Cage Rat: The improbable climb of
a determined athlete
By Zach DiSchiano
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
Gutierrez lived, perhaps it was a good idea to stay on the
field, if it meant staying off the streets.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
there are schools out there that give exceptions to baseball
players, Sharyland was not one of them.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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
lineup was the first thing to catch Tadlock’s attention about
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
“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,
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
team’s respect for Gutierrez only grew over time, as he
continued to impress some of the veteran players with his work
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.
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
“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 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,
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.’”
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
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
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
his work ethic, Masek said, improving his skill set will not be
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.
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
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.
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
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
(photos courtesy of Texas Tech