Draft prospect Kaprielian pitching in mother's memory
This story first appeared on Mother's Day, 2015.
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium has a capacity of 1,820. But when James Kaprielian takes the mound, there's one seat, to the left of the third base dugout, that draws his attention.
"Her Courage and Strength are an Inspiration to us all. The definition of a True Bruin!"
The inscription on the seat -- dedicated to James' mom, Barbara -- while poignant and meaningful, hardly tells the entire story.
Barbara Kaprielian was diagnosed with breast cancer when James was just four years old and in June 2014, at the age of 58, she lost her 14-year battle.
"She was an extremely caring person, charismatic, always went out of her way to go help other people around her, whether she knew them or not," Kaprielian said. "She's definitely somebody that I try to emulate. Whether she was feeling good or bad, going through cancer, she always found a way to support me and she never let anybody know if she was feeling good or bad. She always had a smile on her face."
That smile left an impression on seemingly everyone in the UCLA program. The impression was so strong that when Barbara passed away, the Bruins knew they needed to do something to honor her life.
"It was our idea, she sat there. That was her seat," UCLA head coach John Savage said. "We just felt that the impression she had left on our program and to all our players, it was the right thing to do in terms of memory of and it'll be there forever at Jackie Robinson Stadium. I know he looks up there and it was very, very meaningful and we were proud to do it."
Barbara Kaprielian was well-known for her cowbells. Ever since James was in Little League she would ring cowbells at his games. Although his mom is no longer ringing cowbells from her seat, the spot still belongs to the Kaprielian family as James' father and sister sit in the seat when he's pitching.
Just as the UCLA program honors Barbara with a spot in the stands, Kaprielian, MLBpipeline.com's No. 28 prospect entering the 2015 Draft, remembers her through competition.
"She always battled and kept the boxing gloves on, it's very relatable to baseball as a pitcher," Kaprielian said. "If you're getting knocked around and have all these ups and downs, but being able to get through a game like [on Friday] night -- where I felt I had my C game, C- game in my opinion -- being able to battle through an experience like that, keep the boxing gloves on and being able to compete, that's kind of the way my mom fought her cancer. She competed, battled like a warrior, so I want to be able to do the same thing."
Despite not having his best stuff, Kaprielian fought his way through seven shutout innings Friday night as he led No. 2 UCLA to a 9-0 victory over No. 13 Arizona State University.
Friday night's start was just the latest example of Kaprielian battling through adversity. As someone who watched his mom battle cancer for fourteen years, Kaprielian knows struggle. However, he also knows success.
One of Kaprielian's biggest successes came on the national stage last summer, pitching for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. However, if it weren't for some encouraging words from his mom, Kaprielian may have never made the trip.
As his mom was getting ready to pass, Kaprielian considered declining the invitation to play for Team USA in order to spend time with his family.
Given the circumstances, no one would have blamed him for that decision. However, Barbara had a different plan.
"She told me, 'James, you're going to go play for Team USA. This is what I want you to do, you're going to do this for yourself -- you worked hard for this, you're going to go do this,'" Kaprielian said. "So for her it was a no brainer, for me it was hard."
Kaprielian listened to his mother and turned in a dominant performance.
The 6-foot-4, right-hander twirled six shutout innings, leading Team USA to a 2-0 victory over Chinese Taipei.
Armed with a fastball, curveball, slider and changeup, Kaprielian struck out 12 and retired 15 in a row over one stretch.
The performance ultimately won Kaprielian the International Performance of the Year award and is just one of several reasons he's projected to be drafted in either the late first or early second round of the 2015 First-Year Player Draft.
"His stuff holds and his stuff gets better as the game goes along," Savage said. "That's what you're always looking for. Does his stuff get stronger or does his stuff drop off? So he's a guy that his velocity picks up as the innings go along. That's always a good sign, a sign of a workhorse and a potential starter in the big leagues."
While Kaprielian's mom has been there to guide him through adversity in the past, it's her absence that marks his next challenge.
Mother's Day 2015 will be Kaprielian's first without his mother. While he doesn't expect the day to be easy, he knows he has the support to get through it.
"Definitely an emotional day, but there's no other way I'd want it to be," Kaprielian said. "Obviously [I would want] with my mom here. But [I'm glad] to be able to be on the ball field with my brothers out there and get to see all their parents and their moms. I'll tell all them 'Happy Mother's Day,' because they've all been so supportive for me through this whole experience. It's just one of those things you have to get through."
It will certainly be a tough day to get through, just as the 21-year old has fought through obstacles before. Odds are he will manage the pain of Mother's Day just fine. And if the day is rough and he needs a little help, all he needs to do is look to that seat near the dugout and remember one simple message.
"Mom's up there still watching you, so I've got to represent and do what I can for her, just like she would have done for me," Kaprielian said.