pound righthande­r, whose fastball has been clocked as high as 92 miles per hour.

It was not baseball he played at first, though, but soccer. Manuel Ponce Silva — his grandfathe­r, whom Ponce calls “dad” sometimes — was not pleased with that choice.

When Ponce was 13, Silva formed a youth baseball team to force his grandson to play.

Baseball has always been a part of Silva’s life. When he was 18, the Mexico Tigers signed him. He played a year for Aguascalie­ntes, a minor-league affiliate, then was called up to play for the Tigers. Silva was part of Mexican Baseball League championsh­ip teams in 1965-66, and won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in ’65.

It was then that the Cleveland Indians pursued him. In the era before free agency in profession­al sports, players had no bargaining rights. The Tigers refused to sell Silva to Cleveland, and his dream of playing in the MLB met its end.

“I wanted really badly to play in the United States,” Silva said in Spanish, as Ponce translated.

Silva played until 1977 and was a coach with the Mexicali Eagles of the Mexican Pacific League for eight years.

Since moving to San Luis in 2001, when he took Ponce in, Silva has gotten jobs doing grounds work on baseball fields and running youth clinics for low pay like he still is now, in addition to taking care of his wife, Ponce’s grandmothe­r.

“In Mexico, (we) didn’t make a lot of money; the money’s here in the U.S.” Silva said. “I made money when I was young, but not enough to last a lifetime.”

Forming a team for a 13-year-old Ponce was not enough. He trained his grandson relentless­ly.

For five hours a day, seven days a week, Ponce and Silva were at Joe Orduno Park. The routine: warm up, three buckets of fly balls, three buckets of ground balls, 150 balls for hitting and an hour of conditioni­ng.

“I used to tell my grandpa, ‘They should invent a robot to pick up the balls,’” Ponce said.

Ponce, whom everyone describes now as “goofy,” was the shy kid before high school. He was part of the Rubik’s Cube Club and the Chess Club, and he kept to himself. He likes school, particular­ly math.

“I like to struggle a little with numbers,” Ponce said. “Right now, I have a ‘B’ in calculus. It’s really hard, but I like it. Even though I kind of don’t get it a little, I still like it.”

Ponce got a late start as a ballplayer, and he was far from the typical jock. His teammates at San Luis have been playing since they were 5 or younger. But now that they see how talented Ponce has become, they remember seeing him and Silva at the park every time they went by.

“Every day after practice, if we came here to Joe Orduno, he was here with his grandparen­ts,” said senior Ramon Miranda, another top starter in San Luis’ rotation. “We knew what was up because he was always practicing.”

“I always see him here at Joe,” senior Jesus Pulido said. “He was always running and training with his grandfathe­r. That’s why he’s good — he’s always at the field, training.”

After the Shamrock Classic tournament his sophomore year, when the Sidewinder­s had played five games in three days, San Luis head baseball coach Cesar Castillo first saw what Miranda and Pulido had already witnessed.

“We get off the bus, and what I see with this kid — I’m tired and I’m a coach — I see him get off the bus and he starts jogging,” Castillo said. “Then he goes to the cage. That’s dedication. That’s why he is where he is.”

Ponce can take it too far, though. Earlier this season, after a practice, a run and weightlift­ing, he decided to go for another run at the park by himself, as he often does. He started his run at 9 p.m. and collapsed in the outfield of the baseball field. He woke up at midnight.

“I was pushing myself too hard,” he said.

Once Ponce tried out for the high school baseball team, the raw talent and upside was apparent. He wanted to pitch, but he couldn’t throw strikes. Pitching coach Tim Morrison helped him with his mechanics, but he played with freshmen his first year and sparingly on varsity the next season.

All Ponce threw was a fastball, which was not going to be enough if he wanted to pitch on varsity as a junior. A San Luis man who frequents Joe Orduno Park, known to Ponce only as “Pollo” — or, “chicken” — was pitching in the bullpen one day when Ponce was training. Ponce approached Pollo and asked how to throw a slider. Pollo showed him the grip and told Ponce to twist his wrist but not too much.

Ponce’s slider, coupled with his low-90s fastball, has since become a deadly weapon against opposing batters.

Ponce frequented weekend games in Mexico during that season because he did not receive much playing time for the Sidewinder­s. A representa­tive from Saraperos de Saltillo, a Mexican Baseball League organizati­on, saw him play and extended an invitation to Saraperos Academia, the team’s summer developmen­t camp in Mexico City.

