Sports

Liga del Norte is a hidden gem on Fort Worth's North Side

Rogers Hornsby began his Hall of Fame career on the fields of the amateur leagues of Fort Worth's North Side.

The players of the Liga del Norte are the heirs to "The Rajah" and a hidden gem in the history of baseball in the city.

Its fields at the newly renovated Rockwood Park are where men and some boys come not only to play but to live, the reward for waging resolutely against the drudgery and extended struggles of Monday through Friday.

It is where the Hispanic culture and sliders converge.

"Baseball in the Mexican-American community is instrumental in keeping that family value together," said Manuel Valdez, a Tarrant County Justice of the Peace for 30 years.

"It is a very, very healthy life."

And a hearty one, too.

The postgame menu is impressive. Tacos, hamburgers, hot dogs and brats, all cooked on the grill, with all the sides and fixin's.

Players linger after games to talk about what just transpired for nine innings -- or 2 hours and 45 minutes, whichever came first -- and no one, including guests they've never met, goes without.

That atmosphere is just another reason players gather here on the weekends from every side of town. Some drive from Dallas. A few even come from Oklahoma every Saturday and Sunday.

One player last year even drove every week 17 hours round-trip from umpire school in Hattiesburg, Miss., to play in the Liga del Norte, a league made up predominantly of Hispanic players but inclusive of every race and creed.

The game is what ultimately attracts.

The Liga del Norte has built a reputation.

"There's good baseball here," said Juan Martinez, the league's president and son of the founder. "I'd put these guys against anybody in Fort Worth."

'Passion and pride'

Hispanic players 40 years ago graduated from high school to the Pan American League, the forerunner to the Liga del Norte, which has helped many young men deal with the reality that his professional baseball dreams had been changed to a trade or college or some other enterprise.

Here they never have to break up with their first love.

"They love the game," said Martinez, over the play-by-play announcer describing this week's Game of the Week, in Spanish, between the Mariners and Indians over a public-address system.

"They don't want to give up the passion and pride in the competition, and it brings the game back to life."

Before the Mariners and Indians of today were Eduardo Martinez, Marcelino Sanchez and Santiago Espinoza -- the league's fathers. There was Felix the Cat, or El Gato, and there was Valdez, a soldier who played for the Marine Corps before returning to Fort Worth.

Valdez is one of the few who had professional ability, at least according to the scouts who saw him pitch and play shortstop at Fort Worth Technical High School.

"Everybody's dream as a young man is to be in the pros," Valdez said. "That was my dream, too. And I had the skills to possibly make it."

Valdez's journey to the Liga began indirectly when a scout in the Milwaukee Braves organization inquired about his interest in going pro.

His likely path through the minors, the scout told him, would begin in Georgia, a prospect that scared Valdez far more than a 100 mph beanball.

"Georgia? We had hardly ever left Fort Worth to play, much less the state," Valdez said. "Right then and there I told the scout, 'I really would like to' -- and I said this to try not to sound dumb, but I was scared about the whole thing -- I said, 'No, I think I'm going to go to college.'

"I don't think I knew how to even spell the word college, but I told him that out of fear. I just made it up."

The scout congratulated Valdez on his judgment, but any hope he had for a professional career fluttered by like a Charlie Hough knuckler.

"I felt so bad for lying to this guy, and I was brought up by my parents not to lie to anybody," said Valdez, now a candidate for Texas' new District 33 seat in the U.S. Congress.

"I felt so guilty. It was bugging me so much that what I had to do to unravel that lie is I had to try to get into college.

"That's the only reason I ended up in college. Whatever I am today is because of baseball."

Like the Pan American League, the Liga eventually began attracting college players from TCU, UT Arlington and Texas Wesleyan.

"They had never seen anything like that," Valdez said of the college newcomers. "All these families feed all the ballplayers and you can have all the refreshments you wanted."

The company and conversation was simply too good to leave. Everybody would all stay until well after the games were over, Valdez said.

Just like today.

"We didn't go home," Valdez said. "We just stuck around until the police would come and tell us 'It's midnight. It's time to go.'"

Game of the week

Today's Mariners and Indians are two of the better clubs in the 24-team Liga.

That compares with 10 in the original Mexican League, which fielded teams from Fort Worth, Burleson, Cleburne and Wichita Falls.

The matchup between the two made for an intriguing Game of the Week and one of 25 games they each will play between March and November.

"¡Pégale, córrele, córrele!" a man exclaimed from the stands. "Hit it, run, run!"

Indians pitcher Jonathan Reeder didn't need the play by play to know he was in a pickle.

The bases were loaded with one out in a 0-0 game. But he'd seen and learned enough as a player at UT Dallas to get out of this unscratched.

"Bear down and throw strikes," said Reeder after striking out the next two batters to get out of the inning.

Reeder, 23, a Plano native who soon will be taking off two months to work in Japan as a mechanical engineer, is considered a young player in the Liga.

But not the youngest. There are a few as young as 15.

The oldest is 40.

Juan Martinez said a veteran's division for those 40 and older will be up and running soon.

"We'll always be out here," said Armando Favela, smiling but with no intention of ever being part of the league for the elderly.

He'll always want to be competing against the league's best, such as Reeder and the Indians' Nick Ochoa, whose bases-clearing double put his team up 3-0 in the sixth before David James broke it open with a three-run home run to right.

The natural

The league's most prominent alum is in the starting rotation for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Yovani Gallardo is an All-Star big-league pitcher who has won 54 games in five major-league seasons.

Before that he was a fire-throwing standout for Fort Worth Trimble Tech High School who moonlighted... in the Liga del Norte.

He was mostly a shortstop in the Liga.

"But when he pitched," Martinez said, "he could really bring it.

"You could tell he had the talent [to go to the majors]."

Gallardo's dad, a brother, and several uncles still play in the Liga, though his dad is mostly a manager these days.

There is much pride that one of their own graduated to the ultimate stage.

"To say I played against him and to say one of our own made it...there's a lot of pride," said Julian Martinez, another of the Martinez brothers who played with Gallardo since the two were Little Leaguers.

"All of our guys would have loved to get drafted as well. There's a lot of pride."

Martinez said Gallardo still comes around in October and November, the beginning of his off-season, to catch up and see what's new with his fellas.

Gallardo, like all the others, is part of a proud history.

"I think we all played a role to make sure baseball remained alive and well," Valdez said. "Especially in the Hispanic community."

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