Updated: Jul 23, 2020
Editor's note: College Baseball Nation is joined by guest writer, Riley Zayas, for coverage of the Texas Collegiate League. Riley Zayas is a high school freshman and freelance journalist from Round Rock, Texas. He began his journalism career as a Sports Illustrated Kid reporter and has since become a regular contributor to Horns Illustrated, covering Texas Longhorn sports. His work also includes Fellowship of Christian Athletes publications, his personal blog 360 Sports, and Sports Spectrum, a national christian sports magazine and website. He is passionate about all things sports, and can be followed on Twitter at @ZayasRiley.
For Chase and Luke Almendarez of the Round Rock Hairy Men, The Dell Diamond is home. “I’ve grown up here, it’s home,” said Luke Almendarez of the Round Rock Hairy Men when talking about the team’s home stadium, The Dell Diamond. “From being in the clubhouse, to being with all the guys, it’s comfortable. It’s a family and I mean that.”
For Luke, and his brother Chase, the 11,631 seat stadium in Central Texas is much more than just a place where they will be playing this summer. It truly is a second home. It is the field where both worked as batboys. It is a stadium in which they saw their father, Chris’, work ethic first hand, as he started out in the ticket office, before ascending to his current position as the President of the city’s Triple AAA team, the Round Rock Express. It is where, in front of hometown family and friends, Luke earned his first career collegiate at bat. Tomorrow, it will be where they, with Chase as the manager of the Hairy Men, and Luke out on the field as a middle infielder, take part in the first ever collegiate summer league game at The Dell Diamond.
“I’ve been ready to play and just get back at it,” Luke told the media. “Just to be back home with family and enjoying the game. It’s exciting, and I’m blessed. I’m looking forward to coming out here everyday.”
As the Hairy Men took batting practice a day prior to the season opener at Brazos Valley, a few things became evident when it comes to the Almendarez brothers. Baseball and hard work run in their veins, with the passion for the first having driven the second to this point. Chase might be just two years removed from college, having finished his baseball career at the University of Houston-Victoria, but based on his confidence, leadership and direction, one would assume managing has been something he has done his entire life. In a way, he has.
Throughout his playing career, he was a catcher, first at Round Rock High, then at Cisco College and Eastfield College, before finishing off his time behind the plate at Houston-Victoria. Catchers have always been known as the “quarterbacks” of the field, directing the other eight players, and having to stay in the game on every single pitch. In fact, Houston-Victoria head coach Terry Puhl told RRExpress.com that “it was like having another coach on the field” when Chase was behind the plate.
“I was fortunate enough to play catcher, and play for enough coaches where they taught me the game and kind of let me ‘coach’ the defense and run all those aspects,” said Almendarez.
In some ways, he is just one of them, another young guy who is passionate about the game of baseball. After all, he is only 24 years old. However, as I watch him lead a team workout, it is obvious there is a high level of respect amongst the players towards him. He knows exactly what he is doing, and the team knows that he was one of them just a couple of years ago. Ultimately, it is how he exemplifies the qualities of leadership by being the thermostat, regulating the atmosphere around him, that makes him ideal for this job. His attitude was ice-cool as he threw batting practice, hit fungo, and spoke to the media. His is someone the players look up to, including Luke.
Luke is the same way. He has that cool, calm attitude that has allowed for improvement over just half of a freshman season at the University of Houston. During the abbreviated 2020 campaign, he started eight contests, finishing with a batting average of .240, including a road showdown with UNLV in which he had a season-high two doubles. Before the plan to add expansion teams in the TCL came about, he had planned to go spend the summer playing in the Maryland Collegiate League. Of course, Covid-19 drastically altered his plans, and gave him this unique opportunity to improve his skills in his hometown, playing at the ballpark he grew up around, with his brother as manager. He could not ask for a better setup.
“Chase is the best person, coach, player, and friend,” said Luke. “He’s very respectable, he’s very mature, he knows what he’s doing, so he knows the guys very well and he knows what we want and need. He’s structured and everything here is first-class.”
He does acknowledge that the aspect of his brother as manager means Chase will push him just a little bit more, but in Luke’s words, “Chase knows me well enough, he knows what I want and need. He knows me better than I know myself at times. So he is hard, but it is in a good way. He wants me to be the best I can be.”