“It was my turning point,” Ponce said, adding later, “That’s when I started liking baseball a lot more.”

Ponce came back for his junior year a different player. He went 5-1 with a 1.66 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings. At the plate, he hit .484, slugged .763, had 39 runs batted in and a school-record 45 hits. In the state championsh­ip against Alhambra, he struck out a career-best 11 batters and allowed one earned run in five innings; and he went 2-for-3 with a double and a home run, driving in both batters in the Sidewinder­s’ 3-2 loss.

“That’s a memory I won’t forget, regardless of the outcome, because that’s the most important game of (Ponce’s) career and he carried us, offensivel­y and on the mound,” Castillo said. “I don’t think you can duplicate what he did that day.

“Everything boomed right after that.”

On a drive to New Mexico, Andy Rojo turned to Gabe Ortiz and asked if there were any Arizona high school players they missed. Rojo — the Southern California and Southwest regional director for USA Baseball’s National Team Identifica­tion Series — figured they needed one more tryout. In addition to his staff role with NTIS, Ortiz served as an assistant baseball coach for 13 years at Kofa High School in Yuma before taking a job at Arizona Western last fall.

“There’s two guys in San Luis that are pretty freakin’ good,” Ortiz told Rojo, referring to Ponce and Miranda. “They’re players.”

Miranda already had a travel-team commitment, but Ponce could make it.

NTIS is a grassroots organizati­on that holds tryouts for 11- to 17-year-olds across the country, takes the best 18 players in each region to form a team and holds a national tournament in Cary, N.C.

The tryout is like that of a showcase, or an NFL Combine for baseball. The NTIS scouts measure exit velocity off the bat, velocity from the outfield and the mound; players take batting practice and get evaluated at their defensive positions.

Ponce threw 93 mph from the outfield.

“That kind of perked some people up a little bit, especially our director,” Ortiz said. “We get him on the mound and he’s 91, 90, 89. It’s just electric.”

“Who is this kid?” Rojo asked Ortiz. So, Ponce was in. And, Rojo told Ortiz, if Ponce could return for their second tryout, college coaches from the Pac-12, Big West and West Coast Conference would be there.

“He’s popping the mitt and radar guns are everywhere,” Ortiz said of the second tryout. “There were a couple of guys that were in the low-90s, as well, but he’s creating buzz because no one’s on him. No one’s ever seen him.”

“I did see reactions,” Ponce said. “I know, rarely, people go out from San Luis. I was excited to represent the whole city by going to the NTIS stuff.”

Shortly thereafter, the buzz turned into a flight of bumblebees. Ponce joined the Aggies, a travel team based out of Watsonvill­e, Calif., 90 miles south of San Francisco. Ten to 15 scouts were in attendance to see Ponce pitch at the Phil Singer Invitation­al in San Diego in late July 2016.

“It was totally unexpected,” Ponce said.

University of San Diego pitching coach Nathan Choate had heard of Ponce when he was at Grand Canyon University in the same position. Castillo had contacted him about Ponce. Now with the Toreros, Choate was one of those in the crowd with a radar gun.

Choate first noticed Ponce’s “loose arm” and his body. Then, the intangible­s won him over.

“He’s extremely competitiv­e and I liked that about him,” Choate said in a phone interview. “It’s kind of how he goes about his business. He’s super aggressive and attacks.”

Another quality that attracted to Choate to Ponce was his eagerness to be both a student and an athlete.

“He values the education at the University of San Diego, which is a very, very good school,” Choate said. “It shows he wants to challenge himself, academical­ly.”

Choate, San Diego head coach Rich Hill, Aggies coach Alex Rivera, Ponce and his mom were all a part of a tour of the university and the baseball facilities after the tournament ended.

When they went to Fowler Park, the baseball stadium, Hill asked Ponce to look to the stands and asked, “Do you see yourself pitching here?”

Hill told Ponce they envisioned him eventually being the Toreros’ Friday night starter, the ace of a college pitching rotation. San Diego has made the NCAA Tournament in eight of the past 15 years and has a laundry list of MLB exports, including 2016 National League MVP Kris Bryant.

At the end of the tour, San Diego offered Ponce a full scholarshi­p. He verbally committed right there and officially signed Nov. 15 — despite drawing interest from Arizona State, Arizona, Cal, Long Beach State and North Carolina, among

Ponce pitched for the Aggies against the Garciaparr­a Baseball Group. He dominated on the mound, and the GBG — after seeing him dismantle their starstudde­d lineup — wanted to add him to their roster for the WWBA World Championsh­ip, one of the premier amateur tournament­s in the country.

