Ricky Romero still remembers sitting in the bleachers at Dodger Stadium with his dad, Ricardo, just a little kid with a big dream.
In those moments, he wondered what life might be like as a big leaguer, getting a chance to hit the ball into those bleacher seats instead of being the kid running after one. Or being the player on the field chasing down fly balls and offering a few lucky recipients in the stands those batting-practice pearls, opposed to being the youngster with his glove out hoping to snag one.
Growing up in East Los Angeles, Romero didn’t have big league baseball heroes. His father introduced him to the game early and helped foster his love for the sport. At the time, the most successful athlete to make it out of his neighborhood was boxer Oscar De La Hoya, who left him with the lesson that he’d need to fight to make it, too.
But the battle didn’t begin right away. After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Romero headed to Cal State Fullerton, where his work ethic, demeanor and success on the field -- something that he credits to his father and mother, Sandra, immigrants from Mexico who worked diligently as a truck driver and school bus driver, respectively -- translated into the left-hander becoming the sixth overall pick in the 2005 MLB Draft.
Big leagues or bust
A year after the Blue Jays nabbed Romero with their top pick, the 21-year-old prospect got his first shot at joining the Double-A rotation. In 2007, Romero returned to New Hampshire for a longer stay and showed some improvements. But his critics became more prevalent.
Heading into the 2008 season, the young southpaw joined the Fisher Cats yet again, while the man selected one pick behind him in the Draft -- Troy Tulowitzki -- was returning to the Rockies’ starting lineup after a second-place finish in the National League Rookie of the Year Award vote.
“By the time I was in Double-A with him, he was a two-year veteran in Double-A,” Canadian Blue Jays hurler Scott Richmond said of Romero. “Tulowitzki was already in the big leagues and doing all right. And he was drafted after Ricky, so the pressure of that was going on. Then all of a sudden, I come in and I’m the Opening Day starter in Double-A and he’s not.”
Romero was frustrated but motivated by a desire to be better and to do all of the things that people were suddenly saying he could not. He used the words of the doubters to push himself to find his own limits. He never questioned his own ability, and when the 2009 season began, he broke camp with the Major League club for the first time.
“He was a guy who was a first-round pick, picked in front of Tulowitzki, and they had written stories about how he was this bust when he was in Double-A. He even had the article over his locker,” catcher J.P. Arencibia said. “To see him face that adversity and figure it out and get to the big leagues and have the career he did, that stands out most because it’s such a tough game.”
As a 24-year-old, Romero notched 13 wins for the Blue Jays, making 29 starts and posting a 4.30 ERA over 178 innings in his rookie season. Heading into the next year, Romero was touted as the future ace of a squad that had just traded future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay to the Phillies. The young lefty bettered all of his numbers in his second season, going 14-9 with three complete games and a 3.73 ERA over 32 starts and 210 innings.
A country behind him
During those two seasons, Romero won over Canada. He offered a love and a passion for the game that endeared him to the fans.
When Romero learned that he would be Toronto’s Opening Day starter in 2011, he thought he knew how much it meant to him. But it wasn’t until he took the field at Rogers Centre for that Friday night game that he truly felt the weight of what it meant to be a part of Canada’s team.
“In 2011, Opening Day in Toronto, you realize what ‘O Canada’ means to that country,” he said. “It’s a day I’ll never forget. Obviously, when you come in as a rookie, nobody really knows who you are. But I feel like I made a name for myself every season that went on.
“Then in 2011, on that Opening Day, when I was warming up, the crowd started chanting my name and I was looking around and I thought my heart was going to come out of my jersey. It was so crazy. Obviously, you feed off of that.”
Romero induced three straight groundouts to get the game started against the Twins. He remembers bits and pieces of the matchup, like having an extended stay in the dugout in the bottom of the first inning while his team plated four runs. And he can recall striking out Joe Mauer -- who had been an All-Star, a Gold Glove Award and a Silver Slugger Award winner the previous season -- with one out, two runners on and a full count in the sixth.
“But the best part I remember is warming up, not even the actual game,” Romero said. “It was completely sold out, when we walked out to warmup, people were already there, it was crazy. Friday night game, Toronto, it’s a big deal. J.P. and I looked at each other and were like, ‘Whoa, this is really cool.’”
“Catching him on Opening Day against the Twins, that was one of the coolest things I ever got to see him do,” said Arencibia, who homered twice and tripled in the win. “He went out there and absolutely dominated in front of a sold-out crowd at Rogers Centre. That was one of the coolest moments between me and him.”
A season to remember
Romero earned the win that night, the first of 15 that he would notch that season. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound horse of the Blue Jays' staff went on to make 32 total starts, throwing four complete games and finishing with 225 innings and a 2.92 ERA. He also earned his first (and only) invitation to the All-Star Game.
“I’ll always be remembered as a 2011 All-Star. That’s pretty cool,” Romero said. “I wish it would have ended a lot better, and I wish I would have been part of those playoff teams in Toronto. But at the end of the day, I can’t complain about the career that I had. The way I’m received even when I go back, it’s the best. I love that city, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.”
Romero pitched in 36 more games for the Blue Jays after his All-Star season, but he struggled on the mound and through a number of injuries. He never returned to the Majors after making four appearances in 2013.
However, when he embarked on his big league journey, one of Romero’s goals had been to inspire other inner-city kids with high hopes and big dreams, “because we’re the forgotten ones.” In that regard, Romero's impact still resonates.
“Injuries cut his career short, but he’s still giving back to the community and doing outreach with the Jays,” Richmond said. “He treats Canada like his family away from home, because they took him in and embraced him. It’s his way of giving back, and Canadians like that. They like the person who’s proud of where they played and where they came from. A lot of guys come through Canada and don’t come back and really appreciate what the Canadian fan base did for them. They embraced Ricky, and he embraced them.”
Romero is still in disbelief over the opportunities he was afforded and grateful for the chance to live out his lifelong dream.
“Even in my fourth or fifth year in the big leagues, I was still pinching myself,” he said. “I would look around stadiums and it was really surreal because that was my dream as a little kid. That’s why -- it probably never got shown on TV or anything -- but during batting practice, I was that little kid running around the whole outfield, trying to catch every ball, throwing balls in the stands, because I always wondered what it was like. I enjoyed my big league experience to the fullest.
“To this day, one of the greatest things that ever happened to me in my life was playing for the Toronto Blue Jays.”