March 7, 2014

Cage Rat: The improbable climb of a determined athlete

By Zach DiSchiano


LUBBOCK, Texas – Six years ago in the Mexican border town of Mission, Texas, there was a 12-year-old boy hanging around the high school baseball field, waiting for his shot to impress the coaches.


He didn’t know it then, but this 5-foot-nothin’ kid would play four years on that field for Sharyland High School’s varsity team before signing with Texas Tech and earning Freshman All-American honors.


Back in 2004 on that very same field, a pitcher by the name of Jaime Garcia was wrapping up his senior season at Sharyland. Garcia was the pride of Mission, an example for all the younger players to model their game after. He eventually would play in the majors for the St. Louis Cardinals, where he would pitch in and win a World Series championship.


Bart Bickerson, the coach during Garcia’s tenure at Sharyland and up until 2013, said the kid hanging around the varsity team six years ago had been compared by many to Garcia in terms of raw talent.


“They called him ‘Little Jaime,’” Bickerson said. “He would come around as an eighth grader and hit in the cages and stuff before and after practice, so we knew we were going to get a good one. We knew we were going to get what we call a ‘cage rat,’ a kid that just loves to be out there on the field.”


Bickerson, along with the town of Mission and eventually Lubbock, would not only find out the kid’s name, but also discover his unparalleled work ethic and unique skill set.


Little Jaime, better known by his real name, Eric Gutierrez (pictured above), first picked up a baseball when he was three years old. These days, he is among the leaders for Texas Tech with a .333 average, helping the Red Raiders to a fast 11-3 start that included three wins in four tries against top-five Indiana.


The son of a former minor league baseball player in the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol, Gutierrez lived and breathed the game as soon as he could walk. His dad also served as both parent and coach, and would take him to Reynosa, Mexico, to play baseball games.


Some of the benefits of having his father as a coach included pleasant rides home after a great game, where the two could bond and coexist happily together. Of course, the relationship had its fair share of setbacks, too. It is not difficult to imagine the sinking feeling Gutierrez felt as he walked toward his father in the dugout after he grounded into a double play.


“On our way back, if the game went bad, I had to hear my dad,” Gutierrez said. “And crossing the border, that bridge, it takes forever. Just listening to my dad getting after me.”


An earful of his father’s frustration was just the beginning of the evening for Gutierrez. Any problems he experienced during the game were going to be fixed that night.


“I had to come back home and practice,” he said. “So let’s say we crossed the bridge at 12 a.m., I had to practice from 12 to 1 in the morning.”




Gutierrez did not mind the additional work. He knew his dad ultimately had his best interest at heart, and together they spent hours, days and months working on his technique and improving his chances at having a bright future in the game.


As Gutierrez grew, so did his workload. When he joined Bickerson’s varsity team as a freshman and all throughout high school, Gutierrez said he was playing baseball half the time he was awake and thinking about it nonstop.


Where Gutierrez lived, perhaps it was a good idea to stay on the field, if it meant staying off the streets.


“I had busy days,” he said. “Where I lived, it was not that good outside, I couldn’t go outside that much. I had a hitting cage back home in my backyard, so it was just practice outside, go to Mexico, and that was pretty much it.”


The more Gutierrez practiced, it seemed, the more he wanted to practice. His coach said he was amazed at how much time Gutierrez spent in the batting cages.


“He was amazing,” Bickerson said. “I would say that guy probably took close to – and I’m not kidding here – close to a thousand hacks a day.”


On Sundays, Bickerson would get a call at home from Gutierrez. Instead of kicking back and watch NFL games all day, Gutierrez wanted to keep working on his swing.


“He would call me and tell me, ‘Coach, can you go ahead and open the cages, I’m going to be there,’” Bickerson said. “And of course you’re going to open the cages for a kid like that.”




Playing for Coach Bickerson came with its responsibilities, though, and Gutierrez was held accountable to follow his coach’s mandates. The team had a list of rules to abide by, and if they failed to comply, consequences were dealt.


“We had these rules, it was 35-45 rules,” Gutierrez said. “Every Wednesday he [Bickerson] would ask three, so if we didn’t know them, we had to run from 2nd base to the centerfield wall. We had to bear crawl. I think discipline here is easy for me ‘cause of what I went through in high school with my coach, so I’m really thankful for that.”


This disciplinary system has been in place since Bickerson started coaching 20 years ago, and he said his players always appreciate it in the long run.


“They’re just good guidelines to go by,” he said. “Most of the kids come back and say, ‘Thank goodness Coach put all this discipline in, it made it a lot easier once we got to college.’”


Teachers were included in the discipline process, as well. Bickerson said he had a relationship with the teachers where if any of the baseball players disobeyed or caused any trouble, the teachers would immediately send him an email and he would take care of it in practice.


If there are schools out there that give exceptions to baseball players, Sharyland was not one of them.


“If I screwed up,” Gutierrez said, “or I was talking in class, as soon as I started talking they were like, ‘If you don’t be quiet, I’ll tell your coach.’ So that meant you were going to run. There was no breaks. There was no ‘Oh, you’re in baseball, it’s OK.’ It was very strict.”