“I didn’t even know who Garciaparr­a was,” said Ponce, who later learned of six-time All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparr­a.

At the WWBAs in Jupiter, Fla., Ponce had a hard time fitting in with this group of heralded high school prospects. Among his teammates were commits to UCLA, Cal State Fullerton, North Carolina State, Stanford, Louisiana State and Southern California.

“I arrived there, and they didn’t talk to me because I was Mexican,” Ponce said. “They’re all white. I think they kind of hated me a little at first. They didn’t talk to me at all.

“Then they saw me pitch, and then they started talking to me. I wanted to pitch so I could see their reactions.”

His GBG pitching coach told his pitchers to hit the No. 3 hitter if they get the first two batters out to scare the opposing team. No one else did — until Ponce took the mound.

“The first time I pitched, I did that,” Ponce said. “I smiled for the coach.”

The crowd at this tournament was filled with MLB scouts and executives, another note Ponce did not find out about until later. All along the grandstand­s were golf carts filled with pro bigwigs holding radar guns, stopwatche­s and clipboards. Only 26 pitchers in the tournament threw harder than he did. GBG made it to the quarterfin­als.

That attitude from the summer has spread to his senior season.

“Since I came from Florida, I’ve been kind of like, I don’t know, an asshole sometimes,” Ponce said. “I try to hit hitters.”

In a March 9 game against Gila Ridge, Ponce hit five batters but ended the outing with a complete-game, twohit shutout and 14 strikeouts. He even told one of his friends on the opposing team, catcher Ramces Urias, that he was going to hit him.

“I was kind of joking a little, but then my ball moved,” Ponce said.

Ponce has doubled down on his tremendous junior season with an unmatched 2017 campaign. He has come out of nowhere as a hot prospect who has allowed just four earned runs in 53 innings. He’s pitching inside, has developed a changeup he has deployed against lefthanded batters and is throwing like he owns the field.

Ponce is set on attending the University of San Diego and pitching for the Toreros for at least three years. The financial pressure he faces surroundin­g the draft lingers.

People who once hated him now talk as if they were friends. Those who were already nice are especially so. He knows he has to maintain normalcy through this meteoric change in his life, and believes in the motto, “Stay hungry. Stay humble.”

“Don’t get up on yourself,” Ponce said. “Don’t think you’re a big god of the town or something like that. That will make people hate you.”

He thinks he might get drafted in the teen rounds of the MLB Draft in June. Castillo, Ponce’s high school coach, expects fifth to 10th round, and sees Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy in Ponce. During Castillo’s three-year minorleagu­e career as a catcher in the Chicago White Sox organizati­on, he caught an 18- to 20-year-old version of McCarthy in rookie ball and Single-A.

Ponce is ready in case he gets drafted higher than expected, or receives a signing-bonus offer more than anticipate­d for the slot in which he is selected.

“There’s a line I would cross, but I would have to think about it, really,” Ponce said. “I didn’t want to say it, but like a million or something like that.”

 ??  ??
 ?? PHOTO BY RANDY HOEFT/YUMA SUN ?? SAN LUIS GABRIEL PONCE STANDS ON SECOND BASE after hitting an RBI double in the top of the fourth inning against Alhambra in the Arizona Interschol­astic Associatio­n Division III State Championsh­ip at Surprise Stadium. Ponce would end his night going...
PHOTO BY RANDY HOEFT/YUMA SUN SAN LUIS GABRIEL PONCE STANDS ON SECOND BASE after hitting an RBI double in the top of the fourth inning against Alhambra in the Arizona Interschol­astic Associatio­n Division III State Championsh­ip at Surprise Stadium. Ponce would end his night going...
 ?? PHOTO BY WARNER STRAUSBAUG­H/YUMA SUN ?? GABRIEL PONCE (RIGHT) DOES A SOFT-TOSS DRILL with his grandfathe­r, Manuel Ponce Silva, at Joe Orduno Park on Tuesday. The two have a close relationsh­ip, and Silva, a former Mexican Baseball League player and coach, has trained Ponce since he was 13.
PHOTO BY WARNER STRAUSBAUG­H/YUMA SUN GABRIEL PONCE (RIGHT) DOES A SOFT-TOSS DRILL with his grandfathe­r, Manuel Ponce Silva, at Joe Orduno Park on Tuesday. The two have a close relationsh­ip, and Silva, a former Mexican Baseball League player and coach, has trained Ponce since he was 13.

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