The brothers may be five years apart in age, but there are a few things that they will always share. For one, a deep love of baseball. Both are also strong Christians. And they will always have a special place in their hearts for their late mother, Jana Almendarez, who passed away from Brain cancer in 2016. In many ways, it is because of her that they keep perspective and don’t take the losses, errors and rough days at the plate so bad. On their Twitter bios, both Luke and Chris have the hashtag #TeamJanaForever, which has become a part of Round Rock Express baseball.
"As many of you know, yesterday was the five year anniversary of my wife, Jana, being diagnosed with a brain tumor. I say that because, in life, we’re all going to go through tough times and the closest thing that I can compare to how I felt during that time, is what we’ve gone through over the past few months." - Chris Almendarez
Just the other day, Chris told the local media, “This past week has been a tough week for me. As many of you know, yesterday was the five year anniversary of my wife, Jana, being diagnosed with a brain tumor. I say that because, in life, we’re all going to go through tough times and the closest thing that I can compare to how I felt during that time, is what we’ve gone through over the past few months. The uncertainty, the anxiety, the things you’re going through.”
Those are not words just told to give the reporters a good quote or add to an inspiring story. Those are words lived out by all three on a daily basis, a reminder that the most needs to be made out of every single day, just as their mother did throughout her courageous fight in the face of a grim diagnosis. In a way, that likely contributes to their attitudes towards the Covid-19 pandemic. In no way did Luke or Chase seem worried about a possible spread in the league. Both were just thankful to get out on the field.
“Everything here has been top-notch, there’s nothing to worry about,” said Luke. “I feel safe being on the field, being around the guys I feel safe. If I ever felt that I wasn’t feeling safe, I’d tell someone on the team and they would handle it. Everything here is high-class and everything they are doing as an organization is perfect.”
Baseball was, in many ways, an escape from all the hard things going on in life five years ago, when Jana was first diagnosed. It allowed them to do something they loved, and allowed for some kind of control. In life, we cannot control many things, but on the baseball field, we can control a bit more. Now, four years later, a similar situation has arisen for the entire nation. With everything going on with Covid-19, we as a country need something to allow us to take our minds off of it. The same is true for players. These players need to get on the field and play, not have to worry about scholarship money or their college program being cut because of lack of funds. The TCL, and baseball, has once again allowed the Almendarez brothers that opportunity.
“Back in 2015, when she got sick, I could come up here and my solace was Dell Diamond,” said Chris. “I could watch the game, eat a hot dog and get away from it. I still remember that feeling of knowing it was my place to get out. The problem right now is, there are no sports going on, so people don’t have that outlet to go do those type of things. We’re in the business of bringing people joy through the game of baseball, so whether it is the high school game tomorrow or the TCL, we’re going to give everybody in central Texas a chance to do this.”
In a time when so many people are caught up in problems and challenges, Luke, Chase, and Chris Almendarez understand there is something bigger than it all. They lead with a servant-attitude, and exemplify what college baseball is truly about. Teams of kids coming together, not for fortune, and most of the time, not for fame either. Simply for a love of the game and a desire to be better every time they step onto the field.
The Hairy Men experienced a slow start to their inaugural campaign, starting the season 0-2 against Brazos Valley before earning the franchise’s first victory in the series finale in Bryan, by a score of 10-3. The Hairy Men bounced back to take two out of three games from the Amarillo Sod Dogs to even their record at 3-3. With the Almendarez brothers at the forefront, this team promises to soon add more wins to that total, especially when they return to Round Rock for the home opener against the Victoria Generals on July 7.
This squad, which boasts players such as Houston’s Ryan Hernandez, Baylor’s Jared McKenzie and future Oklahoma Sooner Austin Smith, is very much still in the fight for the South division title, as the season is only six games in. According to Chase, communication and getting the hitters adjusted to live pitching are the main keys to success.
“Really just communication,” said Almendarez. “If everybody is tight and we’re communicating with one another we’ll be fine. Everybody is on the same team; nobody is better than anyone else. [Also], pitching is not really a big problem, it is getting the hitters to see live pitching and making sure they are up to speed on what they are seeing, especially since most of them haven’t live pitching since March.”
The preparation and practice has paid off, as the Hairy Men are currently second in the league in team batting average (.285) and fourth in runs (35).
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