Just as any coach would want, the players bought into his system and in turn recorded several winning seasons. Gutierrez’s final season at Sharyland was one for the ages – he finished the year batting an unheard of .591 with eight home runs and 50 RBI.


With those kinds of numbers, Bickerson said he thought the college offers were going to line up for his star player. That was not the case. In fact, aside from Texas Tech, there was not a single Division I school to offer Gutierrez an athletic scholarship. The only other Division I school that showed interest was University of Texas-Pan American, and they only offered Gutierrez a “preferred walk-on” position, which Bickerson bluntly referred to as a joke.


The fact that no one seriously recruited Gutierrez was appalling to Bickerson. He said he was clueless as to why scouts would pass up on such a quality hitter.


“To me, it was kind of amazing,” he said. “I didn’t really understand it other than when I talked to the scouts, and they said, ‘Well, we don’t really know where to play him.’ I just kept telling them, ‘You’re going to be able to play him at first or in the outfield, it doesn’t matter, the guy is one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen.’”


Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock was able to identify at least part of the reason no Division I schools would consider signing Gutierrez. There are not many 5-8 first basemen in college baseball, he said, and if there are, fielding is probably an extremely difficult challenge for such a small target.


When he is on the field, Gutierrez said, his lack of height is not a factor to him. However, with the scouts avoiding him because of that limitation, he felt somewhat dejected.


“As soon as I step on the field, I feel 6-4,” he said. “I feel the same height as everybody else. I don’t know why it should matter, but they take that into consideration. It kind of brought me down, but at the same time, it motivated me. I started practicing more and thinking that I was good.”


While size was a big factor in Gutierrez’s lack of attention from college scouts, Tadlock said there is one reason even greater than that as to why he was not listed amongst the state’s top recruits.


“The number one reason he wasn’t recruited is because he’s practically from, I mean, I would say Mexico,” he said. “He’s off the beaten path. To get to Sharyland, Texas, you got to want to get there.”




Tadlock only discovered Gutierrez because he happened to be at a tournament in Austin back in 2009, scouting a player by the name of Ty Washington, now a member of the Cincinnati Reds organization. At the time, both Washington and Gutierrez were on a select baseball team, the Austin Action, which featured several other star athletes, including Courtney Hawkins and Wyatt Mathisen, who were first- and second-round picks, respectively.


Normally, Gutierrez did not attend these kinds of tournaments. Financial setbacks made it difficult for his family to send him anywhere outside of Mission for baseball games.


“I didn’t go play summer ball that much because I didn’t have that much money,” he said. “I live far away from everything, and to drive six hours, eight hours – it’s a big deal. It’s gas money, hotels and all that stuff.”


Fortunately for Gutierrez, he was able to make it to the tournament where Tadlock was present. John Langerhans, the team’s coach and a recent inductee to the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, had Gutierrez hitting third in the lineup, a spot generally reserved for the team’s best hitter.


That lineup was the first thing to catch Tadlock’s attention about Gutierrez.


“When Coach Langerhans hits a kid third and he has Wyatt Mathisen, Courtney Hawkins and Ty Washington on the team, and that’s just to name a few, it ain’t too hard to figure out the guy probably can hit,” he said.


At the time, Tadlock was still coaching for Oklahoma, and did not have a pressing need for a player like Gutierrez. So, when other coaches from different colleges asked Tadlock if he knew where they could find any hitters, Tadlock pointed them right to Mission and told them to pick up Gutierrez.


“When people would ask, I would say there’s the hitter,” he said. “Go sign the kid in Sharyland, he can flat out hit. Needless to say, nobody took him.”




Two years later, Tadlock had taken over as head coach for the Red Raiders, and found himself in need of a right-handed hitter. Gutierrez was finishing up his masterful season, and the two got in contact for the first time since that tournament back in Austin.


Signing day was an emotional day for Gutierrez and his community, who had finally seen the culmination of his hard work. Sending him off to Tech was a proud moment for everyone who knew him.


“It was awesome,” Gutierrez said. “My family, my teammates, everything, when I signed, everybody was there. My coaches were proud of me. My coach knows I deserve a lot ‘cause I work hard, so he was very excited for me and very proud of me.”


Months later, Gutierrez was on a bus headed straight to Lubbock for orientation. The 634 miles that separate Lubbock and Mission would normally take about 3.5 hours to cover on a plane, but because of Gutierrez’s financial situation, the trip took about 18 hours on the bus.


Just one week after he went home from orientation, Gutierrez was back on the bus to Lubbock again, this time for good. His arrival, Tadlock said, was actually premature.


“He’s the first guy in my time,” he said, “in however many years I’ve been coaching, wherever I coached, where a kid showed up a week early that wasn’t told to show up a week early.”


Tadlock said Gutierrez wanted to learn the location of all his classes, and also familiarize himself with Lubbock, which, as Gutierrez put it, is the polar opposite of Mission.


“There’s a lot of differences,” he said. “The weather, over there it’s hot most of the time, and here it’s windy and dry and cold, very cold. The people are very different over here than over there. Different cultures, way different cultures. The food is different. I ate Mexican food every day, and now I’m eating, like, pasta.”




