By Rick Assad
In Philadelphia, the city of “Brotherly Love,” sits what many consider to be the cathedral of college basketball.
It’s called The Palestra and it opened up on January 1, 1927, on the University of Pennsylvania campus and is the oldest major college arena still in use.
Since it unlocked its doors, the arena has played host to more games, more visiting teams and more NCAA tournament matches than any facility in the country.
On the wall of this wonderful building rests a plaque that reads: “To win the game is great. To play the game is greater. But to love the game is the greatest of all.”
It’s simple and succinct, but it says a mouthful, and though Hector Rodriguez didn’t play basketball, the 2013 Burbank High graduate and baseball catcher fits this description perfectly.
“Playing at Burbank taught me a lot about the nuances of the game and about myself,” he said. “In high school, I was overweight and an average player at best. But I’ve always been in love with baseball and gave it everything I had. Coach [Craig] Sherwood really preached about winning and engrained that into our program.”
Sherwood has known Rodriguez for several years and saw the enthusiasm and sheer joy that he played baseball.
“Hector has a passion for the game that is far stronger than most players I’ve ever coached,” said Sherwood, a longtime and successful baseball coach in the city. “There were players with more talent, but not as much passion as Hector has. He understands the romance of baseball.”
Baseball is extremely difficult to master and the challenges are always present. But it’s also what makes the sport so appealing and special.
“Baseball has taught me a lot about life,” Rodriguez admitted. “Baseball is like life in the sense that there are many ups and downs. You’re going to have a successful day at the plate or you may fail every time that day. But it’s okay because it’s what makes baseball great.”
Even though Rodriguez may not have been the most talented baseball player, he was still able to carve out a two-year stint behind the plate at Los Angeles Valley College.
And most recently, Rodriguez was able to play professionally in 2019 for the Road City Explorers, who are members of the Empire Professional Baseball League.
And to boot, Rodriguez, who was the starting backstop, even had his time in the sun, which he is thankful for and also says a little something about his mental makeup and desire.
“For high school, the highlight of my career was winning the [Pacific] League title my senior year and hitting a home run on the varsity when I got my first official start against Hart,” he said. “In college, it was being named All-Conference twice and being a consistent player. In pro ball, it was getting a base hit in my first professional at-bat and being named to the All-Star team.”
That’s not too bad for a guy who said he was at best an average baseball player at the high school level.
Bob Hart was Rodriguez’s coach at Burbank and saw him get better.
“Hector was a kid who outworked people,” he said. “He was dedicated to the process and I think really started to improve more and more as he got older.”
Hart continued: “Hector was very competitive and driven,” he said. “He was a grinder.”
Rodriguez, who batted a hefty .330 for the Road City Explorers, said there are myriad challenges at each stop.
“The biggest difference between playing levels is the amount of commitment it requires to be successful,” Rodriguez said. “Also, the talent and competition around you is stronger as you climb the ladder.”
Rodriguez played in New York and Puerto Rico a season ago, and said it was a once in a lifetime experience. But it’s far from easy.
“Playing pro ball is a grind. It’s a dream come true, but just when you thought you made it, the hardest journey of your life has just begun,” he said. “There is little to no salary and time away from family and friends is rough.”
Rodriguez then added: “But you definitely get to travel to new places and play in nice stadiums and try different foods,” he said. “It is a huge blessing.”
Being around baseball continues to be in the cards for Rodriguez, who currently is coaching a youth developmental team.
“We are a new program [SoCal Expos] starting up in the Los Angeles area,” he said. “My buddy from pro ball will be helping me run the team. We are looking for 11 and 12 year-old kids that want to learn the game of baseball. I feel like we need to give back to the kids since we were all once there.”
Whether being a player or coach, Rodriguez knows what it takes to do both and when asked which is more difficult, he said that the latter is because there is simply more overall responsibility.
“Being a coach is definitely harder,” he offered. “As a player, you only have to worry about yourself. But as a coach, you have to worry about yourself and each of your players.”
Like seemingly every person on earth, this year has been especially challenging because of the worldwide pandemic.
“COVID-19 has affected me personally as it has temporarily put my professional baseball career on hold,” Rodriguez said. “I was trying to go out and play in Mexico (LMB) in March, but the virus cancelled the season out there as well.”
Rodriguez hopes to continue his love affair with the grand old game. “Yes, baseball is my life. I’ve never had a bad day at the yard,” he said. “Of course, I’ve failed and lost games before, but I always try to take the good from that particular day.”