The first time Gutierrez got in contact with his teammates was in the weight room, about a week before the other players were required to show up. Bryant Burleson, a junior second baseman for the Red Raiders, said he did not recognize Gutierrez and introduced himself.


“There were a few guys in there that didn’t look familiar at all, I didn’t know who they were,” he said. “Eric’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the typical guy you would think is a big star player, just by looking at him. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t be saying that.”


Trey Masek, Tech’s ace pitcher from a season ago and current member of the Chicago Cubs organization, said he had heard about Gutierrez’s accomplishments at Sharyland prior to meeting him.


“Word got around the clubhouse about the success he had in high school,” he said. “He batted like nine million, or whatever it was, I think it was closer to .600, but he had unbelievable numbers.”


Despite his impressive statistics, Masek said he was not quite sure about how good Gutierrez actually was. Masek’s opinion quickly swayed after seeing him in action.


“There was a little bit of apprehension simply because he’s from a place where we generally don’t get recruits,” he said. “There was a lot of not really knowing what to expect, but he put all that to rest during the first couple scrimmages when he took a few of our guys deep to center, which is pretty tough to do at our park.”


The team’s respect for Gutierrez only grew over time, as he continued to impress some of the veteran players with his work ethic.


Andre Wheeler, a reliever from last year and current member of the Chicago White Sox organization, said no one enjoys working hard as much as Gutierrez does.


“He likes to be in the cage, he likes to hit so much that it’s nothing to him,” he said. “It’s like having fun, it’s not even work to him.”


Wheeler said Gutierrez surprised him with his ability to send pitches out of the park, particularly because of his small stature.


“Looking at him, you wouldn’t think he would be a power hitter because he’s so short,” he said. “But he had the most power on the whole team last year, so it was a big surprise. He had a lot of pop.”


Some of that pop was displayed at the team’s first tournament in Florida, where Gutierrez blasted a fastball over the fence for his first career home run. Everyone on the team was surprised, including Gutierrez.


“I couldn’t believe it,” he said, with a nostalgic smile. “I took 38 seconds to round the bags. I hit the ball, and I stood there watching it. It wasn’t on purpose. I stood there, and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ So then I start running and while I’m running, I’m still thinking about it. I was happy and I was pumped, so I took forever to round the bags. As soon as I step on home plate, I realize I took more than I should have, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m in trouble.’”


That was not the only trouble Gutierrez faced during his freshman campaign. After starting the season off hot, he went through a rough slump in the middle of the season – he finished with a .251 average, seven homers, which led the team, and 29 RBI. On top of that, there were times he experienced difficulty understanding some of the colloquialisms spouted off in practice.


“Coach will say something that’s terms we’ve heard our whole lives living around here,” Burleson said, “and he [Gutierrez] will come up to me after a meeting and say, ‘Hey, what does he mean when he says this,’ or ‘What does that mean when he says that?’ You can tell he’s from a different culture and he grew up saying different things, lived in different lifestyles.”




Gutierrez, through continuous hard work and with the support of his teammates, eventually emerged from that slump and got on another hot streak. Against Baylor, Gutierrez became the first Red Raider in more than 12 years to hit a home run in four consecutive games.


“It was cool to see him start out hot,” Burleson said, “then go through a little slump, but then still work through it as a freshman, that’s huge.”


Looking forward to the 2014 season, Tadlock said he wants to see Gutierrez progress on the hitting end of things, particularly in RBI situations.


With his work ethic, Masek said, improving his skill set will not be a problem.


“He’s there early every day,” he said. “And it’s cliché to say, but he was one of those ‘first there, last out’ kind of guys. Always in the cage, always getting tee work, front toss, you name it, he’s in there swinging his bat. He takes great pride in what he does, and I have utmost respect for the kid, he just works his butt off and stays disciplined on and off the field. There’s no telling what he’ll be able to do this year.”


Bettering his numbers this season is just the beginning for Gutierrez. The sophomore said his dream is just like any other player’s: to make it to the big leagues, a feat his high school coach said is attainable.


“From the guys that I’ve had before, I don’t see any reason why he doesn’t play pro ball and at least have a chance at playing major leagues,” Bickerson said. “I was amazed that he wasn’t drafted, to tell you the truth. I think he’ll definitely get a shot.”


For now, Gutierrez’s focus remains on helping his team to win games and reestablish Texas Tech as a respectable Big 12 baseball school. With this group of players around him, Gutierrez said he feels this year will be a great one for the university.


“I’ve never been this confident about a team,” he said. “We need to work on the little things and everything, ‘cause I think every team has to do that, but I feel confident about my team.


Through the ups and downs, the wins and the losses, Gutierrez said the important thing is to remain faithful and be a reliable teammate.


“I want to get prepared to play for them and to play for Coach, not to play for myself,” he said. “To play for the guy that’s next to me. I know they’re going to play for me, they’re going to do everything they have to do to win, and that’s what I’m preparing for.”


(photos courtesy of Texas Tech Athletics)